The Saga Continues
A Bumpy Ride for the United Way,
Even Bumpier for Those at the Top
By Mike Kirby
The door that faced out toward the community and Elm Street was locked, and Ralph Levy tugged at it in vain. A lot was going on inside. He could hear the roar of voices and music coming from within, but no one came when he banged on the door.
It was a cold January night in 2005, and there was a little dusting of snow on the ground. Levy had laid out $100 for a ticket to a United Way gala at the new Smith College Campus Center, and tonight’s festivities were not his cup of tea.
Levy has been active in the United Way for more than 30 years. In 1973 he was the chairman of the board, another year he was president. He looked around to see where to go. Seeing a line of multi-colored candles enclosed in paper bags and feeling a little like Alice in Wonderland, he followed the lighted path, which brought him around to the broad stylish entrance on the Smith common. Inside the building was jammed with more than 400 people. Up in the dining room Mayor Higgins was having dinner with Smith President Carol Christ.
Greeting people at the door was an “ambiance crew” of young women in skimpy outfits. It was a lavish spectacle. “Fast Forward 350: A Journey into the Future” was designed to be a fundraiser for the United Way, as well as a finale for the city of Northampton’s 350th anniversary. There were dancers, there were light shows projected on the walls. You could get a legal high by inhaling scented oxygen furnished by the “Airheads Oxygen Bar, Inc.” of Miami; and the open bar did a land-office business. Vodka flowed down mountains of ice, the stems of the cocktail glasses glowed ice blue. Everyone attending got a beautiful little picture frame donated by Silverscape Designs. Also on the docket were classical music, as well as oft-reheated folk music by Paul Stookey of the trio Peter Paul and Mary, and a pageant featuring actors playing Sojourner Truth, Calvin Coolidge, and Jonathan Edwards.
History was kind of drowned out. Folk music was drowned out. Bartok played by cellist Matt Haimovitz and pianist Jerry Noble was drowned out. When Levy, navigating through the crowd, cut in front of the musicians, one of the organizers of the event, Irish actor Vincent Dowling complained.
“Oh, Vincent don’t worry, no one is listening” said Levy. Sojourner Truth was in full costume, declaiming to the throng that she had heard that a statue of her had been dedicated in Florence. “It warms my heart to know you think so highly of me,” she said. Observers said it was hard to hear her over the roar of people talking louder to make themselves heard above the din generated by the alcohol and the oxygen.
The futuristic look of the campus center inspired the gala for the organizers, Louis Stess, the new president of the United Way, and Michael Phillipson, his roommate. The event was supposed to usher in a new era of Miami-type fundraising events in the Valley, but some people left in disgust. One man who had done a great deal of pro-bono work for the United Way over the last 10 years decided he wasn’t going to pay full price for the tickets, and at the last minute got two free tickets. He was appalled by the event, it was so opulent. “ Free liquor,” he said, “Why burn your political capital? Is this any way to introduce the United Way to a wider audience?”
Party Falls Short of Expectations
The event was held shortly after the disastrous hurricanes of 2004 and people were full of goodwill and ready to give to the United Way, but the event failed to meet the lofty projections of the fundraisers and organizers. “They expected to make $100,000,” said Levy. “Every time I heard the figure it was less. It was $40,000, then $20,000.” The final figure was $35,000, according to Julie Pokela, current chair of the United Way board.
This year, when the tremors of fear began to run through the community and drastic cuts were rumored in the works for member United Way agencies, there was a note on the website posted by Stess. Inspired by the setting of the Garden House at Look Park, as he had been inspired by the Campus Center at Smith, Stess floated the following idea.
“You thought last year’s gala was something wonderful? Wait until you see what we have planned for you this year!
Imagine…An evening dressed completely in white. The people, the decorations…everything. In a beautiful serene setting. On the water. A sea of white, floating through the trees on a late summer’s evening. Wonderful delicacies from the valley’s own bounty. Unexpected visions. Surprising delights.
Please check back here for more information.”
The response to this idea was less than enthusiastic. People wondered if everything in white projected the right image for the United Way. How might minorities feel at a white party? The concept lingers on the website still, frozen in time.
A former staff member at United Way traces its current troubles back to the bitter battle in the summer of 2001 that erupted within and around the United Way when it decided to cease funding the Boy Scout chapter headquartered in Dalton because the national organization barred gay men from becoming Boy Scout leaders. The battle began with an attempt by the Northampton’s Human Rights Commission to prod the school department into prohibiting the Boy Scouts from using the city schools, and spread to the United Way.
On May 31, 2001, the Hampshire County United Way’s board of directors voted 15 to 8 to end its association with the Great Trails Council of the Boy Scouts, even though the organization had disavowed the national policy and signed an agreement not to discriminate. The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, then on the board, led the battle inside the organization to not fund the Boy Scouts; State Senator Stan Rosenberg, then on the board of the Great Trails Council, tried to mediate and speak to the board, but was turned away. He compared the local United Way to a “flea on the back of an elephant.” The Rev. David McDowell of the College Church also took a poke at the United Way in a letter to the Gazette. “In the Orwellian world of Northampton a mortal blow has been dealt to that evil entity called “the Boy Scouts” by striking it from the support list of the United Way.”
