Postmortem: The Closing of Hull House

Like most people, I was hit with a wave of ‘say it ain’t so’ when I read about Hull House closing last week. The iconic mother of the settlement house concept, the model that Milwaukee organizations like Silver Spring Neighborhood Center and Journey House use in their family and neighborhood development efforts, Hull House was closing due to massive financial problems, one article stating that the organization owed millions of dollars to creditors.

That Hull House collapsed because of the poor economy is the no-brainer and maybe no-brain analysis.  Blaming the economy gives us permission to tsk tsk about how the funding world doesn’t appreciate the iconic, how donors let Jane Addams’ dream disintegrate; the economic downturn and all the excessive belt-tightening are to blame for ending Hull House’s remarkable 123-year run.

All of that may be true.  I don’t know.  All I know about Hull House is what I read in the paper.  But as a long-time observer of nonprofit organizations, I am betting that there is a lot more to the story.  Maybe some of these factors had a role in Hull House’s demise.

  • There may have been a failure to establish and maintain sufficient reserves to help the organization navigate through the economic mess.
  • The board may not have been sufficiently developed, trained, or supported to function as a good steward of Hull House resources.
  • No one may have been able to make hard decisions when they would have saved the agency, e.g. cutting programs/sites/staff.
  • Strategic alliances which might have preserved the Hull House mission and name while providing access to new resources may have been avoided.
  • The organization may have focused exclusively on its service delivery and not been involved in policy-making at the state and federal level that could have influenced program resources.
  • Maybe there was no decent grantwriting shop.
  • Maybe they couldn’t figure out how to diversify their funding (that is, after all, what saved many of us when the stock market tanked).
  • Maybe they assumed the public and the funding world knew all about the good work they were doing so they didn’t need to upgrade the outreach and communication.
  • Maybe they thought it could never happen to them.

 What I’m getting at is this:  The economic downturn reached into every berg in the country.  Strong nonprofits stayed afloat.  Weak ones went under.  And like I said, I don’t know the details of Hull House’s situation.  But I do know this.  Nonprofit organizations can protect themselves – there are life jackets and life boats and survival training aplenty.  Our very own Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee is a good place to start to sharpen your organization’s skills on a lot of fronts. 

The Hull House closing left us with a lesson — If it could happen to Hull House, it could happen to any organization. Be smart.  Take stock.  And protect your organization.


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