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Graying of NAACP must be addressed

July 01, 2007|By JOHNATHAN R. BURRS

When Kelly Brewington, a reporter from The (Baltimore) Sun, contacted me earlier this month to ask if I had heard about the NAACP announcement that it was cutting its staff, I could only exclaim to her that the news was no surprise!

For many, the news that the NAACP headquarters intended to cut staffers by 40 percent and temporarily eliminate all seven of the regional offices came as a surprise.

However, after more than 50 years of stagnating membership, several scandals having immeasurable negative impact and more than a decade of failed membership drives, such cutbacks should surprise no one.

Dennis Hayes, the interim president and CEO, gave several reasons for the budget shortfall. "Gas is more expensive, the cost of living is higher, people are not giving as much as they used to," he said. "And membership - we always need more members. Our impression is we can improve and enhance the way we do things."

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Amazingly enough, Chairman of the Board Julian Bond chose to place blame on former NAACP President Bruce Gordon for the organization's fundraising woes, referring to Gordon's comments regarding the cutbacks: "That has hurt our fundraising tremendously," Bond said. "What he said when he left really poisoned the well that we drink from."

Well Mr. Bond, I've got news for you - if Gordon did in fact poison the well the NAACP drinks from, it was a waste of his time because that well dried up years ago. That, in my opinion, explains the 50 or more years of the membership hovering around 500,000 members.

Another reason for the membership woes, which neither Hayes nor Bond mentions, comes from studies on generation gaps in nonprofit organizations.

"We're losing a lot of our pre-World War II, 'Greatest Generation' people, and we're not inviting younger people," says Sandra Hughes, a consultant on nonprofit governance in Sarasota, Fla. "We're pushing people out at one end and not inviting people in at the other." People ages 40 to 59, essentially baby boomers, accounted for 54 percent of nonprofit board members, according to a 2004 survey of nonprofit CEOs conducted by BoardSource.

The NAACP as a nonprofit is no exception to the generation gap dilemma. Since the heydays of the '60s, the NAACP membership has grown gray, while the efforts and sacrifices made throughout this time period have become far less obvious to younger African Americans.

"We can go where we want and eat where we want. A lot of people think we have overcome," said a partner with the law firm Eisenberg and Riley.

Many between the ages of 30 and 50 lack interest in the NAACP and their numbers and input are missing from its ranks. The cutbacks and membership crisis suggest that leadership has failed to adequately address this issue and based on Bond's response may very well be in denial that this is the single most pressing issue affecting the survival of the financially embattled organization.

However, the arrogance and false pride of some NAACP elders, many of whom belong to the 64-member board of directors, scoff at the notion that they should focus efforts on inviting Generation X'ers to join the group.

"The commitment and the responsibility should come from them," said Jerry Ann Hamilton, president of the Milwaukee NAACP branch.

"They should be aware of what we've done. They should accept the responsibility for what helps them," Hamilton said. "For them to think that the NAACP should spend a lot of time to get them involved is a misnomer."

Hamilton's comments provide further validity to the notion that NAACP leadership must change at all levels. Assuming Hamilton's opinion (which I do not share) is true, the fact still remains that the commitment to join the NAACP is not there with younger African Americans. The question is what if anything does leadership plan to do about it now given the undeniable negative results of such attitudes and opinions?

Jonathan R. Burrs is a Hagerstown resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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