The battle had its cost. People began to designate more of their pledges of funds to specific organizations, voting to send their money to Dalton instead of Northampton. Meanwhile, the earlier merger of the Amherst United Way and Northampton’s to create the United Way of Hampshire County never really paid off in terms of public support from Amherst firms. The organization lived on a shrinking island. South Hadley affiliated with the Pioneer Valley chapter headquartered in Springfield.
The industrial base, never very strong, continued to shrink in the Northampton area. The Springfield area has more than 50 major corporations that support its United Way. A former board member of the United Way here said he was only able to count nine corporations here, and every year there seemed to be fewer. So the core support for United Way increasingly became the colleges and the university. The last three board chairmen were from Smith College.
Trying to Fill the Shoes of John Sheehan
In 2001, with the resignation of executive director John Sheehan, who master-minded 23 drives for the United Way of Hampshire County, the board suddenly had very big shoes to fill. Sheehan was tremendously dedicated to the UW, and more or less protected the board, like dads do, from the gritty financial facts of life. Even in Sheehan's day, board members couldn't get financial statements that made any sense. For many years he and a three or four person staff kept things humming at their cramped offices on King Street. He was a master at working a crowd, shaking hands, putting the arm on local industrialists and community leaders to lend a hand and make a financial commitment to sustain the good work of the affiliate or partner social service organizations.
The operation on King Street was old-fashioned and bare-bones. For many years there was just one telephone line coming in and everyone had to wait his or her turn. Computerization was minimal and late in coming. In those days, the United Way ran a short full court press campaign, opening in September, over in December. It was easy on the volunteers because it was a limited commitment. Before Sheehan left, the board was talking about a longer campaign, and Sheehan argued against it. He lost.
In theory, the board of directors wanted a strong leader to replace Sheehan; their search committee nominated a New York lawyer who had fund-raising experience, but no United Way experience. Their choice was turned down by the full board, and the board then turned to someone already on the staff, Lewis Rudolph, a 20-year veteran of the national United Way and campaign director of the Hampshire United Way since 2000. He had come from the United Way of America, where he was vice president of community building and had been involved in developing the new so-called "impact" model of United Way operations. He had taken a 50 percent pay cut to do so.
But Rudolph took over in Northampton at a difficult time. Income from the fund drives was lagging, and many of the long-term staff departed with Sheehan, leaving Rudolph to hire a new program staff. The office was small and antiquated, and operations needed to be computerized.
For reasons that are unclear, the board, and especially the executive committee of the board, began to be involved, more and more, in the day-to-day operations of the organization. The sparks flew; there were arguments between board members and Rudolph; the board expected staff to be seen and not heard, to take good notes and do what they were told. They were big shots, heads of industry and college administrators, the staff was treated as staff. It was the era of micro-management by the board of the organization. Staff were assigned board members as mentors, there were phone calls to staff at all hours of the day and night about matters as minor as the ribbon on the copy machine.
Who Was the Mole in the Office?
In January of 2003, the board of directors undertook an evaluation of Lewis Rudolph. The chair of the executive committee, Joanne Finck, presented it as a way of helping Rudolph to succeed. Everyone at the meeting was exhorted to keep the issue confidential and not inform the staff nor Rudolph.
Much of the intrigue surrounding the evaluation and subsequent resignation of Rudolph, is documented in a 108 page report stamped confidential in bold type and prepared by board member Michael Garjian. The report was recently made available to downstreet.net.
The report begins with a memo from Garjian relating that he received a phone call from Finck, who told him that she was aware that Garjian had called Rudolph, and shortly after Garjian's phone call, Rudolph left the office in "an agitated state." Finck wanted assurances from Garjian that he had not leaked what went on at the board meeting. Garjian hung up the phone and realized that "someone in the office was tracking Lew's calls and movements and reporting them either directly or indirectly to Joanne within hours of their occurrence," the report stated.
Garjian wrote that he put his concerns aside, but “new worries arose” on April 24, when he was on vacation, he received an e-mail from Rudolph saying that he “felt there was a move under way to unseat him.” Garjian investigated the situation and found that the entire staff had learned of the board evaluation. Rumors were being spread that the staff was poorly supervised and morale was low.
"The process has dampened the enthusiasm of the staff,” Garjian wrote. “(They) are very strongly supportive of Lew. This is a process that has run away from itself, it is a train-wreck still moving down the track." In his report, Garjian outlined the positive feelings staff had about Rudolph. The board, however, had found that Rudolph had a number of shortcomings, including a propensity for standing up to the strong-willed board chair, Peter Pufall ,and other board members he disagreed with over UW strategy. They presented Rudolph with a series of steps he should take to improve his work, and told him that they would come back and evaluate his progress in July. By then he was out of a job. Included in the Garjian report are e-mails from the UW campaign director Linda Sopp, who was funneling information on Rudolph directly to the personnel committee.
