NAHJ pays off hundreds of thousands borrowed from student scholarship fund

NAHJ board member Michelle Rindels during the General Membership Meeting at the 2018 NAHJ Conference Miami, Fla., on Saturday, July 21, 2018. Photo by Marie D. De Jesús/Latino Reporter

Thanks to extra funds from high attendance at the Miami conference this year, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists has finally paid off the debt it owed after borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars from a scholarship fund.

The board announced on Wednesday that it voted to pay the remaining $91,000 balance to the student initiatives fund, according to a tweet from the board. The decision comes years after the board began funneling thousands of dollars earmarked for student programs into its operations fund. The issue has cast a shadow over multiple boards of directors.

It’s unclear how many times the board removed money from the fund or when the board began doing it, according to Michelle Rindels, NAHJ’s finance officer who joined the board in 2016.

The move wasn’t illegal, Rindels said, but it was controversial.

“It is just loaning it to yourself,” Rindels said. “But it is more like an ethical obligation to keep that money there for students. … When people give to scholarships they think it is going straight to scholarships. Not to sustain staff members.”

The NAHJ board put in place a $50,000 a year payment plan, according to Mekahlo Medina, a former NAHJ board member from 2014-16.

In October 2013, the board owed the scholarship fund $558,000, Rindels said. She didn’t know whether that number had exceeded that amount in previous years.

Medina said he considered the payment plan a good approach to deal with the “scholarship fiasco.”

During Medina’s last year as president, NAHJ partnered with the National Association of Black Journalists for a joint conference. This led to a surplus for NAHJ in revenue, which was used specifically to pay off the debt.

Medina said he is glad the fund was paid off this year. Still, some of the money, he said, could have been invested in staff and programming. The board established an investment policy in 2017.

“In business, you have to create different strategies for success,” Medina said. “Investment is key to growth.”

The board made progress in lowering the debt. In 2016, the association owed $300,493.01.

“I’m not sure if the debt was larger than that before 2013,” outgoing NAHJ President Brandon Benavides wrote in an email Saturday.

Rindels said that the board members decided to speed up the payment plan in recent years so they wouldn’t need to wait another ten years to pay it off.

When Benavides took office in 2016, Rindels said, he asked that the board speed up its timeline — and try to pay off the debt by the end of his term this year.

This year, Rindels along with the rest of the board decided to budget conservatively for this year’s conference despite attendance exceeding expectations.

“We thought 650 people would come to the conference,” Rindels said. “Now we are almost double that.”

About 1,370 were registered for the conference and career fair this year. NAJA registered 150 people, Benavides said in an email, but would not specify whether the 1,350 participants include exhibitors and speakers.

“It is symbolic that we’re doing well financially enough to be able to do this,” Rindels said. “And do it faster than we would have been otherwise.”

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