ACORN: Done in by its Friends

In the end, ACORN did not have the resources to transform itself into an effective, well managed national network.

Its embezzlement scandal, poor management and the failure of top leadership triggered the unraveling of the substantial organization that at its peak claimed more than 400,000 grassroots members. The decades-long criticism and attacks by right wing opponents, concerned about ACORN's progressive agenda and successful voter registration campaigns, helped to undermine the organization's public status and reputation.

And the widely circulated, doctored videos taken by two conservative investigators in several ACORN offices, allegedly showing employees giving inappropriate advice about taxes and housing, provided the nails that sealed the organization's coffin.

But what proved to be most damaging to ACORN's cause was the reluctance, and indeed failure, of progressive nonprofit groups, large liberal foundations and Democrat politicians to come to ACORN's support and assistance. With friends like these, ACORN never had a chance.

No one would dispute that ACORN was a flawed organization. Its charismatic founder, Wade Rathke, was a brilliant organizer who, over the course of thirty-five years, built an impressive network of local grassroots organizations that gave voice and a sense of power to tens of thousands of low income and minority people across the country. But, in doing so, he created a cult of personality and loyalty among staff and board that impaired the organization's transparency and public accountability and, in later years, its performance.

The discovery by the media that Mr.Rathke's brother had embezzled almost a million dollars of ACORN money, a tightly held secret for many years, led to further revelations of poor management, excessive expansion activities and poor staff training.

Despite these weaknesses, ACORN boasted an extraordinary track record. It mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to support policies and programs that benefited poor people. The organization registered well over a million low income and minority voters who previously had no voice in the political system; spearheaded the living wage movement, helping to pass over 150 living wage ordinances in cities throughout the country; and assisted over 150,000 low income families receive more than $190 million in Earned Income Tax Credits and other refunds. The ACORN Housing Corporation helped approximately 110,000 families become homeowners.

ACORN was one of the first organizations to alert the country about the dangers of predatory lending, helping some 50,000 families avert foreclosures. An analysis of its direct services and state campaigns concluded that, over 10 years, ACORN generated about $15 billion in monetary benefits for low income constituencies.

An impressive record for a group of marginalized citizens ...which is why conservatives, who don't have much sympathy for poor people gaining greater power, saw ACORN as a major threat. The media war they waged against ACORN was brutal and effective, despite, or perhaps because, of its distortions, lies and hysteria. The mainstream media virtually ignored the issue until the ferocity of the campaign reached its height after the release of the videos. When the major newspapers did cover the story, they did little investigative reporting of their own, preferring not to challenge many of the wild assertions of their right wing colleagues. In writing her story, one reporter from a major newspaper didn't even bother to cite the views of ACORN representatives

The response of the progressive nonprofit community to ACORN's difficulties was spineless for the most part, tepid at best. A trickle of academics and media commentators wrote articles criticizing the conservative campaign against ACORN and praising the organization's track record. In the wake of widespread public attention created by the videos, no national nonprofit was willing to hold a press conference, either defending ACORN or discussing the attacks on the organization. Only one group, the conservative Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute, was even willing to sponsor a public forum to examine the issue from all sides of the political spectrum.

The Alliance for Justice pulled together and released to the media statements of support for ACORN from leaders of eight progressive organizations. But that was largely the extent to which progressives rose to ACORN's defense. Their silence was deafening.

If the reactions of progressive nonprofits were timid, the conduct of Democratic politicians in the Congress was downright cowardly. Shortly after the videos became public, both the House of Representatives and the Senate voted to prohibit any federal funding of ACORN Programs. They did so without any serious discussion. Nor did they bother to ask ACORN for its side of the story or collect any exculpatory evidence.

In the Senate only six Democrats voted against the measure; liberal Democrats like Tom Harkin of Iowa, John Rockefeller of West Virginia and Charles Schumer of New York turned their backs on ACORN. Schumer's vote was especially grating, since he had effusively praised the organization at an ACORN fundraiser a couple of months before the vote.

In similar fashion, the House overwhelmingly voted to deny ACORN federal funds. Stalwart progressive lawmakers like Barney Frank, Marcy Kaptur, George Miller and John Conyers turned tail and ran.

The medal of "dishonor", however, should go to the mainstream and liberal foundations that refused to help ACORN survive and transform itself into a more accountable and better managed network. Shortly after the embezzlement scandal broke, ACORN's funders and other foundations asked ACORN to provide them with detailed information and proposals for action that they believed could restore the health and integrity of the organization.

ACORN's new leaders did their best to comply with the foundations' wishes. They provided an enormous amount of financial and structural data, hired accountants to improve the organization's fiscal system, held regional meetings of local leaders and staff, and employed lawyers and consultants to advise them on legal and governance matters. They contracted with Scott Harshbarger, former Attorney General of Massachusetts, to conduct an independent assessment of ACORN's structure, governance and programs. During this lengthy process, the foundations dangled the promise of future funding.

But nothing much ever materialized. In short, while ACORN's leadership tried to satisfy the demands of funders, the latter didn't give the organization any support with the exception of small grants from a very few tiny foundations. Even moderate, interim funding would have enabled ACORN to begin the rebuilding process. Instead, ACORN was left to spend out its few remaining resources. If foundations had wanted ACORN to fail, they could not have followed a more effective strategy. Having pressed for a tough evaluation of its policies and practices, they would not even fund a part of the Harshbarger investigation.

The large, former supporters of ACORN like the Charles Stewart Mott, Marguerite Casey, Ford and Annie E. Casey foundations abandoned their once favored grantee. And multi-billion dollar liberal philanthropies like Atlantic Philanthropy and the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations just turned their heads away.

It's perhaps understandable that politicians should fear adverse publicity and political pressures, or that nonprofits, ever on the lookout for public and private money, should be cautious about causes they support and allies they defend. But foundations need not have such qualms. They are not subject to the ballot box, nor to the demands of fundraising. They are totally independent, relatively unaccountable entities; they can do what they want with impunity.

Why did they leave ACORN in the lurch? They did so because they didn't exercise the leadership and courage that should be the hallmarks of philanthropic institutions. They just didn't have the stomach to give ACORN a fighting chance.

That's the sad story about ACORN's demise. What is most lamentable is that the organization was "done in" by its supposed friends. There is a lesson in this tale: history is likely to repeat itself unless nonprofits and foundations, both liberal and conservative, can develop tougher leadership and greater courage.