The Naacp Bets On A New Breadwinner

Kweisi Mfume hopes to show donors the crisis is over

Last March, officials of the scandal-plagued National Association for the Advancement of Colored People asked members of the AT&T Foundation to lunch at Manhattan's Remi restaurant. Myrlie Evers-Williams, who had just taken over as NAACP chair, quickly got down to business. What could the nation's venerable civil rights organization do to persuade the foundation to renew a three-year, $225,000 education grant that had expired in 1993? AT&T's answer: Put your house in order. "We were looking for strong leadership, strong financial controls, and a strong mission," recalls Milton J. Little, an AT&T Foundation vice-president who was at the meeting.

Enter Representative Kweisi Mfume (D-Md.). On Feb. 15, Mfume will leave Congress to become president and CEO of the NAACP, a move that figures to bolster its clout--and its bottom line. Already, his appointment may have won over one big donor: On Dec. 28, Nissan Motor Corp. USA is expected to announce it will donate $100,000 to the NAACP. The organization's backers hope others will follow. "We wanted someone whose integrity was first-rate," says Nancy L. Lane, director of corporate affairs for Johnson & Johnson, who served on the NAACP's search committee.

DAUNTING TASK. Mfume's challenges are twofold: He must attract young blacks now drawn to militant leaders like Louis Farrakhan while reassuring Corporate America that the NAACP is worthy of support. "We need to change the hearts, minds, and direction of young people so that they see appreciation of work, respect for elders, and individual responsibility as bedrock principles," he says.

Mfume thinks this message of self-reliance will appeal to donors. "I hope corporate partners who have not shied away will say to others that it's all right to come home to the NAACP," he says. The task is daunting. The 87-year-old organization has been reeling since August, 1994, when it ousted Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. after discovering he had paid $300,000 to settle a sexual-harassment suit. Auditors found other evidence of gross financial mismanagement. The scandal led to longtime Chairman William F. Gibson's defeat last February to Evers-Williams.

Mfume is meeting with auditors to come up with fiscal controls for the group, which is $3.8 million in debt. He hopes to build a $150 million endowment by 2001, improve efficiencies by merging regional offices, and ask some suppliers to restructure or forgive debt.

Business, which contributed almost half of the NAACP's 1995 budget of $8.5 million, is key to his efforts. Despite financial disarray, many companies, including Procter & Gamble, Sears, Quaker Oats, and IBM, have kept up support. Companies argue that business has an interest in backing groups that promote minority opportunities. "It's important we have a skilled and qualified workforce," says Eric R. Graves, manager of constituency affairs at Texaco Inc.

Other corporate donors couldn't ignore the disorder. In 1995, corporate giving declined some 30% from 1994. Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc. withheld its annual $50,000 grant in 1994 and 1995. Seagram spokeswoman Patsy Glazer says the company had been waiting to see who would head the organization. Now, she wants to meet with Mfume. Merrill Lynch & Co. also is withholding support until it sees how the NAACP's game plan shapes up. AT&T is waiting, too, but Little is hopeful: "We believe Mr. Mfume's leadership is what is needed."

SALES TOUR. Backers say Mfume proved his leadership mettle as a member of the House Banking Committee. There, he emerged as a consensus-builder, mediating disputes among the banking, insurance, and securities industries. Says Banking Committee Chairman James A. Leach (R-Iowa): "There are some people who think that what's good for the free market is bad for lower-income people. Kweisi believes the reverse--that what makes the market work will be better for lower-income people."

That philosophy is behind Mfume's plans to set up NAACP mentoring programs to match students with corporate volunteers. He also wants to work with companies to set up apprenticeship programs and with officials to improve public schools. He may also push for incentives to encourage corporations to work with small minority companies.

Over the next few weeks, Mfume intends to embark on a nationwide tour to meet with corporate leaders. But with the NAACP's programs barely functioning, many branch offices virtually closed, and one-third of its staff on furlough, the organization could be a tough sell. It will take all of Mfume's skills as bridge-builder to convince Corporate America that the NAACP won't be just another bad investment on corporate books.

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