By WESLEY LOWERY AND DEXTER MULLINS
This week’s convention is make or break for the National Association of Black Journalists’ future, officials say.
NABJ has met its registration and hotel room targets this summer, said Drew Berry, interim executive director, showing signs that the organization may have found a path out of the worst of a financial storm that some officials say started nearly a decade ago.
After closing 2009 with a deficit of $338,901, NABJ officials are doing a lot of belt-tightening as the organization moves forward. NABJ is operating with a $1.04 million budget in 2010.
“We need to be lean and mean in San Diego; have a good convention, but come out strong for Philadelphia next year,” said NABJ treasurer Greg Lee. “We’re doing well but we still have a long way to go.”
Board members, along with whoever is tapped to take the reins as the next executive director, have the arduous task of figuring out how to get the organization back into the black. The executive director is responsible for making day-to-day financial decisions. The board is responsible for signing off on the budget and hiring and firing the executive director.
Officials have discussed raising membership fees and beefing up the board with business-savvy individuals who are well-connected and can bring in bigger donations. They say NABJ must continue finding other streams of revenue so the organization is not so dependent on annual conventions – NABJ’s bread and butter.
According to a review of documents obtained by The Monitor, the organization’s finances have been particularly bad since the 2005 convention in Atlanta, which left the organization $255,797 in the red. Things got even worse the following year when NABJ reported a $631,095 deficit, according to tax documents.
Some of NABJ’s past presidents attribute money problems to a myriad of issues – from overspending and unanticipated expenses to poor planning and disconnect among board members and the executive director. The ailing economy has siphoned away hundreds of members and that, too, has affected the organization.
Lee, who was critical of spending during the 2006 convention in Indianapolis, has said there’s been a lack of oversight.
“Once their term is up, board members see (financial issues) as ‘the next boards’ problem,” Lee said. “In order for NABJ to thrive once again, no matter what leadership team is in office we have to build on the previous board’s work if they do good work.”
Since 2005, NABJ’s membership has dropped almost 27 percent.
President Kathy Times sent an e-mail in October 2009, saying the organization had lost 887 members since 2008 — a $78,525 drop in day-to-day operating dollars.
With about 2,820 members according to most recent figures, NABJ is the largest of the journalist-of-color associations. But NABJ has struggled to get members to attend. About 2,500 people attended the NABJ convention in 2006. The number of attendees dropped the following year to 1,700. NABJ officials expect about 1,600 attendees at this week’s convention – 323 fewer people than last year’s convention.
That slide in numbers has had an adverse affect on the organization. For example, NABJ was hammered with $150,000 in fees in Tampa last year because it failed to meet hotel reservation requirements that had been negotiated years in advance.
Hoping to avoid a similar fate this year, NABJ renegotiated its hotel agreement, slicing the number of rooms from 6,800 to 2,850.
Here was the problem: NABJ’s bylaws require the organization to book its convention sites five years in advance, not allowing the organization to factor in dips in the economy.
During an executive board meeting earlier this week, the board voted unanimously to postpone its selection of a host city for the 2016 convention until it had a clearer picture of its financial situation and it evaluated its process for planning conventions.
Lee said if NABJ can avoid fees from this week’s convention and keep overall costs down, the organization should be in good shape entering 2011.
“I’m very cautiously optimistic that we will leave San Diego without any bills,” Lee said.
Following the 2000 convention in Phoenix, NABJ faced a deficit after poor turnout. Wayne Dawkins, NABJ historian and a former board member, said that hosting a convention in the West hurt NABJ because most of its members are in the East Coast.
“Between participating in the UNITY conference on the West Coast in 1999 and coming back and having (the NABJ) convention in Phoenix in 2000, it really put a hurt on the finances,” Dawkins said. “The year 2000 is when NABJ went through a tailspin.”
Shortly after that convention, then-executive director Toni Samuel abruptly announced she was leaving the organization to accept a new job.
Later that year, Tangie Newborn was brought in to steer the ship.
“I inherited an organization with a $340,000 deficit,” Newborn said. “NABJ’s revenue base heavily depended on the annual convention for 65 to 70 percent of its operating budget. My goals were to reduce that dependency margin and begin to create new revenue streams by increasing membership recruitment and retention, creating new products and services, and developing new educational programs.
