Interim president Lorraine C. Miller declined to discuss the committee's forecast or the NAACP's overall financial picture, calling them internal matters.

On May 2, the national headquarters said it was cutting staff by 7 percent. Miller said that such cutbacks are normal during a time of transition.

Charity Navigator, which tracks and evaluates nonprofits, said that as of 2011, the most recent data analyzed, the NAACP was spending significantly more on administrative costs than most other charities — 26.5 percent, as opposed to 14 percent or less for the majority.

Those who have worked with Brooks say that if anyone's track record mirrors what the NAACP needs, it's his.

Koeppe recalls that when he hired Brooks to run the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice in 2008, the think tank, like many nonprofits, had suffered a drop in donations.

Brooks, he says, approached the problem like a CEO, not a starry-eyed idealist. "He took a hard analytical look at what programs were working. He assessed the quality of the people on the property. He was able to change the focus for a period of time and establish a financial base."

Records submitted to the IRS show that the institute has been in a growth pattern. For example, from 2010 to 2012, revenues jumped from $1.2 million to $1.7 million, and net assets rose from $6.8 million to $7.3 million.

"He turned the place around," Koeppe says.

As an advocate, Brooks focused on issues designed to empower those on society's "lower rung," as he phrased it in one interview: fair housing, workforce development, public education and, an issue that seems close to his heart, the re-entry into society of formerly incarcerated men and women.

Three years ago, he came to the institute's board with legislation he had written. It was designed to prevent employers from asking early in the hiring process whether applicants had been arrested or convicted of a crime.

It was well-crafted, Koeppe said, but didn't incorporate the views of business leaders. Brooks spent a year and a half consulting with them and tweaking his proposal, and got them on board.

"Cornell has a tremendous amount of commitment, passion and eloquence. He can be very persuasive," says Douglas Eakeley, the institute's board chairman.

Bespectacled, soft-spoken and looking far younger than 53, Brooks can be seen explaining his thinking in a video on the website for Ban the Box NJ. It mirrors a theme he has often spoken about — that discrimination built into our sociopolitical structure bars promising individuals from taking part in the American dream, and contributing to it.

"People with nonviolent, often long-ago, criminal records are prevented from working, prevented from paying taxes, prevented from contributing to the well-being of their families. … People should be measured by their opportunity to contribute to society, not merely their offenses against society," he says in the video.

The resulting bill, the Opportunity to Compete Act, resembles the "Ban the Box" measure passed in Baltimore in April. It goes before the New Jersey legislature next month, and backers say it's likely to join several other Brooks-written bills that have become state law.

National profile

Small-bore stuff from a little-known advocate? Perhaps. But no less a civil rights giant than U.S. Rep. James Clyburn thinks Brooks is a "great choice" to head the NAACP. "He is extremely well-educated and grounded," Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat, wrote in an email, noting that he went to school with Brooks' parents.

All along, Brooks has had a parallel life in the church. Before moving to New Jersey, he was assistant pastor at Turner Memorial African Episcopal Methodist Church in Hyattsville, where members say he gave occasional sermons and did other ministerial work.

Longtime congregant Edward Flanagan doesn't remember Brooks addressing social justice from the pulpit — "it was more along moral lines and the tenets of religion." But he says Brooks "just has that imposing voice, The One That Must Be Listened To."

"We're ecstatic that he got the [NAACP] job. He's a wonderful man for it," Flanagan said, adding that Brooks and his wife, Janice, still attend services when they're in the area.