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March 20, 2010; New York Times | Dozens of newspapers across the nation reported on Saturday that long-troubled ACORN was about to go bankrupt.  Apparently, some unidentified “officials” of ACORN told reporters that the organization is holding a teleconference to discuss plans for a bankruptcy filing. A history of problems, including the embezzlement of a million dollars by the brother of ACORN’s founder, culminated in sting videos of ACORN staff providing advice to a phony pimp-and-prostitute pair.

Many state and local ACORN affiliates have disaffiliated with the parent organization, including its best financed and perhaps most respected arm, ACORN Housing, which has renamed itself Affordable Housing Centers of America. The long slow demise of ACORN stemming from the Rathke embezzlement scandal seems to be coming to an end, with many observers sadly giving ACORN the “good riddance” goodbye as in this headline of an editorial in the Baltimore Sun.

Despite the organization’s legions of problems, many people suggested that it had done much good work over the years, but as the former co-chairwoman of ACORN’s Maryland chapter said, “if the organization had confronted its own internal problems, it might not have been taken down so easily.”

Sadder still is that ACORN had taken some steps toward correcting some of its internal problems, including calling for a review of some of its operations by former Massachusetts Attorney General (and NPQ board member) Scott Harshbarger of the Proskauer law firm. But even there, the organization did not appear to be rapidly taking action on Harshbarger’s plan, with a lot of public commentary about going after the videographers and attributing many of the organization’s problems to “relentless attacks” from right wingers a la the McCarthy era, according to executive director Bertha Lewis.

The end result, however, is that many people in low income communities who depended on ACORN for foreclosure assistance, housing advice, tax assistance, and employment help now have to search for alternative sources of aid. For all of us in the nonprofit sector, we ought to be convening to learn the lessons of ACORN’s demise to identify and analyze the accountability and management problems that, politics or no politics, undid decades of ACORN’s accomplishments.—Rick Cohen