Two things I know for sure about this so called "resignation" of James Willingham Sr. as president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Hartford: Several key players on the 52-member board were unaware that he was being forced out. And they are not happy about it.
One prominent board member, investment company owner Gwendolyn Smith Iloani, has resigned in protest, saying, "I felt the entire board should have been consulted. You just don't have a group go off and do what they want to do. I resigned because I was concerned about the direction of the League. If they can get rid of someone like Jim Willingham, who has done a yeoman's job, then I don't understand the board and who is making decisions here."
Iloani, also a major financial supporter, said that Willingham's evaluations were normally "phenomenal."
Board member Kevin Henry, a lawyer with Robinson & Cole and a Willingham supporter, said he was "totally surprised. I'm very interested in understanding why ... and where we go from here."
With the abrupt ouster there has been speculation that Willingham, 61, might find himself tied to the state's corruption investigation of Mayor Eddie Perez's administration. A report is due next week.
Willingham, indeed, showed poor judgment in accepting a $15,000 consulting contract from Diggs Construction of Kansas, three years after serving as vice chairman of a six-member committee that voted for Diggs to oversee a $1 billion Hartford school construction project. Willingham was among three board members who received cushy consulting deals from Diggs years after the selection process. While what occurred has not yet been alleged to be illegal, certainly it was improper because of the perception it creates.
But two Urban League insiders told me that although the Diggs issue may have contributed to Willingham's problems, it was far from the primary reason for his exit.
He was having personality problems, they said, with a couple of board members who questioned Willingham's leadership style, judgment and ability to raise more money from individual donors.
Willingham supporters counter that he has raised significant corporate dollars since he was hired in 1999. The League was in serious financial trouble at the time and its annual Equal Opportunity dinner was raising about $70,000. Under Willingham's tenure, that figure increased to $400,000. The League also met its $5 million capital campaign goal started in 2001, which helped purchase a new headquarters on Woodland Street. Financing the building has become a problem in recent years, and the League, like most nonprofits, has seen its fundraising efforts suffer. Personnel has been cut; there has been a 10 percent pay cut to staff, including Willingham's $185,000 salary. His travel allowance has also been cut.
I last saw Jim Willingham a few weeks back at a Juneteenth event at the Wadsworth. He and his wife, Dawn, sat at the same table as my wife and me. The Willinghams were relaxed, engaged, enjoying themselves and did not seem distracted. They were telling stories about how proud they were of their son, a budding actor, who was taking classes in New York.
Ten years is a long time to serve as head of a nonprofit. Running the Urban League means you are raising money 24/7 to finance programs for job training, home ownership and education enrichment in the African American community.
Willingham's record is pretty impressive. The timing of his ouster is pretty odd. Perhaps we'll have more clarity once that much-anticipated report is released.
In the meantime, it will be interesting to see if a brewing internal problem inside the League turns to a full boil.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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