In June 2008, after a decade of serving as the president and CEO of Minneapolis Urban League (MUL), Clarence Hightower resigned his position. In June of 2009, after a national search that lasted almost one year, Scott Gray became the organization’s current CEO. Since then the St. Paul Urban League has closed, and some community members are now expressing concerns about the viability of the Minneapolis organization.
“I think that Mr. Gray…is doing a phenomenal job and really trying to bring the message [of the MUL] clearly to the community,” says Bishop Richard Howell, Jr. of Shiloh Temple International Ministries, who became a member of the organization’s board of directors approximately one year ago. “I think that it is very key that the community on the North Side of Minneapolis realize that the Urban League is a true partner existing along with other fine organizations.”
Howell says that though the organization is experiencing challenges in light of the current economic climate, which has reduced support from other organizations, their recent annual fundraiser did well. “We are able to operate with the budget that we have, but the message is there; we need to have more money.”
The MUL’s financial viability is not without skeptics. Jeanne Harris, a North Minneapolis resident who describes herself as a longtime supporter of the MUL, says that she is concerned about the MUL’s financial future.
Over the past 10 years, Harris says she has partnered with MUL staff on health and wellness issues primarily focused around HIV/AIDS. She has offered support by doing outreach activities and health fairs and has been a speaker at Circle of Love, a health and wellness support group offered by the MUL.” [I] appreciate our community-based organizations because they serve so many different people in different areas.”
But in recent years, Harris says she has seen the MUL lose many of its programs to the point where she has become fearful that its doors might soon be permanently closed.
When asked by email if he was concerned about the financial viability of the MUL, CEO Scott Gray answered, “You will find in this economic climate that most nonprofit leaders will be concerned about the finances of their organization.”
Gray said that since the Urban League’s programs are funded by grants from other organizations, corporations, and individual donors as well as through federal and state dollars — all of which have been adversely affected by the current economic climate — there is cause for concern. “Because each of those funding sources is affected by government policy and economy, I am absolutely concerned,” he said.
As for reductions in programming, Gray agreed that there has been a decline. When the existing Urban League building was built in 2001, they were at their peak in funding. “9/11 hit, there was a bit of a recession after that, and it hit us in probably about 2003. Support has been sort of waning since then,” Gray said during a phone interview.
He attributes this decline primarily to large funders changing their funding priorities. For instance, the United Way changed their focus from 7th-to-12th grade education to early childhood education. “This was significant to MUL, because we operate both an elementary/middle school and high school that experienced a direct hit [approximately $500,000 per year].”
Harris also voices concern about the MUL missing out on grant opportunities by neglecting to apply. This includes a grant that came available in March of this year for approximately $1.5 million over the course of five years that she believes they should have applied for.
“As of right now,” Gray said in response to this claim, “we have submitted a grant proposal for this funding in partnership with a number of community partners [Westside Community Health, Fremont Clinic, and Minnesota AIDS Project]. We have not heard if we have been awarded this grant yet.”
Gray also denied the general claim that grant opportunities are being missed. He said that many contracts now require outcome reports, which were less often required in the past. “There is more competition, which makes you have to be very sharp in your reporting requirements.”
Gray said that the Urban League is meeting this challenging with the recent hire of a chief program officer to focus not only on seeking and writing grants, but on reporting outcomes as well. “We have nearly tripled our grant requests, and we have already started to get traction from donors supporting [our new strategic] plan.”
Approximately one year ago St. Paul Urban League (SPUL) discontinued all programming. The MSR spoke by phone with Herman Lessard, senior vice president of affiliate services at the National Urban League, who confirmed that the SPUL was closed. He said there would be no definitive answer as to why it closed until they have completed the organization’s closing report.
In September 2009, during an interview with the MSR, SPUL CEO Scott Selmer described the financial challenges they were experiencing due to the same shift in funding priorities — also primarily with United Way — that Gray described.
When asked if the Minneapolis and St. Paul Urban Leagues had collaborated on or discussed funding challenges, Gray said that though he met occasionally with SPUL representatives, he wished that they had developed a stronger relationship. He did list as one of SPUL’s challenges the fact that the CEO was not full time.
Gray said over the past two years he has developed and initiated strategies that will ensure the survival of the MUL. These strategies include staff realignment, staff wage reductions, and cutting unsustainable programs. As a result, Gray said, “In the past five years, we had our best performance last year.”
What Gray described as the most significant change is the Gateway to Opportunity, a strategic plan that guides the future of the organization and better aligns them with current grant opportunities. The strategy contains four core areas:
• Work force solutions: getting people to work, including training and education
• College readiness and career development
• Wealth accumulation, including homeownership, savings and credit strategies
• Health and wellness, which support all the other core areas
“This is really an empowerment strategy that we moved from a social services mindset to an economic development mindset,” said Gray. “We’ve measured what programs the Urban League was currently doing that would fit under this new model that we have, and it’s got to be about economic independence. That is how we determine what programs will continue and what we want to do over a three-year period to really move to this kind of world-class organization that we want to become.”
In the near future, Gray said, the MUL will be having “cultivation events,” roundtable discussions where members of the community gather their friends and relatives to review the Gateway to Opportunity, including in the conversations those who have benefited from programs. The ultimate goal of these events will be asking community members to support the MUL.
“We have to step up,” said Gray. “That’s just important so that funders in this community can know that people of color are behind this organization.”
“I think if you meet the average person on the street [asking] what is the Urban League, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell you,” said board member Howell of the changing organization and the changing needs of the people it serves. “The message [of the Gateway to Opportunity] is very salient and timely… I think that people need to learn more of what the Urban League is doing for the community.”
For more information on the Minneapolis Urban League and the Gateway to Opportunity, go to http://mul.org.
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.