In the five years Newborn served as executive director, NABJ grew from about 2,000 to more than 4,000 members. Fundraising goals were set at more than $1 million annually.
“We instituted a plan to build a better budget by employing the ‘under promise, over deliver’ philosophy. It worked,” Newborn said.
At the 2005 board meeting, Newborn reported a $45,000 budget surplus. Months later, after factoring in costs associated with the Awards Gala and the 30th anniversary program, NABJ reported a deficit of 255,797.
At the time, Newborn was receiving $125,252 in salary and $7,262 in benefits. On March 6, 2006, Newborn resigned as executive director.
“We made a switch when it became clear a new direction was needed,” said Bryan Monroe, who was NABJ president from 2005-07. “It was a performance issue. We ended up doing what was the right thing to do for the organization at the time.”
Newborn said she did not leave on bad terms; it was time to move on to the next job.
Things would get worse after expenses created at the Indianapolis convention when NABJ’s deficit ballooned to $631,095.
Monroe attributed much of the financial hardship under his tenure to overly optimistic revenue projections and unanticipated convention costs, including fees for not filling the hotel block.
“The issue that often happened was that revenue projections were not met,” Monroe said, adding that NABJ was hit with fines as high as $100,000 for not filling the predetermined number of hotel rooms during his time as president. Monroe said he could not remember which years during his presidency NABJ was charged for failing to fill its hotel block.
Lee, currently in his second term on the board, said blame for budget problems in 2006 is about leadership; not hotel rooms.
“The 2006 deficit was a result of just overspending,” Lee said. “Indianapolis is a great city and a great town, but expenses shouldn’t have been as high.”
Karen Wynn-Freeman was tapped to replace Newborn. Wynn-Freeman earned $93,242 plus $10,119 in benefits for her first nine months as executive director, according to documents obtained by The Monitor.
In 2008, Wynn-Freeman’s salary had jumped almost $50,000, including $35,000 more in benefits than her predecessor.
Barbara Ciara, then the Vice President for Broadcast, was elected in 2007 to succeed Monroe as the organization’s president at the Las Vegas convention. Ciara restructured Wynn-Freeman’s contract and began looking for ways to bring in money to shore up the deficit. The Monitor asked for a copy of Wynn-Freeman’s contract, but requests were denied, citing personnel reasons.
“The industry had been projecting in an erratic manner,” Ciara said. “It’s been difficult for us financially for at least the last seven years.”
Ciara attributed much of NABJ’s financial hardship to inefficient, unprepared leadership.
“There was a lack of accountability, and just no accounting of certain things (in the budget).” Ciara said.
In 2007, NABJ began to bounce back, boasting increases in revenue from convention registration, membership dues and programming fees. By the end of 2008, NABJ had $69,776 in the bank, according to tax documents.
Ciara said she added new streams of revenue so NABJ would not have to rely on the annual convention.
In 2008, NABJ got a major boost from the UNITY: Journalists of Color convention in Chicago.
UNITY, a gathering of members in NABJ, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association and the Native American Journalists Association. The convention is held every four years and participating organizations split revenue from the convention.
“Most of the time, UNITY is a successful financial year,” Ciara said. “Everyone makes money during UNITY years.”
Despite making money at UNITY ’08, leaders knew there was a bleak financial outlook for the 2009 convention in Tampa.
“In 2008, we made money but we negotiated an unattainable room block for Tampa,” Ciara said.
The contract signed in 2004 with the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina in Tampa required NABJ to fill 5,669 rooms. The organization came up short by 2,341 rooms.
“Nobody knew when the contract was signed in 2005 that we would be facing the greatest economic challenge since the Great Depression,” Times said in a message to members in October 2009. “We are not surprised that we did not meet our contracted room block at the convention.”
Lee said NABJ also incurred increased cost at the Tampa convention after failing to make budget cuts in a timely manner. He said a lack of communication among board members allowed the window to close when it was time to trim.
“We knew at the convention that we had problems,” Lee said. “We were doing well sponsorship wise, but we didn’t know other things.”
A decline in membership didn’t help NABJ’s 2009 financial situation.
