An ACORN epitaph

Posted on March 28, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

Organizationally dysfunctional to the end, ACORN executives couldn’t even get their stories straight about the community organization’s imminent demise.

On Monday, spokesman Kevin Whelan announced that ACORN’s governing board had approved a plan to close operations in the coming months. On Tuesday, CEO Bertha Lewis told NPR that the organization “isn’t dead yet.”

Wordplay no longer matters in the fate of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, however. For all practical purposes, ACORN is already doornail deceased.

The eulogies have already started, with both Whelan and Lewis blaming “right-wing” activists and attacks for the downfall. In fact, such lashing out is indicative of the myriad mismanagement tactics that truly caused ACORN to implode under its own inescapable nemesis. The most appropriate epitaph for ACORN’s tombstone would be the words, “Here Lies Hubris.”

There’s no dispute that ACORN, over its 40-year existence, performed good work and helped people. No organization could survive and grow over that period if it were a through and-through failure in its services or its mission.

But ACORN had serious trouble long before the headlines of the last few years sent it into a fatal tailspin. The biggest problem of all, as its own independent analyst concluded in the wake of recent controversies, was the irresponsible way the organization has always been run.

If anything, ACORN was accorded more leeway in mismanagement than other politically partisan outfits because of its politically correct raison d’être. Criticisms of any sort were summarily categorized as attacks on its causes. Even now, with so many misdeeds laid bare, ACORN can’t bring itself to accept any organizational responsibility.

That institutional character flaw has plagued it for at least a decade. It was back in 2000 that allegations first surfaced that Dale Rathke, the brother of ACORN founder Wade Rathke, had made improper credit card charges totaling almost $1 million.

Incredibly, ACORN officials chose not to share their concerns with either their board or law enforcement, and even kept Dale Rathke on the payroll until public disclosure in mid-2008 forced his removal.

Still, ACORN officials exuded little remorse over the decision to treat the allegation as an “internal matter,” even though it involved charitable money from external donors. When two board members, who felt that all ties with Wade Rathke should be severed as well, sought to obtain financial documents from ACORN, the executive committee booted the pair off the board.

President Maude Hurd remained unapologetic.

“People can agree or disagree,” she said in July 2008, “but we did what we thought was right.”

Choosing to do the wrong thing out of fear that the right thing would harm the organization isn’t the same as doing what one thinks is right. When the head of an organization exemplifies such a chronic disconnect with the word “right,” it speaks volumes about ACORN management’s character deficit.

The cliché about character is that it governs behavior when no one is looking, and when hidden cameras were trained on a few ACORN employees in 2009 by a couple of conservative activists pretending to be engaged in prostitution, ACORN’s lax training, policing and oversight policies were starkly exposed.

Millions of people watched the videos in which ACORN employees appeared to be trying to help Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe figure out ways to legitimize illegal activities to get federal assistance. Tens of millions more simply read or heard about them.

At that point, character becomes defined by what is done when everybody is looking. None of those millions saw any heartfelt apology or acknowledgment of accountability from ACORN management. In a critical time that demanded swift seizure of responsibility at the top, all ACORN was willing to do was fire the lowest level employees who appeared in the videos—and blame the right wing, as if overt left-wing proclivities would ever produce anything other than right-wing enmity.

ACORN is a lot like a very large church where wrongdoing or immorality has crept into the upper echelons. Even though the overwhelming majority of the members may be diligent and honest, true believers in their work, once the rot at the top is exposed the organization is tainted. All the good deeds of the church evaporate in the public eye in such an instance, and there’s typically very little sympathy if the tithes dry up and the church has to close.

The only way to possibly survive the kind of management mishaps and scandals that ACORN has experienced is to clean house, which it steadfastly refused to do time and again.

A culture of corrupt rationalization is a cancer for any organization, and there are some things worse than death. Perhaps in the passing of ACORN the good of its causes can survive elsewhere. The bad of its practices has lived entirely too long.

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