Too Much Trust Is Just Plain Mean When It Comes to Nonprofit Financial Oversight

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July 20, 2016; New York Times

Another sad and sordid tale of tragedy has befallen a small nonprofit reaping the wages of inattention. We’ve covered this kind of story repeatedly over the years.

A few years ago, the Clinton Valley Little League sustained a loss off the ball field to the tune of around $300,000. The perpetrator, Karen Dimitrie, was a longtime volunteer—along with helping the little league, she was the library clerk at a local elementary school and active with her neighborhood church.

“Karen was like everyone’s grandma in town,” said Frank Pizzo, the recreation director in Clinton Township, near Detroit.

Her husband, who is not implicated in the crime, has a similar resume. But in early 2014, Ms. Dimitrie was accused of stealing $50,000 from the league. Later, that sum was estimated at more like $300,000.

Dimitrie plead guilty and was eventually sentenced to five years’ probation and restitution. But the incident has left the town traumatized and divided.

“The whole township was broken up by it,” one observer said. “It was a nightmare.”

Karen Dimitrie kept no books for the league finances over the six years of her tenure. During that time, her personal money and the league’s were comingled. A full 380 of the group’s checks were made payable to the couple, who, records showed, moved $318,000 through local casinos, depositing checks and withdrawing money through casino ATMs.

So whose fault is all of this? It could all be laid at the feet of the volunteer who had earned the trust of her community over time by the sweat of her brow. Who wants to be suspicious of this hardworking woman, who gives freely of her time? No one. Which is why all nonprofits—including sports leagues, where apparently such thefts are not uncommon—should provide disciplined oversight. Then, such volunteers are protected from themselves, and our collectively built organizations are safeguarded.

Again, in nonprofits, the person committing fraud is often described as the last one anyone would suspect. When oversight is lax, so much more is lost beyond stolen cash.—Ruth McCambridge