Caught in a Spider Web

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The National Network for Youth (NFY) – the self-proclaimed standard-bearer of alternative humanistic values – has dumped Executive Director Brenda Russell in a style that would warm the heart of an aging Bolshevik. Founded in 1975 to represent runaway youth programs, the D.C.-based group has led a rebellious, against-the-odds existence. Its logo, intended to signify “networking,” actually looks like some lethal spider web.

When Della Hughes ended her 11-year tour as executive director in February 2000, the 406-member group had a staff of 13 and income for the fiscal year ending in September 2000 of $1.3 million. Hughes’ compensation totaled over $120,000, not exactly counterculture wages but well within the normal range for D.C. trade associations.

One of Hughes’ bolder moves, which looked great on paper, was to separate “youth policy-making” from corporate governance. In 1995, a National Council on Youth Policy was established (it now has 26 members); most observers expected it to become a self-referencing talk shop.

Real power over finances and executive accountability shifted to a board to be made up of three to 14 rain-making and business-savvy adult outsiders. Another one-third of the board is youth, never known for their rain-making ability or innate skill in managing what is essentially a small business.

But when Hughes vacated the premises, the board had yet to become an effective governing body. Says one insider, “The board was in a coma” – so comatose that it let Hughes take the object of her almost exclusive attention in recent years with her to Brandeis University in Massachusetts: the CYD Journal, and with it most of NFY’s foundation funding, a move that helped the NFY post a $340,828 loss in assets in Hughes’ final year. Also gone were the NFY contacts with its foundation funders at the Ford, E.M. Kauffman and W.T. Grant foundations. Says the same critic, “the deal stunk.”

Despite a four-month notice of Hughes’ departure, the board took almost a year to hire a replacement. In the meantime, it appointed Larry Zippin, an experienced administrator in the nursing home industry, to mind the store. The board, often incapable of even getting a quorum, never mind raising funds, left that latter task to nobody in particular.

Finally, the search committee hired Russell, a former chief lobbyist for New York City who spent 10 years running the National Association of Homes and Services for Children, until that group merged with Family Service America in 1998 to form the Alliance for Children and Families.

Russell, says one participant, was the search committee’s unanimous choice. Once on the job at a salary of $130,000, Russell found more than the usual crop of garden variety problems. Foundation grants were ending and revenue was dropping, even as the board mustered only four members (out of 16) at its October meeting. The only things generating real cash were membership dues of about $160,000 per year (an impressive if inadequate total), a $187,711 annual HIV prevention project funded by the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and its annual conference.

What’s more, Hughes remained on the NFY payroll for seven months after her departure. That meant that last October the NFY had three executives on the payroll: Russell, Hughes and Zippin. Russell describes those early months as like “peeling an onion”: one bad experience after another. By the time the board met in Santa Fe, N.M., in June, the deficit was running at a Reaganesque $45,000 per month.

By all accounts, neither Russell nor the board had vigorously pursued funding. One foundation program officer at a former NFY funder could recall no contact with NFY since Hughes’ departure. Large foundation grants are often months if not years in the pipeline. For more than two and a half years before Hughes left, nothing from the NFY had gone into the pipeline except spending requests for the CYD Journal, which may have as few as 1,000 paid subscribers, according to several left-behind NFY staffers.

Financial reports prepared by Russell – they used to be done by a part-time, out-of-sight, out-of-mind bookkeeper in Florida – presented the board with a roadmap to bankruptcy only a few months down the trail from Santa Fe. A “board team building” group that met before the board session generated both practical and impractical plans for a financial rescue. Most farcical of all was a proposed board of directors “contract” requiring members (except for youth) to make a financial contribution of at least $5,000 per year and cover their own board expenses.

One sure way to get a comatose board off the stretcher is to go for its wallet. At the end of that day, the board, chaired since February by Nancy Leon (a consultant to the Gallup Organization in Lincoln, Neb.), scrapped the agenda. The former executive director of the National Hispana Leadership Institute, described by one person who has worked with her as “a duck out of water,” then decreed an executive session. Hearing not a single word from its executive director, the board deliberated on the NFY’s fate with at least one non-board member present.

Sent to her hotel room like a naughty school girl, Russell was summoned back after the meeting adjourned and told by a few board members that they couldn’t afford to pay her any more and that she was terminated. Added one board member in the finest tradition of touchy-feely fascism, “You’re welcome to stay for lunch.”

The firing, says one new board member not in attendance, the Rev. George Clements, founder of One Church-One Child, based in D.C., was a “bolt out of the blue.” One Midwestern member of the National Youth Policy Council said of the cause for the firing, “I wish I knew.”

Russell claims the board members made themselves unavailable to her over the past eight months. Leon says otherwise, noting that the board received no financial information from Russell until the Santa Fe meeting. While all parties agree Russell was bushwhacked on the Sante Fe trail, one Denver member of the National Council for Youth Policy is less than sympathetic. Says Urban Peak Executive Director Roxanne White, “If you’re not having regular contact with your board, then you can get ambushed.”

Left in charge by the board is Gretchen Noll, the only NFY staffer tied to the ancient regime and the prime submariner of Russell’s ship. The torpedoing of Russell was made possible by her failure to communicate sufficiently with a hold-my-hand membership. One priority of a National Youth Policy Council meeting in mid-May: “Re-creating warm fuzzy with national staff” [sic]. That therapeutic task will be left to Noll.

But warm and fuzzy won’t keep bill collectors at bay. A Packard Foundation grant ($250,000 over two years) and the remaining $75,000 from Wellspring Advisory to build interest in the Younger Americans Act will help keep the staff of five, now rattling around in 20 expensive downtown rooms, from joining the homeless.

Leon says the NFY, after its “soul searching” in Santa Fe, “will make drastic cuts.” But a long string of bad business decisions – “there wasn’t one good business move made” by the board in the last three years, says a Santa Fe participant – spell big trouble without a bailout by a major philanthropist (not an unprecedented possibility).

The situation, says a board member, is “not irredeemably bad, but dismal.” Another non-staffer in Santa Fe offers this advice: “The National Youth Policy Council should kick out the board and take over.” The NYPC, says member Bill Glick, executive director of the Indiana Juvenile Justice Task Force, “is a very effective vehicle to influence federal runaway and homeless youth policy.” He added, “I never stopped to appraise the board.” That, among other things, will be discussed when all available NFY stakeholders convene in D.C. in late July to figure out how to avoid catastrophe.

Hopes for a federal bailout are unlikely to be answered. Harry Wilson, assistant commissioner of the Administration on Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, says, “We stand ready to help,” but makes clear that cash is not on the help menu. Contact: NFY (202) 783-7949,