A messy divorce at Neighborhood House


Neighborhood House (NH) is now settled into its handsome new home on St. Paul’s West Side – the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center – and its future in the challenging arena of community nonprofits seems upbeat. Still, there’s an obvious question that hasn’t been answered: why was its president, Dan Hoxworth, dismissed by the board of directors last June 19th?

As reported in the dailies, Hoxworth informed the board of directors of his intention to leave. Or, it was suggested, he resigned. Heidi Gesell, the board Chair, declined to comment on the reasons behind Hoxworth’s departure. “It’s not something I’m at liberty to discuss,” she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In an interview with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Gesell would not say if he’d left voluntarily or been fired. Hoxworth also declined to comment.

Community Farewell to Dan

The community will have opportunity to thank Dan Hoxworth for his ten years of service on Tuesday, November 13th, 4:30 to 7 pm at St. Paul’s Harriet Island Pavilion. Sponsors include former St. Paul Mayor George Latimer, Mike Newman, Keith Halleland, Jeff Blodgett, Ellis Bullock, Jim Frey, Peter Heegaard, Paul Verret, Peter Hutchinson, Rebecca Otto, Val Vargas, Elsa Vega-Perez, Eloisa Echavez, Grant Abbott, Anne Long, Dick and Debbie Bancroft, Steve Cramer, El Burrito Mercado, Saeed Fahia, Cathie Hartnett, Kao Ly Ilean Her, Gloria Lewis, Jim McDonough, George Mairs, Dick Nicholson, Alberto Quintela, and Vic Rosenthal. Call Stacy Blackford at 612-204-4103 or email sblackford@halleland.com if you wish to attend.

A native of Missouri, Hoxworth first came to Minnesota as a student at Carleton. He later earned Bachelor of Arts and Masters degrees at the University of Missouri and worked in community development in Kansas City before coming to NH in 1997.

Hoxworth inherited a $100,000 deficit at NH. He erased that within a year, and then grew the annual budget from $1.5 million to more than $5 million in 2006. He and his board launched the capital fund drive, raising $27.5 million for the Paul and Sheila Wellstone Center. With help from Wellstone before his death in October 2002, $10 million was received from the federal government. Added to this were grants of $5 million, each from the City of St. Paul and the State of Minnesota, and $7.5 M from private and foundation contributors. In January of 2006, NH moved into the new center’s 93,000 square feet of space.

NH earned accolades in the nonprofit world. The Charities Review Council of Minnesota, an independent resource for contributors, reported last May that NH met all of its Accountability Standards. Charity Navigator, a national guide for contributors, gave NH the highest rating in a group of similar nonprofits.

During 2006, the last full year of Hoxworth tenure, NH was recognized by United Neighborhood Center of America’s Family Strengthening Award, Minnesota Chapter of the National Association of Social Work’s Paul and Sheila Wellstone Social Justice Award, Emergency Foodshelf Network’s Best Foodshelf of 2006 Award, St. Paul Chamber of Commerce’s Celebrate Business Success Award, Twin Cities United Way’s Best Agency Partner, and Riverview Economic Development Association’s Phoenix Award.

Hoxworth’s performance was rated high overall by the board of NH.

In the last review before his dismissal, this comment was included: “You had a tremendous year as you neared the completion of the capital campaign and moved NH into the new facility – a home where NH can grow and help participants both now and for the foreseeable future. These were monumental tasks and were achieved due to you and your staff’s passion, dedication and perseverance. You also have a clear vision and passion for NH that has helped NH get to the next level. On behalf of the Board, thank you for your continued dedication and strong results.” Gesell says that this review included “where we were going in 2006, not necessarily where we want to go now.” Yet, according to Gesell, and Dan Rodriguez, her successor as board Chair, Hoxworth’s departure was not about performance.