On March 28, Sopp wrote Marianne Levine, who was chair of the personnel committee. "I neglected to mention that Lew is not in today, although I needed to send out the cabinet agenda and would have preferred reviewing it with him prior to its dispersion ... also you had asked if he missed anything last week … on Wednesday he canceled an appointment with the new President of the Pioneer Valley United Way."
"I'm needing to back off of being a ‘squealer’ as aside from its being time intensive, energy and cognitively draining, it is making me feel "small". ... Sopp wrote.
The board was not allowed to read Garjian's report, and Rudolph was asked to resign. Ralph Levy threatened to make the circumstances of Rudolph's dismissal public, but Pufall said that if he went to the press, the board would cut off Rudolph’s medical benefits, and it could have a severe physical impact on he and his family. "His wife would have died without the coverage," said Levy.
The item in the Gazette about his discharge was very brief. He had gone to being a nonperson. Today Lew Rudolph works in fundraising for the Mercy Medical Center in Holyoke as a fundraiser.
Again Another Search for a New President
To find a new executive director, the United Way conducted a nationwide search that resulted in about 40 people applying. This ‘blue ribbon committee’ had representatives from UMass and Smith and was chaired by Judi Marksbury of Smith. They went outside the organization to bring in Charles DeRose, former co-publisher and co-owner of the Gazette. The committee interviewed 10 or 12 people by telephone, and ended up with three finalists, Lewis Stess from Miami, a man from Seattle who many people liked but who took himself out of the running. “So we were really in a box,” said one member of the committee, “Stess and a kind of bland guy from Ithaca or Utica, one of those upstate cities …a pedestrian guy, the kind of guy that in retrospect was the kind of guy we needed. No flash.”
Stess told his interviewers on the search committee that he was an “event man,” the director of fundraising for the American Red Cross in Miami and the Florida Keys. He had raised many millions of dollars for organizations in his time, he said. He had a good reference letter from the Red Cross chapter and one from Michael Philipson of Philipson Associates, a public relations and event promoter in Miami.
Like most people who cultivate the high-rollers of the world, Stess dressed well. The staff of United Way here apparently didn’t like him, but they were evidently ignored. Maybe they were suspected of hiding sympathy for the newly-departed Rudolph. It was nothing they could put their fingers on. One ex-employee told downstreet.net that Stess was a little too smooth, a little too-well dressed, and wore a little too much gold for conservative Northampton. Another pointed out that he had no administrative experience and had never worked for a United Way organization. Two of the businessmen on the search committee shook their heads and said no, but were outvoted.
There Were Some Red Flags Flying
Looking back, there were warning signals that things would go badly with Stess. The local board had ired someone with little administrative experience, no United Way background; someone who proffered a reference from a friend. In addition there was the matter of the board’s treasurer arranging a home mortgage for the new director, thus involving himself in the new director's private life, and the board approving the retainer for Philipson. Some of these actions might even be seen to be in violation of the ethics guidelines of the national organization.
Stess was a personable, appealing guy and many board members felt lucky to get him. He had supposedly raised many millions of dollars for Miami charities, and they wanted to help him succeed. He had big ideas and lots of energy: the board would give him his head. They had blood on their hands from the unpleasantness with Lew Rudolph and his staff. The United Way board would go from micromanagement to a hands-off management within a few months.
Whatever Stess wanted, he would get from the board.
Was Lewis Stess really what he presented himself as being, a big time very successful fundraiser from Miami who had raised many millions for area charities? Maybe, maybe not. An observer of the United Way scene noticed that Stess functioned best in the role of an impresario; he was an "event man." When the big event was under way he spent the night dancing and having fun instead of working the crowd and trolling for the big fish to hook the big checks.
As long ago as May 31, 1998, there was a news item in the Miami Herald entitled “First Night slips away from the Gables.” The city of Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami, backed out of a benefit that was to be sponsored by the Family Resource Center (FRC), a small social service agency that dealt in child abuse prevention.
The organization’s event coordinator and vice president was Lewis Stess. The withdrawal of the local cultural council and the city itself was triggered by the resignation of Steven Mitchell, the arts minister of the Coral Gables Congregational Church. In an interview with downstreet.net, Mitchell, who is today the arts music minister at a Hartford church, remembers Lewis Stess well. The proposed event planned, an alcohol-free New Year’s celebration, was close to his heart. But he soon realized that Stess had gained full control over the finances and organization of the event. What had been billed as a community event for participating organizations became a fundraiser for FRC, and FRC staff would be making the decisions. Mitchell resigned as did a number of other volunteers. Stess left the agency about six months later when he failed to be named executive director. A co-worker got the job, and the present executive director said Stess was enthusiastic and a hard worker.
From the Coral Gables position, Stess latched on to a job at the Red Cross in Miami. No information was available on Stess’s performance at the Miami chapter, although someone who knows the Red Cross organization well doubted that Stess was the big rain-maker he said he was. Red Cross Miami had a modest budget during these years, and was not in good shape. He was there doing development work for three years, leaving in November of 2002. He was out of work, as far as is known, for about a year before he came to Northampton.
He brought with him big plans to revolutionize the organization.
The Fall of Lewis Stess;
What's Next for the United Way?
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