update: a volunteer group I founded years ago is devouring my life

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose life was being devoured by a volunteer group they had founded years ago? Here’s the update.

I wrote back in 2017 (!) about a volunteer organization (“AVO”) that I had founded and was, at the time, devouring my life. This update is up, down, and all over the place, so my apologies to the readership in advance.

I mulled things over for a few months after you posted my response, but at that year’s annual board elections, I formally left AVO’s board and handed the reins over to other people. I was still there to handle some of the technical pieces of the accounting system I had built, but I left the day-to-day running of things to other people. When I was in town during a project or a fundraiser, I would attend, and that was that. The close family member whom I referenced in my original letter took over some things, other people took over other things, and stuff seemed to be going okay. The company was even bringing in enough grant funding to properly pay more of the young artists with whom it worked. Yay!

Then, in the fall of 2018, AVO wound up in a protracted insurance dispute with the venue that hosted its largest yearly event, which spiraled over the next year. Separately, AVO’s original treasurer returned (not of my doing!), put huge — but legitimate — expenses on the company’s credit cards, set the credit cards to auto-pay the minimum balance every month, and then abruptly quit and stopped talking to anyone. The credit card company, likewise, would not speak to anyone at AVO (even my close relative, who was appointed treasurer and trying to clean up the credit card mess) because the former treasurer had not changed any of the names on the card accounts before leaving and still refused to speak to anyone to sort out the mess. Paying off the cards would have taken years anyway, but AVO was also in a sector that was very heavily impacted by the pandemic, and two years of canceled events and unrelenting admin costs also took their toll, leaving the company in very bad shape financially come 2022. Things were starting to look up then: a few anonymous donors — I have my suspicions who, but I can’t prove them — gave enough money to begin digging out of the hole caused by compound credit card interest, and the insurance dispute magically resolved itself due to employee turnover at the insurance companies. AVO’s board would need to be largely reconstituted, but that could happen in due time.

Then, in early 2023, my close relative suddenly and unexpectedly died. He had been the only person remaining on the board with access to the company’s bank account, the only person who understood how to communicate with state agencies, the only person with a complete history of the company in his memory, and the only person who had the time and energy to work with new volunteers and board members and really get things going again post-pandemic. After he died, my family’s remaining members and I agreed with AVO’s remaining board members that AVO should close. I’m now back on the board, this time as treasurer, to clean up finances, sell or donate assets, cancel accounts, file final paperwork, and close the organization. (I even managed to strong-arm the credit card companies into allowing me to pay off and close the cards.) It’s not what I want to be doing with my free time, but since AVO isn’t doing any actual programming anymore, there are no set deadlines, and I can just work on it at my own pace. The hardest part of the situation is dealing with the dual grief of saying goodbye to my relative and an organization that has been a part of my life for so long all at once — and that’s a problem for my therapist, who is thankfully quite helpful.

{ 37 comments… read them below }

  1. Sara*

    I’m so sorry for the loss of both a clearly beloved family member and an organization you put so much of yourself into.

  2. Heidi*

    I’m wondering how much accounting/bookkeeping/financial experience is expected for the role of treasurer in an organization like this? It sounds like the money side was struggling most of the time.

    1. Happy meal with extra happy*

      This comment is odd to me – it seems like it wants to blame the organization(/OP?) for failing to properly disclose the extent of the treasury role, when there is zero indication that that’s what happened, instead of just having a bad hire. And because this comment is on an update about how the organization has to close down because of a tragic event (so no additional advice is likely helpful), I find the implied critical tone extra strange.

      1. WellRed*

        It’s not an odd question at all. It’s pretty obvious that much of the death spiral was related to the financial side (credit cards/access to finance info etc). I think it’s also not uncommon for orgs like this to have people that are more passionate about the cause and less qualified about the nuts & bolts.

      2. Heidi*

        This was more of a general question for the commentariat since I’m not really familiar with the inner workings of volunteer organizations. I initially assumed that the treasurer was a volunteer, but at the same time it seemed that the role required such specific professional skill set that it would be difficult to find a volunteer who had it. So would it be customary to hire (meaning, pay) someone for this role? Or perhaps the type of bookkeeping required isn’t as difficult as I’m imagining?

        1. Bumblebee Mask*

          Heidi, it depends on the size of the organization really. My bestie is the executive director of a non-profit and they outsource the more technical aspects of the accounting to a firm but she does the day to day routine stuff since the paid staff are literally her and one other person. I’m on a board and we have a treasurer that works for the organization itself. In both of these cases, the non-profit is the local arm of a larger, nationwide organization so we receive some financial support from the parent organization. It would be best practice to hire, which also provides some protections to the organization, however the reality is that a lot of small non-profits can’t afford to do so.

