There was an odd scene in the Empire Room at the Jefferson Hotel. Typically well-connected board members of the World Affairs Council were scrambling to find more chairs and adjusting microphones Oct. 7, in preparation for speaker William B. Milam, a former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. The board members were taking on extra duties to cut costs.
After a strong six-year run, the council faces hard times. A search has been suspended to replace the group's highly regarded director, former Ambassador Randolph Bell, who retired from the post in July.
The economic downturn and the collapse of several major Richmond corporations has squeezed the council, part of a network of nonprofit foreign policy educational groups in 39 states.
According to its federal tax reports, the Richmond council got $114,350 in corporate donations and memberships in 2004. That number grew to $161,171 in 2006 before dropping to $100,000 or so in 2007 and 2008.
Council chairman James K. Martin, an executive at Dominion Resources, says the recession is to blame for some of the problem, “but we don't discuss corporate funding.” He says the council has balanced out lower business-community funding by holding one or two marquee-name events each year along with other speakers.
In addition to the sellout talk by Milam, especially timely because he addressed critical choices President Barack Obama faces concerning the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, recent attractions have included the Federal Reserve chief, Benjamin Bernanke, in 2008 and U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor earlier this year when luncheon tickets sold for $140.
But the new approach raises questions about the council's purpose. Bell, who did not return phone calls, turned the organization on its head after taking over in 2003. It had been something of an exclusive club for West End elites who regarded foreign affairs as their hobby. It was transformed into an inclusive entity that reaches out to students, professors, blacks and Latinos as well as foreign nationals working or studying in Richmond.
Bell also used his global connections to bring a parade of well-informed speakers from Washington, New York and various think tanks. In 2004, the council took in $48,736 from “other” income such as admission to events, which grew to $122,669 last year.
But just as Bell got on a roll, Richmond's economy started to stumble. In 2007, Wachovia Securities, which had been a big backer, slipped off to St. Louis after a merger. By 2009, companies such as Circuit City, Qimonda and LandAmerica had disappeared.
Board members insist they'll weather the storm. “We can go on working on a volunteer basis,” says Uliana F. Gabara, a board member and chair of international education at the University of Richmond. “Richmond badly needs a forum to discuss foreign affairs.”