Melody McCray-Miller, chair of the Urban League of Kansas Board of Directors, says she is “very committed (to) and optimistic,” about the future of the non-profit. Still, on Dec. 16, the League’s Board will lay off the organization’s last few employees and indefinitely discontinue their remaining program.
The step shouldn’t be seen as an ending, but plans for a better and new beginning, McCray-Miller says. She’s part of a four-member team charged with developing a new and sustainable model for the organization going forward.
Although the press release announcing the “transition” doesn’t identify the cause of the shutdown, the major impetus for the change is a long and steady decline in revenue, made even more unbearable by the organization’s loss of funding from the United Way.
The Dec. 16 shutdown, will bring to an end all programs offered by the League. Even though the League had experienced a reduction in its program offerings during the past few years, they were still offering two fairly successful programs, a health care training program and a high school student mentoring program.
The health training program included programs granting certificates as a Certified Nurse Aide, Home Health Aide, or Certified Medication Aide. The Dec. 16 shutdown was specifically timed to coincide with what will be the graduation date for the remaining class in progress.
Project Ready, which is also known as NULITES, worked with high school students to help them make academic progress, provide cultural enrichment and develop important skills, attitudes and aptitudes for transition from high school to post-secondary success. That program will also shut down on Dec. 16.
Recently, the League also offered several housing assistance programs, including: homeownership workshops, foreclosure assistance and financial education. Due to a lack of staffing, those programs were discontinued.
In its heyday, the League was a strong advocate for economic, workforce and housing equality. In the late 60’s when banks wouldn’t hire Black tellers, the League developed a bank training program in cooperation with the American Institute of Banking. The program graduated 17 students, many of whom went on to successful banking careers.
In the early 70s, with a grant from the National Urban League, the local office offered a Black Student Summer Program that gave college students the opportunity to work on employment, education, youth incentives and health problems in the community.
A few other successful League programs included the Young Engineers and Scientists Program, the Young Pilots Scholarship Program and a digital animation program.
From nearly 15 employees at its zenith, the Urban League was down to a barebones staff of just five. According to Mary K. Vaughn, the interim executive director, one of those staff left recently for another job, the other four employees are being laid-off.
As interim director, Vaughn was under a one-year contract that expired Nov. 30. When she came on board, the League had been without a permanent chief executive since Chester Daniel was dismissed in 2012. Vaughn joined the team on an interim basis just days after retiring from the City of Wichita. She was director of the City of Wichita Housing and Community Services Department for 12 years.
Prior to making the decision to shut down; Vaughn had been asked to stay on by the board.
“Our employees all deserve our accolades, acknowledgement and heartfelt thanks for their service to the Urban League of Kansas,” says McCray-Miller, in a Nov. 16 release. “Words cannot express our overwhelming gratitude for their long standing commitment to the Wichita/Sedgwick County community.”
McCray-Miller said the Board’s decision to release the employees “gut wrenching but necessary for the long term sustainability of the organization.”
Funding Sources Tightened
For years, the Urban League has struggled with funding for years. As a non-profit, they’ve depended on grants, contributions, sponsorships and fundraising events to sustain them. However, what for a while amounted to a sizable cash flow has slowed to a trickle
Their Equal Opportunity Day Dinner, once the largest event sponsored by any community-based organization, had an attendance of around 150 this year. Even with corporate support, that level of diminished attendance resulted in diminished profits.
Grants, contracts and donations from corporations were both prime sources of operating capital for the League. Competition for corporate funding has increased significantly as more-and more non-profits vied for fewer and fewer available dollars.
Grants and contracts were also a great source of funding for the organization. The foreclosure crisis of 2010 may have been on bust for many, but it was a boom for the League. They were awarded a Federal grant to provide local homeowners much needed foreclosure assistance. During the years, numerous grants helped the League establish programming, provide services and paid for the staff to run the programs. While she was on board, Vaughn — a talented grant writer, identified and submitted applications for several grants that fell within the organization’s targeted service areas. To no avail, the board held out hope one or more of those applications would be approved. The final blow was an announcement the organization had not been selected for a one-year $100,000 Kansas Health Foundation Grant. “That did it,” said Vaughn. “That was a huge disappointment.
