Drummond’s Blog

Buenos Aires    In the world of “let no good deed go unpunished,” Drummond Pike, founder and chief of Tides and an old and dear companero and comrade, found himself in the New York Times Sunday edition.  He is down steering a raft through the rapids and still waters of the Colorado River in the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon now, but his last blog before going out of cell phone range and leaving the high ground seems to speak volumes for him and the kind of principles that make the man.  As the great country and western song says, “if you don’t stand for something, you don’t stand for nothing at all.”  Drummond stands for quite a lot and he stands tall.   Regardless, I’ll let Drummond speak in his own words:

Drummond Pike’s Blog

August 13, 2008
Pablo on ACORN: will it be fair and balanced?

An old friend, Pablo Eisenberg, called yesterday to talk to me
about ACORN and all the changes that have been taking place
there.  For those of you who don’t know, ACORN is the largest
organization of low income people in the US — 500,000 families —
organized in some 38 states. They run issue campaigns, voter
registration drives, and have been lead advocates on key issues
like predatory lending, payday loan abuse, living wage policies,
and raising the minimum wage in a number of states. After it was
revealed several months ago that in 2001 they had embarked on a
private restitution arrangement with the brother of founder Wade
Rathke to redress a near million dollar misappropriation of
funds, Rathke resigned to take responsibility for decisions made
eight years ago.

My conversation with Pablo was telling. He started by saying
that he was writing what he hoped would be a “balanced story”
about ACORN for the Chronicle on Philanthropy. This was welcome
news to me, as the only press on this matter was a drab story in
the NYTimes lacking context in the extreme, and then a Wall
Street Journal article that barely mentioned a “Wayne Rathke”
that had recently left.

Pablo’s version of balance was to inquire about the restitution
arrangement, to wonder about what should be done to reform the
complex corporate structure of ACORN, and then to ask why state
ACORN’s couldn’t hire their own organizers and didn’t the Chief
Organizer, during Wade’s 38 year tenure, have too much power.

I found the conversation disappointing, for it reflected most of
the perspectives I’ve come to understand are held by the group
of foundations that have assembled to look into the story. Their
general view is that there was a failure of governance at ACORN
and that transparency, more experts at the table, and a new
auditor are the key components of necessary reforms that they
will demand. Frankly, if ACORN was a traditional charity, I
believe they would be right on the money, or at least close
enough. The problem, though, is that ACORN is NOT a charity;
it’s not even a tax exempt organization (though they maintain
several so that foundations can make grants; contracts between
the exempt organization and ACORN are then the means for
carrying out the work). ACORN is what it is today because it is
a democratic membership organization of low income people. That
Pablo, or the group of funders, or any number of non-profit
pundits would see themselves as knowing better than the members
and imposing their view of governance on the members would
undermine the very nature of ACORN’s success: the empowerment of
poor people to determine their own future.

The question about why shouldn’t state ACORN’s be able to hire
and fire their own organizers pointed out to me the central
failure of this analysis. ACORN is about building power. Power
comes from scale, strategy, and accountability. If 38 different
state ACORN’s hired their own organizers, how in the world would
one develop accountability? How could you hold to a national
strategic plan on issues if you had to convince 38 different
boards and the staffs they had hired to participate? And then,
as every funder knows, the fights over resources would be
legion.

To turn the question on its head, why can’t an organization of
low income people achieve scale, have an effective national
office that holds all threads accountable, and drive a single
strategic agenda? Why can’t an ACORN have a Chief Organizer with
significant authority to manage the near 1000 person staff
working for the members?

A lot of the swirl surrounding ACORN has to do with the
iconoclastic, often difficult nature of Rathke himself. Some of
us love him, others despise him. He’s cantankerous and
brilliant. And his brother betrayed him and the organization
they had both worked to build for decades. Wade did nothing
wrong. When faced with a choice between public prosecution and
likely bankruptcy or the private restitution deal, ACORN’s
leadership chose the latter. Did Wade support this to simply
protect his brother? I argue no. If the survival of the
organization was not also at stake, I do not believe they would
have decided what they did.

So ACORN lived another 8 years. They raised the minimum wage in
several states. They successfully achieved living wage policies
in dozens of cities and counties. They registered over 3 million
voters. And they have run countless campaigns in the most
forlorn neighborhoods across the country to improve the lives
and opportunities of low income people.

Was it worth it to Rathke, now jobless at 60 years of age? I
don’t doubt that he’d say yes. So, Pablo, there’s a question you
might ask him.

It is in no way clear that ACORN will survive in the form they
have ridden to success for so many years. A new Chief Organizer
needs to be picked. A fractured board needs to chart a new
course. A disgruntled staff needs to find common cause. All the
while, there’s a world of hurt out there that needs ACORN badly.

Drummond Pike giving the introductory speech at the recent Tides Momentum conference
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