The Urban League of Portland is breathing again.
Generous portions of fund-raising ingenuity, sheer grit and a dint of arm-twisting by state Sen. Margaret Carter, the league's president and chief executive officer, rescued the agency from programmatic suffocation.
On New Year's Eve Ñ amid smooth jazz and a four-course dinner of hors d'oeuvres, Northwest Waldorf salad with corn-fried oysters, lavender-seared filet mignon and cedar-plank salmon Ñ friends of the city's premier civil rights organization celebrated the agency's new lease on life.
Not long ago, the league was jolted by mismanagement and hampered by a plundering appetite that warranted hostile scrutiny by private and public founders. By the time its books were resolved by auditors, the league had lost its clout, a chunk of its programs and almost a half-million dollars in employment contracts. Worse still, it lost long-earned respect among blacks.
Resiliently, the agency is gliding back to business, with corporate donations up by 50 percent. The league's Equal Opportunity Dinner, which annually provides an unrestricted cash flow, had a record-breaking fund-raising drive last October.
The league also is attempting to build up its membership and wants a sound personnel foundation, prudent financial management and a buoyant board of directors. Other positive actions include:
• Upon assuming office, Carter made deep cuts in programs and personnel to bring costs on par with revenue;
• By last October, corporate donors' confidence in the league was returning;
• New financial rules now require that any expenditures over $5,000 must be signed by a board officer;
• All of its social programs now have advisory boards.
As a result, program coordination and integration has improved.
Some of the league's social programs have surpassed funding goals for this quarter. It also has initiated a new tech lab for community technical training needs and access to the Internet, and strengthened its partnership capacity.
But in spite of all this good news, the league's financial health is still on shaky ground. The agency is burdened by a $500,000 deficit and a whopping $800,000 long-term debt owed Bank of America. The league's equity was leveraged on its 10 N. Russell Street property to pay obligations incurred after getting into financial problems under a former administrator.
The league anticipates balancing its budget sometime next year, but that goal may be unrealistic in light of the current economic climate. And until the league gets out of the red, regaining the confidence of the black community will remain an expensive and elusive goal for the league.
'It is a legitimate loss of faith, and it's regrettable,' says Patrick Schwab, the agency's chief operating officer.
To win back this lost love, the league will have to maintain its visibility and engage the community in a direct campaign involving high-profile social and economic issues of the day. For now, the league's funding constraints makes such an aggressive posture improbable.
The league has been a strong voice for social change in its 56-year history, but getting back on track won't be easy. One way would be to train young leaders within its ranks to advocate for social justice issues. It's important to redirect youths into positive paths, but it is also beneficial to channel their exuberance toward a positive adventure in social change. It can be done.
Still, the Urban League has done many things right lately and has persevered through hard times. More than ever now, it deserves committed support and participation on the part of people dedicated to its vision. That is the right thing to do.