          1. BubbleTea*

            My non-profit is extremely new and we don’t have the budget for an accountant or bookkeeper yet. It’s a lot of work figuring out all the skills I need to be able to do until we get enough income to hire people who know what they’re doing! Fortunately one of the board is an accountant and can do our end of year accounts, but isn’t a non-profit specialist.

            1. OP*

              I strongly recommend — if you haven’t found them already — the nonprofit accounting videos that TechSoup has on their website. They taught me a lot of what I’ve used to repeatedly clean up accounting messes over AVO’s lifespan, including the current closeout process.

        2. Generic Name*

          I’ve been on two nonprofit boards. One was very very small, with just 2 of us on the board. I was treasurer, and the chair of the board was also on all the accounts. No paid employees. I did all the accounting, which wasn’t complex.

          The current board I’m on has 15 members and we have about 7 employees, both full and part time. We have a part time accountant, and we have a professional tax preparer do the organization’s IRS stuff.

        3. Just Thinkin' Here*

          It really depends. But at the end of the day, the Board of Directors is responsible for the finances of the organization, whether it be for-profit or non-profit. This sounds like a small group that didn’t have the where-with-all to have accounting checks and balances (i.e. more than 1 person has access to accounts, more than 1 person has to sign checks, etc). This let someone who didn’t know basic finance get away with poor accounting for what appears to have been about 5 years? Or more? And then to allow that person back into the job? Mismanagement of finances by the entire Board.

        4. Gemstones*

          I assumed the treasurer was a volunteer, too. It seems weird to give a volunteer access to that kind of financial control. But maybe the treasurer was hired? In which case wouldn’t they be held accountable, even if they quit? It seems borderline fradulent.

          1. OP*

            OP here, confirming that the treasurer was a volunteer. We had absolutely zero dollars with which to pay anyone, and in fact, in a nearly all-volunteer organization, making the only paid person the one who is also in charge of the money overall would raise its own set of problems. A supermajority of our board was all that was necessary to remove a treasurer, although in practice it never came to that.

            The in-and-out treasurer was young — like the rest of us — and had no formal training. I strongly suspect that the stress of being so unqualified for the role was a major contributing factor in their sudden final departure. With hindsight, I can see that I should have pushed harder for someone else — and I know exactly who, again with hindsight — to take that position right at the organization’s founding, but that’s long in the past.

            My now-deceased relative had a better understanding of nonprofit accounting than just about anyone else, but for a whole slew of complicated reasons didn’t want the position at the start of this organization.

            Anyway, thanks to everyone above and below this comment for your kind words. I will hope to submit another update at some point when the state government finishes its part of the dissolution process!

    2. different seudonym*

      There are generally no legal requirements for any role on a board, and people who get into this kind of small-scale public service, in my experience, tend to lack financial awareness and the ability to make projections beyond a few months or a year. This is a structural issue, in other words, not an individual one: the whole way that charities/nonprofits exist tends to create knowledge vacuums that fundamentally damage any social mission. It is an extremely frustrating double bind.

      1. Jam Dodger*

        Interested. I’m on my first board and a bit shocked at how quietly dysfunctional it is. I certainly do not know enough to be able to knowledgeably question our treasurer about our finances. I’m working on all this, but curious to know what you mean – how *should* charities/non-profits exist – how should they be done differently? (Btw, I’ve worked for non-profits since forever, so am familiar with that side of it.)

      2. Reluctant Mezzo*

        I’ve audited a set of church books, and I have to echo the lack of legal requirements and the goodwill combined with lack of expertise. Yes, everything was all right, but I had to dig a bit and re-set up their books so future ones would be clearer.

        (then there was the security company which mixed personal expenses with business ones and tried to treat all the employees as independent contractors, arrggh, nice people, *but*…).

    3. Generic Name*

      Typically? Zero!! I was the treasurer for a nonprofit and I had no education or experience in accounting. It was a small org, so it really wasn’t that hard. It was on the level of difficulty of dealing with personal finances and taxes. Actually, the taxes were easier since we just filled out a 1 pg form with the state.

  3. Jo*

    I’m sure having it close it hard for you; but please focus on the good it did for years, the lives it touched, the people it benefited. Something doesn’t have to last forever to be valuable.

