Name this organization: It is currently celebrating its centennial, an event so significant that the U.S. Mint has issued commemorative coins.

Its founder was one of the most charismatic creators of a nonprofit in American history, and the actor who played him won an Oscar for his performance.

But it’s an organization that has largely drifted away from its founder’s vision.

The answer: Boys Town, the Omaha-based charity that was founded by Msgr. Edward Flanagan in 1917 as a place orphan boys could call home.

Mara Klecker investigates what Boys Town is doing today in this piece for the Omaha World-Herald.

Msgr. Flanagan bought a farm 11 miles west of Omaha for what was known in his lifetime as “Father Flanagan’s Boys Home.” Back then the property was well in the countryside. Today, it’s in a suburb, and when I visited in 2001, it was at the end of a long bus trip from downtown Omaha.

Msgr. Flanagan’s story is an inspiring one, which I wrote about in By Their Bootstraps. If you visit Boys Town, their Hall of History is an excellent little museum, where you can see the Oscar Spencer Tracy won for his performance as Msgr. Flanagan. Boys Town has also produced this documentary for its centennial, which does a fine job in telling their founder’s story.[1]

The problem with Boys Town is what happened to it after Msgr. Flanagan died of a heart attack in 1948 at age 62.

Like many nonprofits, their mission started to drift.

But the extent of the drift was not known until 1971 when Warren Buffett, who owned the weekly Omaha Sun, assigned four reporters to investigate the organization.[2] Boys Town stonewalled, until an Omaha Sun reporter got the Boys Town Form 990. In those days, the only way you could get a Form 990 was to go to an IRS office in Philadelphia—and pay a dollar a page for the copy.

The Boys Town Form 990 showed that the organization had amassed an endowment of $191 million in 1971, and was on pace to have over $200 million by 1972.

This was three times the endowment of Notre Dame, and, as Omaha Sun editor Paul Williams noted in the Columbia Journalism Review, was large enough so that Boys Town would have been #230 in the Fortune 500 had it been a corporation. The Sun’s investigation led to a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and to the resignation of Msgr. Flanagan’s successor, Msgr. Nicholas Wegner.[3] Boys Town also suspended fundraising for three years.

Since then, one major change has been that in 1979 Boys Town admitted girls.

The organization even changed its name to Girls and Boys Town for a few years, but has reverted to its original name although it admits both genders. In 1977, Boys Town opened an affiliated hospital with a small facility on the Boys Town campus and a larger one in downtown Omaha.

But is the Boys Town model of residential care the right way to help troubled children?

In their documentary, Boys Town claims that they have good research that shows that their model works, and they repeat “longitudinal” a lot to make their point. I’d love to know what’s in this research. I do know that Big Brothers Big Sisters conducted a study that was good social science that did show that children who took part in that organization’s programs did better in school and in life than did similar children who didn’t participate. Does Boys Town have anything comparable?

What Klecker shows—and is reinforced in the official Boys Town documentary—is that the organization is shifting away from residential care towards family counseling and neurological research at the Boys Town hospital. Part of the reason is that some states have apparently outlawed the sort of residential care Boys Town provides. [4]

According to Klecker, last year Boys Town assisted 1,100 children in its residential programs—and 9,000 in its family-counseling program. That’s a significant shift.

It may be that Boys Town has outlived its usefulness as a continuation of the organization Msgr. Flanagan created. I don’t have enough information from Klecker’s piece to offer an opinion, except for one point.

Klecker’s piece shows that there is a crying need for a magazine or newspaper with the resources to do so to publish a longform investigation of Boys Town. This is an organization with enough clout to persuade the U.S. Mint to help them in their fundraising! But Boys Town has been ignored nationally, probably because of the press’s general neglect of nonprofits and possibly because Omaha is in the heart of “flyover country.”

The Boys Town story has barely been told. It would be a great assignment for a journalist willing to take the time to cover it properly.

(Hat tip: Nonprofit Quarterly)


[1] One thing I learned from the documentary is that over 800 Boys Town alumni fought in World War II—and many of these heroes listed Msgr. Flanagan as their next of kin, since their parents had died.
[2] I wrote about Buffett’s effort in this issue of Foundation Watch published in 2011.
[3] Although Boys Town is a secular nonprofit, its five heads have all been priests.
[4] Klecker doesn’t explain why these states banned Boys Town.