Urban League works to restore image

Local chapter has erased about $2.1 million of debt over past three years

December 22, 2003|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

For the Greater Baltimore Urban League, phase one was to right a turbulent financial ship and then float seamlessly into phase two and restore the organization's tarnished image.

"That part of our history is behind us," said league President J. Howard Henderson of the organization's near fiscal collapse. "Now our reputation is coming back."

About $70,000 of debt remains from the bills inherited by a new leadership team, headed by Henderson, that took over in late 2000.

The snarl of money problems - from unpaid taxes to delinquent mortgage bills to misspent federal grants - grew to $2.2 million and, once discovered, embarrassed the league, led to the immediate dismissal of the group's president and almost closed the longtime civil rights organization.

Six months ago, Henderson declared that the Urban League was in the midst of a recovery plan he hoped would save the organization. He is no longer hedging his words. He now says the Urban League, even though it will be short of some year-end goals, is here to stay.

"We've been strained by the down economy and the cutbacks in donations from corporations. We were trying to get healthy when everything was in a downturn," Henderson said. "But we're pretty much holding our own right now."

Henderson had said that by the end of this year he wanted to have erased the Urban League's debt, expanded its community programs and increased membership.

None of that will be accomplished this year. The league will carry over a debt; has just six signature programs with about the same number of participants as in years past; and increasing membership has been dropped as a primary goal.

Still, Henderson - leaning back in an office chair in a conference room at the Orchard Street Church, the league's headquarters - is as confident as he looks.

The debt is dwindling, a $300,000 fund-raising campaign is in full-swing and the league is hoping to start acquiring and developing land to generate a new flow of cash under the nonprofit community development corporation status.

"I think we are well on our way for what we had planned," Henderson said.

Through the league's troubles, the Annie E. Casey Foundation continued to support the organization when most of the other major donors left. A Casey Foundation official said that investment is beginning to pay off.

"I think that they have made a very impressive effort to, sort of, boost their effectiveness, particularly their financial accountability," said Sandra Jibrell, the Casey Foundation's director for civic investment. "I don't think that there was ever much of an issue with the type of quality of programs they offer."

Jibrell said during the league's downturn, her office advised Henderson to be more aggressive with fund-raising efforts and maintain benchmark programs nearly lost to cost-saving moves.

The Casey Foundation supports the league's technology programs, which include free computer skills classes for children and adults. Other league programs include: mentoring young fathers, foster care placement, first-time home-buyer workshops, and youth summer math and science camps.

People are beginning to use the league again in times of personal trouble, league officials say.

John C. Bugg III, the league's vice president of programs and operations, said that recently more people - many from the large layoffs from the city school system - have called the organization for employment help and computer skills.

"We're doing what we always have done," Bugg said, "and that is to be a link between the Baltimore area and the customers we serve."

And the league is beginning to take on dicey social issues, the bedrock on which the organization was born and rose to prominence.

The first topic is rehabilitation vs. incarceration. The Urban League believes nonviolent offenders should be given more opportunities for training and rehabilitation services and less time in prison.

The league is also studying academic issues at the troubled city school district.

Henderson also said that the league may open a satellite office early next year in Cambridge on the Eastern Shore, where residents have expressed interest in having the organization.

"We're getting back to our roots," Henderson said.

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