United Way Issues Death Knell
Failure to win the Kansas Health Foundation Grant may have been a huge disappointment, but the organization’s death knell was the decision by the United Way of the Plains to discontinue its funding to the League. As other sources of funding had tightened, the United Way’s steady but sure funding had accounted for a significantly large portion of the League’s operating revenue.
In 2016, the League received just less than $300,000 from the United Way for support of both of the League’s two remaining programs. The health care training program was funded under the United Way’s targeted effort to address Income shortcomings. Project Ready was funded under the philanthropy’s targeted effort to address youth character development and enrichment.
McCray says the United Way notified the League earlier this year they wouldn’t be funded in 2017. The notification did not affect the League’s 2016 funding which was approved through the Dec. 31, 2016.
It’s not clear why the United Way decided to discontinue funding the organization after more than two decades. Both Vaughn and McCray-Miller say they were told the United Way was not pleased with progress being made to stabilize the organization. It appears they wanted a full-time executive director on board to better guide the organization.
The organization had been working with an interim leader at the helm since 2012. Instead of growing, they were going backwards, or at best standing still operationally.
Vaughn and McCray-Miller were clear, there wasn’t an issue with compliance under the terms of their funding agreement.
“We were audited by them and found to be in compliance,” says McCray-Miller. “There was nothing they asked us to correct. We weren’t on a corrective action plan. There were no goals we had to meet in a certain amount of time.”
What McCray-Miller says the organization did learn was a big lesson; not to depend too heavily on any one funding source.
The League could have appealed the United Way’s decision, but decided not to.
“At this crossroad, we decided to go in a different direction,” says McCray Miller who is heading up the League’s transition team. The four-member team composed of members of the League’s board of directors, is charged with looking at future programming for the League.
“We want to establish a sustainable funding model that will keep us around and strong for a while,” says McCray-Miller. “We’ve been talking about it, but now is the time to do it.”
The team will be looking at gaps in services in the community as well as the National Urban League approved programming areas to design programs that best serve the community.
The National Urban League’s programming areas are:
Entrepreneurship and Business Development,
Health and Quality of Life, Housing,Workforce Development, and Education and Youth Development.
The transition team will look at programs and organizational structure of other Urban League affiliates across the country for successful ideas. In addition, Mark Morial, the League’s national president, will be involved in strategizing for the Wichita affiliates programmatic growth.
Don’t be surprised if the organization takes a completely different direction.
“At this point, we’ve got a blank piece of paper,” says Vaughn.
Recently the League partnered to renovate a house in Northeast Wichita. It’s something McCray-Miller says the League may due more off. A program of this type could address several national League programming goals by improving the neighborhoods housing stock, converting renters into owners, and developing a skilled workforce through a construction training program.
Another idea tossed out by McCray-Miller is forming a for-profit organization underneath their existing non-profit. She cited how the League in St. Louis owns and operates a Starbucks Restaurant.
Another consideration is selling the League’s building, located at 9th and Grove.
“That’s by far our largest asset,” says Vaughn.
The ideal would be to sell the building and lease it back, a process that could gain them some much needed working capital.
Important to the board is developing a program model that can sustain itself financially.
“We’re not talking about doing anything piecemeal, a few steps forward and one step back,” says McCray-Miller.
Buying Much Needed Time
Closing down and cutting their expenses allows the Board and the transition team time to plan.
“Our biggest expense was staffing,” says Vaughn. Cutting back the staff gives the board a chance to catch up and start the fundraising.”
When should we expect to see a continuation plan? McCray-Miller says the transition team’s goal is to have a plan in place by the end of first quarter 2017. They’ve already begun meeting on the project on a weekly basis.
During the interim, expect he office to be manned mostly by volunteers Monday – Friday, from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. McCray-Miller and Frankie Brown Kirkendoll will staff the office.
Brown-Kirkendoll, a former Urban League Guild local and national president is excited about helping the organization through this transitional period. She retired last year as the director of Human Resources at Wichita State University and says this is exactly the kind of contribution she was looking forward to making during her retirement.
I hope this will be the spur,” says Vaughn. “If we all pull our resources, there’s probably a way for more of our organizations to survive.
“My dream is that the Urban League will come back better and stronger. We’ve done too many good things in this community to go away.”