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New NAACP path urged

Frustrated by embarrassing financial troubles and concerned about a void in leadership, some NAACP members will gather at the organization's 98th annual convention in Detroit this weekend urging the group to take a new direction.

Local branches say the Baltimore-based organization desperately needs a sophisticated fundraising strategy, better communication between leadership and the grass roots, and a major effort to recruit young members.

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The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is struggling to recover from three years of budget shortfalls and has yet to begin a serious search for a new president and CEO to replace the one who quit nearly four months ago.

While the NAACP's annual convention is typically the time when leaders articulate the organization's vision and priorities, local members say this year, that need is critical.

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"The No. 1 issue will be re-establishing financial solvency and creating a national profile that is known and felt on the street - that is what we're lacking," said J. Whyatt Mondesire, president of the Philadelphia branch, who is running for a seat on the NAACP's 64-member national board.

An estimated 8,000 dues-paying members will convene tomorrow in Detroit for six days - complete with speeches from civil rights stalwarts and a candidates forum in which many Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls will be peppered with questions about predatory lending and restoration of voting rights to felons.

Chief on the minds of some members will be the organization's campaign to raise more than $1 million by the end of the year, which they say places an unfair and unrealistic burden on local chapters. For instance, for every fundraiser a local unit conducts, part of the money must go to the national office.

"I am vehemently opposed as a branch president to having to go out and raise money when I need to be spending my time and energy increasing membership," said Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, outgoing president of the Baltimore branch. "I can't raise money if I don't have the membership."

The NAACP has operated at a deficit for three years, forcing it to tap its rainy-day account for about $10 million.

Last month, the NAACP leadership said it would cut the staff at its Baltimore headquarters by about 40 percent through attrition and layoffs to avoid further depleting reserves.

Leaders also announced the temporary closing of seven regional offices. Local chapters are upset, saying that without the regional offices, members are losing a vital conduit to the national office.

News of the budget shortfall came just weeks after the NAACP leadership said that plans to move the organization's headquarters from Northwest Baltimore to the nation's capital had been placed on hold because of lackluster fundraising.

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The financial problems coincide with persistent struggles to increase membership, raise money and find a leader with a vision of how to fight discrimination in the post-civil rights era.

In March, retired Verizon executive Bruce S. Gordon resigned abruptly as the NAACP's president and chief executive officer after only 19 months at the helm, citing disagreements with the board. Gordon said that while he had hoped that the NAACP would bolster its social justice programs, the board's vision was of traditional civil rights advocacy.

"The manner in which Gordon left was unsettling to the membership and to African-Americans in general," said Robert C. Smith, a political science professor at San Francisco State University. "His departure raised new questions about the organization's vision. I think that, once again, the NAACP is at one of its perennial crossroads. It's nothing new, but it's certainly there."

Nevertheless, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond contends that the organization has weathered worse days. He said the NAACP has received about two dozen unsolicited applications for the president's job.

Bond said he understands the fundraising pressure on local branches but is optimistic that the organization will operate at a "comfortable surplus in six to nine months."

"They have to do the very best they can; we know it's difficult," Bond said. "I'm sure people will say, 'This is asking us to do more.' Yes, the situation cries out for you to do a lot more. If we are to be an effective force against discrimination, we all have to do more."

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Bond lauded local branches for their aggressive pursuit of civil rights, rattling off a list of the latest projects, including an effort to combat alleged police misconduct in Yonkers, N.Y., and the investigation of cross burnings in North Carolina.

"The list goes on and on," he said. "These are from last week; these are not things we did when our treasury was overflowing. We are doing all those things every day of every year, in good times and bad. Our units across the country right now are carrying on an amazing array of activities."

Still, Mondesire said that few outside the NAACP are aware of those efforts, and he urged the organization's leaders to better articulate their vision to the public if they want to remain relevant in an era in which some believe that discrimination no longer exists.

"One of the biggest failures of the national office has been not to facilitate communication between the branches on substantive issues," he said.

For example, last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision that school systems cannot seek to achieve or maintain integration through measures that take explicit account of a student's race presented the perfect opportunity to rally the grass roots, Mondesire said.

"The national organization knows what cities and states that have been plagued by the same issues and have used the same tactics to diversify their student bodies. Why not get them to respond to CNN and NBC?" he said.

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Cheatham said communication has worsened since the regional offices were closed. He said he used to speak to the regional director three times a week but has spoken to no one at the national office since the post has been eliminated.

"We were receiving constant updates," Cheatham said. "And having such close proximity to Washington, D.C., they would let us know if there were bills in Congress for us to go down there to discuss. Now we don't have that, and it's a big missing piece."

Despite the critics, Bond said he is hopeful that the NAACP will be productive at the convention and beyond.

"We're here, and we're going to be here," he said. "We're a fighting organization, and we're going to continue being a fighting organization."

kelly.brewington@baltsun.com


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