Nearly two years into his reign as president of the Walter Kaitz Foundation, Art Torres's efforts at turning around the organization remain — like cable's efforts at work-force diversity — a mixed bag of success and criticism.
Some industry executives praise the extroverted Torres's ability to resurrect and turn around a troubled organization that's been criticized in past years for failing to live up to its mission of placing qualified minorities in executive-level positions.
Others, though, are critical of the organization's abandonment of those placement efforts in favor of providing grants to other organizations to foster diversity. They've also taken aim at the process that determines those grantees.
Torres's political ties — he heads the California Democratic Party — have also raised some questions about whether the former state senator is fully committed to Kaitz.
$1M in coffers
The organization is coming off a successful dinner (Sept. 25) that raised more than $1.4 million in revenue. Once expenses are covered, the organization will have close to $1 million to use for next year's grant efforts, Torres said.
But Torres would not disclose how much the organization will devote to grants during the next session, which takes place in spring 2003. Kaitz offered more than $600,000 worth of grants this year.
"What I don't want to do is put a limit on what we will spend, but I definitely think we will exceed [this year's $600,000 grant allocation] with some very good programs, and the donors will be satisfied that the money was spent properly," Torres said.
Torres said the organization is "on absolute financial solid ground" and is committed to working with the industry to reach its diversity goals.
Others seem to agree.
"I think Art is doing a great job of reassessing the organization and turning it around," Insight Communications Co. CEO Michael Willner said. "It's a work in progress, but it's moving in the right direction."
Not everyone is so complimentary. Last May — when Kaitz became a grant provider, rather than a minority recruiter — many questioned how the foundation would determine who received its grants, and how companies would be held accountable for their efforts.
Five months and two rounds of grant distributions later, many of those questions remain.
In a letter sent to Kaitz Board of Trustees members late last month, Starz Encore Group LLC CEO John Sie criticized the organization's mission.
Among several issues, Sie — a Kaitz trustee — questioned the foundation's transformation to grant provider, calling it "redundant" for Kaitz to provide money to organizations that already receive cash from companies.
"I believe we are duplicating efforts by both giving to these organizations directly, and then having the Kaitz Foundation do, in essence, the same thing," he said.
On the other hand, Kaitz trustee and Yankees Entertainment & Sports Network CEO Leo J. Hindery Jr. said he believes the industry is being better served.
"It's the companies' responsibility to have diverse work forces, and I've always felt that recruiting was the MSOs' responsibility — it wasn't Spencer Kaitz's," he said, referring to the foundation's founding director, who is the late Walter Kaitz's son and general counsel for the California Cable & Telecommunications Association. "I always thought that Kaitz should have a much broader role in the industry's diversity efforts, and not be an employment agency for the industry."
Grants at issue
The foundation has also come under close scrutiny for its grant-selection process. Potential grantees have complained about the "moving target" of requirements, deadlines and expectations that surround the application process.
Of the 20 organizations that applied for the second round of grants, five were awarded cash, but most others have not heard from the foundation about whether their applications are still active or have been rejected.
"It's been a big mystery," said one applicant. "It's a slippery slope."
Torres admits the process still needs some fine-tuning. He said the committee didn't have enough time to review all the grants in the second round, but Kaitz might provide more grants "within the next few weeks."
Kaitz has already sent letters to or called organizations whose applications were turned down, he added
"I think we've done pretty well in redirecting the foundation," he said. "We've had a little bit of a learning curve in terms of dealing with the grants and the grantees. I think both of us are learning from each other — nothing is ever smooth the first time around."
Thus far, the network has doled out $600,000 in grants to numerous organizations, including the cable-based NAMIC, Women In Cable and Telecommunications, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing, and the Emma L. Bowen Foundation for Minority Interest in Media.
But it's the grantees without cable ties who've drawn the ire of some in the industry. Despite Torres's insistence early on that all grantees have some relationship with cable, organizations such as New California Media, the Southern California Indian Center and the National Association of Latino Independent Producers have all received grants of $25,000 or more for various diversity-related projects.
Further fueling criticism is the fact that all three organizations are based in Torres's home state of California, where he is very active in the Democratic Party.
Cable programming veteran and former Kaitz fellow Tracy Winchester — whose grant application for her startup multicultural network, Colours TV, was turned down by the foundation — was particularly critical of the grant awarded New California Media, an in-state network that actually airs some of its programming on her Colours network.
Winchester's plan was to develop original programming touting cable's minority executives and highlighting the industry's diversity efforts.
"I do question why Colours TV, a nonprofit, multicultural cable network, was turned down when someone so locally based that has no cable ties at all would be selected," Winchester said.
While Torres said he provided recommendations for potential grantees, he said the final decision rests with four selection committee members, whom he refused to identify. Nevertheless, he defended the organization's decisions, saying that the board wanted to find better ways of reaching beyond the cable industry to pursue its diversity goals.
"We're partnering up with New California Media to develop an ethnic-media directory that helps not only the human-resources people reach out for positions that may be open, but to make sure that the ethnic communities know of employment and vendor opportunities within the industry," Torres said.
Eyebrows also were raised when a myriad of California-based politicians and personalities were in attendance at last month's Kaitz dinner, giving rise to speculation that Torres might be mixing California politics with foundation business for his political benefit.
'Not running for office'
Torres — who noted that Spencer Kaitz's California ties have long led to the state's politicians attending the dinner — vehemently denied that he's campaigning for himself or other politicians through Kaitz, adding that he's fully dedicated to the organization.
"I'm not running for political office and I'm not using the Kaitz foundation for political purposes. I'm basically a figurehead for the party," Torres said.
Yet even Torres supporters admit his political life often conflicts with his Kaitz responsibilities.
"There's a trade-off. To get someone of the stature of Art Torres, you should expect that he has other commitments and interests," Hindery said. "But the industry is fortunate to have Torres out there talking about the foundation."