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Not much to celebrate

Change may be in store for the Community House. The once venerable institution recently marked its 100th anniversary. But for many, including those who gave their time, hearts and money to the organization, there wasn't much to celebrate.


After shelving plans for a major expansion of its building and mission, the organization recently asked the community for its thoughts. Here are mine:


Late last year, while your CEO was telling potential donors and city officials that your organization struggles financially and might fail, he had taken more than $266,000 in compensation in fiscal 2021, which ended in mid-2022, the last year for which information is public.


There’s not much community left in the historic house on Bates St. You wanted to expand the building and focus on health and wellness? Why not fully utilize the building you've got and turn your focus back on “community?”


The house you occupy – arguably the community's house – used to teem with activity: thousands of residents taking part in hundreds of programs day and night. It was the center of culture and society in Birmingham, touching many of our lives.


As recently as 2016, it had a dance academy with 400 students; a youth theatre group with 100 children in three separate productions playing to more than 1,400 fans; more than 700 classes involving more than 6,000 residents; a 21st Century leaders program for 7th graders; a storytellers guild that read to thousands of kids; it hosted the Race Relations & Diversity Task Force; a travel program with everything from day trips to the DIA to full-blown European tours. Many community groups would meet there – the Senior Mens and Womens clubs, the Rotary, the Optimist Club and on and on.


You eliminated most of that, claiming you couldn’t survive otherwise, and now, most days one can walk into the house and hear a pin drop. Ask for one of the program books that used go to every home in town, and you are told to go online. Go online, and you'll find nothing more than a few Kindermusik classes. There’s no comparison with the programs of Next or Birmingham Community Education.


You do still offer a smattering of events: The Our Town art show, home tour, annual gala, dinners for Easter and Mother's Day, holiday brunches and so forth. You even came up with Storytime with Santa the year you ejected Birmingham Youth Assistance (BYA) and its Breakfast with

Santa. You even held it the same day and time as the BYA breakfast, which had to scramble for a new venue.


The Senior Men's Club – and members individually – had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the institution. You scorned those contributions and priced it out, along with the Rotary and others. You did it amid unfathomable acrimony – the prevarications of your CEO in

these pages notwithstanding.


Many wonder how you continue to lay claim to tax-exempt status when a huge portion of your current operation is in direct competition with tax-paying businesses. We know you are comprised of two independent 501c3 organizations – that you are neither owned, nor supported, by the city of Birmingham. You are supported only by revenue from operations, donations and grants. You receive no tax dollars. By the same token, you pay no property taxes, and no income taxes.


What you do pay is extraordinary compensation to your president and CEO, William Seklar. In November, in one of his frequent pleas, he said the Community House "will continue to struggle financially" without our donations. Around the same time, seeking approval of ambitious expansion plans, he said the Community House might cease to exist without it. Yet in fiscal 2021, he took compensation of $266,824.


By comparison, Birmingham’s city manager, who oversees more than 200 full-time employees and a budget of more than $100 million, earns $175,000. Senators and members of Congress, $174,000. Gov. Whitmer, $159,300. The majority of nonprofit directors in the U.S. make no more

than $100,000.


Executive compensation is just one matter that warrants scrutiny from the public and your boards of directors, who could be personally liable in cases of inurement. I'd be interested in hearing more about the employment of close relatives of Mr. Seklar, who are listed on your website as staff members of the Community House Foundation, which reported compensation to four employees of more than $300,000 in fiscal 2021. And I'd sure like to know who was going to pay for that major expansion, and if anything was promised in return.


I regularly read Mr. Seklar's monthly column here. I wonder why he is granted this valuable soapbox. When he’s not using the space to promote your events business, he claims the Community House provides "critical support,” serves "those in need," and fills "critical gaps and voids in the community." I'd like to hear facts and figures about those seemingly hyperbolic claims. Previous directors, who took home far less than Mr. Seklar, were far more transparent. Why doesn't Mr. Seklar make his column here an open book?


He could talk, for instance, about his efficiency of fundraising, often judged by Cost Per Dollar Raised. In fiscal 2021, it was 53 cents. That means it cost 53 cents to raise every dollar in donations. He could explain why it was so high. Charity Navigator, which rates nonprofits, gives the Foundation two out of four stars based on its evaluation of accountability and finance. "Needs improvement," it

says.


"Needs improvement" may have been on the minds of board members who resigned in frustration in recent years.


Frankly, I wouldn't care about all this if you didn't occupy a special place  — both physically in our civic center and emotionally in our hearts. I remember when you deserved that place, and hope that when your temporary occupation of the Community House ends, we'll get it back. That will happen only when your boards truly reflect the community and bring in someone who will, in your CEO’s own words, carry on the “mission, vision and tradition of its founding leaders.”


Clinton Baller

Birmingham

(Clinton Baller is a Birmingham City Commissioner. The views expressed here are his own. Tell The Community House what you think. The survey is closed, but you can email your thoughts to the survey administrator at abenedict@ankresearch.com.)

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