“We’ve lost over $97,000 in membership dues over the last three years,” Lee said. “We had a high of 4,100 (members) in 2005. We’re sitting at just about 3,000 members now. People are losing their jobs and can no longer afford to attend the conventions, the individuals can’t afford to come, they can no longer afford their membership, and as a result we lose members.”
Convention costs and fines crippled NABJ’s balance sheets, and Lee reported to the board on Tuesday that the organization closed 2009 with a $338,901 deficit.
Wynn-Freeman resigned in December 2009. She could not be reached for comment.
On the onset of her presidency, Times said Thursday it was devastating to learn that NABJ was in “dire straits.”
“We started our administration off with bills that needed to be paid,” she said. “It was a tough time for us.”
It’s not clear why Wynn-Freeman resigned. Times declined to discuss Wynn-Freeman’s resignation.
Former finance committee chairman Berry has functioned as the interim executive director.
Once things wrap up in San Diego, NABJ will need to complete its search for the next executive director.
As of last week, the search – led by Linnie Carter & Associates – had cost NABJ $10,865.88, Linnie Carter said in an interview.
Lee says the organization budgeted just over $12,000 for the search. A contract has been extended to a job candidate, but officials would not release any details. A new director could be named Aug. 13.
Much like the outcome of the San Diego convention, the next executive director will play a large role in determining NABJ’s future.
Monroe said the role of the board should be to set a broad vision and goals while the executive director is there to manage day-to-day tasks. The executive director and the president will have to lay out a vision for success.
“Where is NABJ right now? We’re certainly at a crossroads,” Monroe said. “We have a rich legacy, strong history and some amazing members but we’re in an industry that is changing drastically. The relationship between the president and the executive director is critical.”
NABJ officials say there’s no doubt that the executive director’s job comes with a lot of pressure. It’s blanketed with lofty demands in a highly intense environment, Lee said. NABJ politics also makes retention of the executive director difficult, he said.
“Part of the problem is dealing with the politics,” Lee said. “A former president said, ‘we eat our executive directors like our young.’”
Times said the ability of the board to work with the new executive director is extremely important to NABJ’s future stability.
“I look forward to growing with the next executive director,” Times said. “I’m really determined to ensure the next administration doesn’t inherit a debt, and we’re getting there.”
To date, last year’s deficit has been paid down from more than $300,000 to around $158,320.
During an executive board meeting Tuesday, Berry highlighted some of NABJ’s cost-cutting measures. Eliminating expensive contracts and finding cheaper replacements was among the topics discussed. For example, Berry said, a contract for printing business cards was $3,000 for 600 cards. An alternative vendor produced the same amount for $376. Berry also suggested that an additional $50 be added to the regular membership fees to help generate revenue for the organization.
There also was talk of adding to the NABJ executive board four business executives who could bring in bigger donations. Ideally, these board members would be non-journalists in vice-president or CEO positions within their companies, and would potentially have full voting rights on the board.
“These people are used to bringing in large donations in amounts that, let’s face it, you and I can’t bring in,” NABJ secretary Roland Martin said during the board meeting.
NABJ members hope to see the organization turn things around.
Kalisha Whitman, who has been an NABJ member since 2005, said she knew that NABJ had a deficit after last year, but didn’t realize how much it was. She wants leadership to step up and “be better stewards of the members’ money.” It’s about accountability on multiple levels, she said.
“I’ve heard of members that have gone to the career fair that are not registered, and I’ve heard of professional members registering as student members instead of professional,” she said. “We need people that are going to enforce those policies. I know that won’t take care of everything, but it can help show a little more financial responsibility.”
Lee expressed optimism about the future. In the past four years, NABJ has spent nearly $2 million to host conventions. In order to have a successful conference, Lee said, they would have to spend around $700,000 but they won’t know final figures until the end of the month. Lee said he would be happy if NABJ makes a small gain, but will likely “only make one hundred or two hundred thousand dollars.”
If NABJ doesn’t do well in San Diego, Lee said the organization would not collapse. But they want to be in a good position for next year’s convention in Philadelphia.
Regardless, the mindset will likely change.
“We have to live within our means,” Lee said. “Just because we’re the biggest association doesn’t mean we have to put on the biggest show.”
Editor’s note: The Monitor reviewed tax documents from the last five years for this story. Download a copy here.