St. Paul Urban League a shadow of its former self


Loss of funds, especially United Way support, has taken a severe toll

Until around the mid-1990s, the St. Paul Urban League (SPUL) had a budget of several million dollars. One of their funding sources during that time was the United Way. But a shift in their funding philosophy, which began around five years ago, caused the United Way, by then one of the SPUL’s few remaining funders, to reexamine the organizations they were funding.

A few years ago, Scott Selmer, currently the president and CEO of the SPUL, became interested in how he could contribute to the organization’s mission.
“It’s my understanding, based upon history and research that I’ve done, that at one time this was a quite a vital and vibrant affiliate [with] upwards of a $5 million to $6 million-dollars-a-year budget,” Selmer says. “Those programs are lost due in part to the [fact that the] funding climate has changed.”

When the relationship between the St. Paul Urban League and the Untied Way began, the United Way typically raised funds for all of their member agencies and funded approximately 200 programs. The new funding methodology, called the “Agenda for Lasting Change,” narrowed their focus from 25 to 10 broad goals including hunger reduction, homelessness, and improving school readiness. This change resulted in a much more competitive grant review process.

Currently the SPUL offers a program called Homestretch (providing assistance to first-time homebuyers); a job placement program to assist people in increasing the skills required to obtain a job; specialized affordable housing for those living with HIV/AIDS (the only African American provider of its kind in the state); and Section 8 and non-Section 8 affordable housing.

Sergeant Ray Jefferson, a St. Paul police officer, is the current SPUL board chair. He runs a police department unit called the A-Community Outreach Program (ACOP), assisting public housing residents to obtain resources they need to achieve economic independence.

Two years ago, Jefferson began referring people to the Urban League for job-seeking assistance, only to have them return saying that services were not available. After making his own inquiries, he became a board member and found that the organization was no longer the vibrant, supportive community organization of its past.

“Working with people in an environment where all of your funding and operational budget comes from grants and donations…your organization is basically at the mercy of the economy,” Jefferson says. As the economy weakened, many funders started requiring more accountability, which had not been required of previous Urban League administrations.

“They were operating under a system that was old school,” Jefferson says of his board predecessors.

Frank Forsberg, Greater Twin Cities United Way’s senior vice president of community impact, says, “[The St. Paul Urban League’s] situation in the last couple of years is that they have fallen from $3.5 million down to roughly $300,000.” The organization has experienced the decline of both federal and state funding, as well as that of local funders, at a steady rate over the last 10-12 years.

Although Jefferson says that there were issues of nonperformance within the St. Paul Urban League, he believes that the key issue was past management practices. Though they have tried to work with agencies like the United Way, he feels that they are still being judged by previous administrations’ management styles, though he believes the new administration and board have addressed every issue that funders have brought to their attention.

Prior to his becoming board chair and Selmer being appointed as CEO, Jefferson says that the Urban League had accepted conditional funding from the United Way for a job assistance program. Once Selmer and Jefferson reviewed the proposal, they knew that the projections were higher than they could reach with five staff members. They were operating with only one staff member.

“The United Way looked at the numbers that were being projected into that program, and they themselves thought that they were unrealistic,” Jefferson says. Selmer and Jefferson approached the United Way halfway through the reporting process when the projected numbers proved unattainable with hopes of renegotiating a more realistic goal.

“I called a meeting with the United Way [at the beginning of this year]…and we asked them what their plans were, because all [of our] programs were on probation,” Selmer explained. “And they said they were going to defund us.”

Jefferson says of United Way staff, “They were reluctant to say, ‘It would be unrealistic for us to even imagine that you could do something like that given the staff numbers. It might be a little irresponsible on our part, too, not to bring that up to you in the very beginning.'”

Jefferson says not being able to renegotiate their goals led to bad feelings between the two organizations.

“I think United Way has as much responsibility as the previous [SPUL] administration had,” Selmer says. “And the reason I say that is because the United Way was allowing numbers to be projected, and [they are] an experienced, well-staffed agency… I hold United Way very responsible for where we are, to be complicit in the sub-performance for as many years as it was.”

When the United Way decided to eliminate funding, Forsberg says, they redirected those funds to organizations offering similar programs within the community, such as the Hailey Q. Brown Center and the St. Paul YWCA. Asked for names of other organizations like the St. Paul Urban League that lost funding as a result of inefficient accountability systems, Forsberg says that information is confidential.

Next week: Proposed merger of Minneapolis and St. Paul Urban Leagues gets lukewarm reception.

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