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Another One Falls: What Happened to Esperanza Unida?

 Last week, I talked about the closing of the iconic Hull House in Chicago.  This week, I just have to talk about one of Milwaukee’s own iconic nonprofit organizations, Esperanza Unida.  Yesterday’s Sunday paper carried the news that after forty years, the organization had lost its federal non-profit status. This essential designation, the one that makes foundation and government grants possible and gives donors a tax deduction, was lost because the Esperanza Unida administration did not file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service three years in a row. 

 Esperanza Unida, founded in 1971, started out as a very small, storefront enterprise that focused on workers rights, especially advocacy for Latino workers who had been injured in the workplace.  Ted Uribe, Esperanza’s first director, was a basically a community organizer.  Under his leadership, the group tackled a host of community issues including the distribution of anti-poverty funds by the increasingly powerful Social Development Commission.  When Rich Oulahan became director, the organization took off in new directions, establishing a national reputation for a social entrepreneurship model of job training that started with auto donation/repair/resale and expanded to a day care center, restaurant and other initiatives.  Oulahan attracted federal support to establish the International Building on National Ave., and commissioned Reynaldo Hernandez to create a mural that northbound I-43 drivers still see and appreciate every day. When I drive by, I think about Rich Oulahan’s persistence and advocacy – he died in 2008.

So what went wrong with this nonprofit masterpiece?  Like Hull House, there are probably many possible answers.  From my perch way outside the organization and the neighborhood it serves, I’m wondering where the board of directors was when the 990’s weren’t filed.  I occasionally read the southside papers and see on Facebook references to a lot of political infighting, some of it very bitter and divisive.  I think about the wisdom of having an organization so entirely wrapped up in the identity of its executive director and wonder if the board ever tended to the unpleasant duty of developing a succession plan.  Was there attention paid to building a board that had the professional and technical skills, such as accounting, legal, and fund development expertise, necessary to steer a major nonprofit enterprise? Another thought is what happpened to the organization’s community support?  Esperanza Unida used to be an untouchable nonprofit, so politically well-positioned that its funding was almost never in doubt.  I don’t have answers.  I just ask the questions that I think need to be asked.

The need for an Esperanza Unida continues.  People need skills that will get them family-supporting jobs.  That hasn’t changed.  It’s a sad thing for Milwaukee that this important resource – this community resource – no longer exists as a nonprofit organization.  Those of us involved with nonprofits as staff or consultants or board members need to find the lessons learned from Esperanza Unida’s situation and resolve to keep the valuable nonprofits in our community healthy and strong.


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