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Next Urban League Chief Faces Tough Job

Stan Simpson

July 08, 2009

A week after the surprise ouster of Urban League of Greater Hartford President and CEO Jim Willingham, the chatter turns to filling his shoes in a climate where nonprofits are suffering greatly and Urban League chapters are going under.

In recent years, League chapters in Denver and Cleveland closed due to financial problems. Cleveland's problems sound eerily similar to Hartford's.

Cleveland closed its doors after 92 years of providing programs for its African American community because it was "saddled with debt it can no longer handle," according to the website Cleveland.com.

The Cleveland chapter's demise could be linked to debt that compounded from the purchase of a new headquarters in 2002. While the depth of the Hartford chapter's debt is not clear, insiders have said that Willingham's exit was a result of dissatisfaction by a few of the 52 board members in his ability to increase private individual donations and concerns about his management style and judgment.

Things got so difficult financially at the Hartford chapter that there was talk of selling the Woodland Street headquarters it purchased in 2001, and leasing the building instead.

The League, now in its 45th year, has been a champion for homeownership among its Hartford constituents. Suddenly becoming a renter would have looked hypocritical.

Meanwhile, the timing of the Willingham "resignation" may ultimately prove to be nothing more than unfortunate. His exit triggered speculation that the League was cutting its losses before Willingham ended up ensnared in the Eddie Perez corruption investigation.

Willingham was vice chairman of a selection committee that chose Diggs Construction of Kansas for a $1 billion Hartford school construction project. Three years later, Willingham was one of three committee members who accepted consulting contracts from Diggs. Willingham's fee was the smallest, at $15,000. He has said there was nothing illegal about the contract because he did not know owner Dale Diggs when he was on the committee and that the business deal came three years after the company was chosen.

I believe the deal with Diggs was improper, and certainly curious. But it would be very difficult to prove that a quid pro quo existed three years after the fact. I do not believe Willingham will be clipped in this grand jury report. While the Diggs deal contributed to concerns about his judgment, I'm more convinced today that is not the reason he was bounced.

In looking for a new CEO, the board has to find someone else who truly embraces the mission, can quickly establish relationships with the corporate and faith-based sectors, and drum up more cash from individual donors.

"It's a huge void," said Chandler Howard, a former chairman of the board, veteran banking executive and supporter of Willingham. "I think he's done a terrific job for the Urban League over the years. He was a terrific organizer of people and was able to work with the corporate community to provide support for all the programs of the Urban League."

Richard Brown, a League senior VP, is now the acting president. My short list of people to interview would include Chandler Howard; businessman John Motley, who is on the League's advisory board; Linda Kelley, who runs the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving; Jennifer Smith Turner, CEO of the Girl Scouts of Connecticut; attorney Theresa Hopkins Staten, a former League chairwoman; and recently retired Central Connecticut State University athletic director C.J. Jones.

The League job pays well $185,000 a year but it's about fundraising 24/7. It won't be easy.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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