The Wilder Foundation is eliminating 52 jobs and nine programs, including long-standing leadership, training, diversity and equity initiatives and adult day care in the east metro.

The multimillion-dollar cuts, announced Tuesday, will “sharpen our focus” and cut costs so the St. Paul nonprofit can narrow its deficit and rely less on its endowment to cover the budget gaps, interim CEO Brad Hewitt said.

“Some of these [programs] were just not going to be financially stable in the long run,” Hewitt said. “Now is the right time to take action.”

The programs being eliminated served about 500 people and employed about 10% of Wilder’s staff, most of whom will lose their jobs by June 30. Wilder, which spends about $48 million a year, had concerns about how much the century-old organization has drawn from its endowment to offset deficits.

Hewitt said Wilder faced a deficit of about $8 million this year. While cuts were long planned, they were “accelerated” by the COVID-19 crisis, said Hewitt, a former CEO of Thrivent Financial who was named the nonprofit’s interim CEO in November after MayKao Hang left for the University of St. Thomas. A new CEO will be named in the next two weeks.

Hewitt said Wilder will work to connect 94 adults in the adult day program with other organizations that specialize in those services. He said other local organizations and universities already offer training and consulting programs, so there was no reason to compete for those services, and he hopes other community organizations pick up the leadership programs.

“We have to choose between good and good,” Hewitt said, alluding to Wilder’s slogan of “here for good.” “There’s no fun way or easy way to make these hard choices.”

Nou Yang led three leadership programs being cut and worked at Wilder for 13 years.

“We’re more than just a set programs to serve people; what we’re doing is building community,” Yang said. “Why dissolve the center that [is] meant to lift the community inside out?”

Evolving focus

Unlike most social services nonprofits, Wilder has an endowment, which totaled $144.7 million in 2018, the most recent data available. That year, Wilder would have had an $11.7 million deficit if it hadn’t used its endowment to fill the gap. The endowment is now about $118 million, Hewitt said.

Board Chair Julie Brunner said that while an endowment at a nonprofit is unusual, “it probably is one of the reasons that Wilder has been able to exist for over 110 years.”

Wilder has also launched a five-year, $17 million campaign to support its operations. Now in its third year, it has raised about $10 million, Hewitt said.

Wilder started in 1906 after self-made millionaire Amherst H. Wilder left his fortune in a trust. The nonprofit provides social services to about 8,500 people a year, such as mental health services, Meals on Wheels and child care.

In 2008, the nonprofit opened a $37 million headquarters off University Avenue. The next year, citing the recession, the organization eliminated 200 jobs. Over the years, Wilder has also cut programs, closed a camp and sold nursing homes — part of the nonprofit’s scaling back of senior services.

Brunner said Wilder’s focus has evolved to meet the community’s needs, shifting to families and children now. Two years ago, Brunner said, the board started a committee to review its programs and the use of its endowment, setting a goal to spend no more than 5% of the endowment each year by 2023 — a goal they’ll reach with the cuts, which were announced to staff last week.

“They’re really important programs,” Brunner said. “None of these decisions were easy.”

‘Heartbreaking’ loss

Besides the adult day program, the cuts affect the Neighborhood Leadership Program, Latino Leadership Program, Youth Leadership Initiative, the Shannon Institute, Cultural Competency Training Services, Community Engagement Consulting Services, Community Initiatives and the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Collaborative.

“If you cut them today, you don’t notice tomorrow, but you do notice them the day after tomorrow; they’re investments,” said Ronnie Brooks, who led Wilder’s division of leadership programs before retiring a few years ago. “These are good programs; they are well-respected in the community.”

Bo Thao-Urabe, executive director of the Coalition of Asian-American Leaders in St. Paul, who has worked with Wilder before, said it’s disappointing that the Youth Leadership Initiative, which worked with primarily youth of color, is ending when COVID-19 is disproportionately hurting people of color.

It’s a “heartbreaking” loss, added Susan Phillips of Minneapolis, who volunteered with the initiative for a decade, working with St. Paul students.

“I’ve seen the impact the program has had on young people,” Phillips said. “I think we need more of that right now, not less.”

As a black girl and daughter of an immigrant, Highland Park High School sophomore Mahlet “Momo” Gebreyesus said the program was a second home for two years, empowering her.

“It’s a magical, transformative program,” Gebreyesus said. “These programs are safe spaces for minority people in the community. ... It’s kind of silencing the community a little bit.”