So, after ten years leading NH, Hoxworth’s dismissal was not about performance. It was not “for cause,” resulting from misbehavior, malfeasance or misdemeanor. And, according to Gesell and Rodriguez, it was not about Hoxworth’s salary. Rather, they say, it was about the future direction of NH. Gesell: “After a long process between our executive committee and Dan, it was clear that there was a difference about future direction of Neighborhood House. We thought there were things that needed taking care of and he wanted to move forward on new projects. We felt there were pieces to put in place before expanding the program, before adding new programs. To build a strong foundation first, then add the programs.” Rodriguez: “It was a matter of pace and scope. We wanted to put the house in order first, and we’d been hearing that our communities wanted that too. Dan was the right director for his time at Neighborhood House, but what’s needed now is not necessarily the same skill set.”

A difference in future direction. To this, Hoxworth counters, “What wasn’t in order? What did I neglect to do to ‘put things in place’? I think that just means they wanted a new president. I didn’t hear those things as reasons for my dismissal . . . nobody said, let’s sit down and talk about this; it was not discussed openly by the board.” In an email sent to board four days before his dismissal, Hoxworth wrote: “Now we are in the process of settling into this new space – an organizational development process that should take 21/2 to 3 years according to our strategic plan consultant. It is clearly a challenging endeavor. Yet, it is one we are mastering as we always have. We are well on our way to settling the house.”

“After moving in,” Hoxworth says, “I saw that we’d need another $1 million to get the house in order, so I went out, with no help from the board, and raised about $750,000 of it before I was dismissed.”

“What new programs are they talking about?” Hoxworth asks. He admits taking the initiative for a new community-based college access program for middle-school and high school students, linked to the “Power of You” program at Metropolitan State University and the St. Paul College. Hoxworth believes that preparing students from traditionally non-college families must began as early as 6th grade, not wait until they apply to colleges. He says this program was approved by the Program Committee of the NH board. Hoxworth recalls that the board chair, Gesell, was skeptical that it was needed, since it appeared to duplicate an existing program.

During Hoxworth’s evaluation by the board, comments were made that he thought “were crossing boundaries into my supervision of staff.” As he later explained to La Prensa, “there was a big disagreement about setting salaries for staff. Salary ranges should be set by the board, but certain board members wanted to get into the nitty-gritty of those decisions, clearly micro-management. So I resisted,” he says, “and this was later used by certain board members to caution me that my job was in jeopardy.” Hoxworth believes this may have been what turned the new board chair, Gesell, against him.

“It’s akin to a messy divorce,” explains Rodriguez.

Hoxworth disagrees. “If you choose to use the divorce analogy, just remember that this ‘settlement’ is one way. I have been tossed out of the house (that I had a major role in building) and not given visitation rights to see my kids (the employees and the staff), received none of our assets and no alimony. I don’t think you’d ever see a divorce this lopsided in today’s world.”

After a year of wrangling, and several overt attempts by the board to oust Hoxworth, the end came last June 19th when the board chair and vice chair interrupted a meeting of Hoxworth’s leadership team. In a brief private meeting, he was told he was being put on leave immediately and would be terminated June 29th.

The word soon got out. On the following day, 31 members of Mujeres Hispanas En Acción, wrote to Hoxworth: “Our hearts are hurting and we can’t avoid tears finding out that you are leaving, we saw you as the ‘father’ figure in our ‘home’ (NH) and it’s painful to know that will not be the case any more . . . it is because of your support to our programs our families are better and many of us are stronger women with a stronger vision in our lives.” Soon after, Dorothy Newcomb, an honorary board member of NH, wrote to Hoxworth: “I am in shock!! I can’t imagine N.H. without you!” And Grant Abbott, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches, wrote: “I’m shocked and astonished. You have done so much for Neighborhood House in just the four years I have been at the Council, and you have done so much for the nonprofit community.”

Since the news broke on June 20th, several efforts were made by Gesell and Rodriguez to communicate what happened to their staff, clients, funding sources, and the community. Also, the NH board appointed a vice president, Kari Niedfeldt-Thomas, as interim executive, and organized a search committee to find a replacement.

Heidi Gesell, the former chair of NH, is upbeat about the future: “The work that NH has done for 110 years will continue. We’re an agency full of good people. The everyday needs of our clients are and will be met. The work goes on.”

Dan Hoxworth laments not only the loss of his job. “If I had to go, we could have put together a great farewell event that would have raised a lot of money for Neighborhood House. It’s a missed opportunity.”