  4. Geeyourhairsmellsterrific*

    Thanks for the update, and I’m sorry for your multiple losses. Glad that you have a therapist who helps. Wishing you all the best.

  5. Zombeyonce*

    While it’s so hard to watch something you built end, OP, I hope you keep in mind all the good that it did while it worked. Think about all the lives it affected for the better! Even if it couldn’t go on forever, it did good things while it was around. I hope you’re proud of yourself for that; I’m sure many people appreciate the work you put in over the years.

    And I’m so sorry for your loss, that’s a big blow on top of the AVO shutdown. I’m glad your therapist is helping!

  6. English Rose*

    I’m so sorry for everything you’ve been going through for years with this organisation, and especially for the loss of your relative. It must be really tough, I’m glad your therapist is good.

    I want to add that for me, reading the volunteer group side of things, including your original letter, has been personally helpful. I was recently also in the position of closing down a volunteer group I’d been running for years (nothing like as fraught as yours though). I felt hugely guilty and got some significant flak, but reading your story has helped with that, thank you.

    1. Generic Name*

      I wonder how many of the people giving you flak volunteered to step up and take over the reins of the org. I’m betting none! I and the chair stepped down from an org, and we were able to hand it over to some folks who wanted to take over. If no one had volunteered, we would have closed the chapter. It’s a tough choice for sure.

  7. The Unspeakable Queen Lisa*

    Wow, that was a ride! I’m sorry about your relative. As much as you’re sad to close AVO down, imagine how great having all of your free time back will be.

    Total side note, but I don’t understand a bank refusing to “let” you pay AVO’s bills. As opposed to what? Surely they don’t want to go to bankruptcy court and get pennies on the dollar. That’s just shooting themselves in the foot, which I suppose is how you convinced them to “allow” it.

    1. Bo Peep*

      It’s strange that anyone would refuse money. Who cares who’s paying it as long as the check clears? “No, we don’t want your money, we want to not get any at all.” But there’s probably some bureaucratic or legal reasons I’m missing.

    2. Phryne*

      Yes, I found that strange too. I wonder if at that point, you can just ignore the debt? If they won’t allow access because your name is not on the account, I’d be tempted to tell them then surely the debt is not mine either… It would presumably rebound back to the old treasurer, and maybe that would at least make them cooperate. (All of this is probably wishful thinking)

    3. OP*

      Because AVO’s treasurer had left without changing the names on the accounts, the credit card companies would not send anyone else the statements or let anyone else send them payments. (We thought it was strange, too, if I’m being honest.) I’m lucky that my institutional memory is strong, and I was able to get the person who originally established the credit cards on a party line with me and the credit card company to confirm that I was now a legally authorized officer who could submit payments.

  8. Annabelle*

    I’m sorry for your loss, OP! And I’m still side-eyeing your “friends” who guilt-tripped you for wanting to leave the first time around.

  9. JP*

    I volunteered to help with the bookkeeping for an animal rescue after the CPA that had been handling their finances fell off the grid. I found things in absolute chaos, and trying to get it organized starting dominating my life when I wasn’t at work. The tipping point was when the person who considered herself the rescue “owner” (her failure to understand the basic structure of a nonprofit explained why they lost their 501c status for a time) called me at work to ask if I had prepared the yearly financial statements for the rescue because she was at the bank at that very moment trying to get a loan for the rescue. What was the loan for? Had she spoken with the board about this? She didn’t need to explain herself. She owned the land the animals were housed on, so she did whatever she pleased. I tried to explain that I was just trying to get the freaking Quickbooks updated with donation and adoption fees, I wasn’t going to be preparing or signing off on financials. Her loan application was denied, thank God, and she was angry with me. I also found out she had been concealing the loss of the 501c status from donors and sending them slips stating that their donations were deductible. So, I got out of Dodge. Rescue closed down less than a year later.
    I sympathize very much with the letter writer. I wasn’t even half as involved with this rescue as the OP was with their organization. It is so hard to walk away from situations like that. There was so much anxiety surrounding the whole situation as well, like if only I can get this done, everything will be better.

    1. I Am A Victim Of A Board*

      OMG, animal rescue orgs are the worst for this. We had to force our founder/ED out and she also still doesn’t fully comprehend that she never owned the nonprofit and never will. It probably took a year off my life but I couldn’t let her win. Literally nothing was written down or organized in any way, financial hijinks, yearly total staff and board turnovers, yeesh.

      On the flip side, I had been interested in nonprofits and was looking into doing a paid certification – I could probably teach that now after all I’ve learned. And it looks like we are finally seeing some hope in terms of stability. Just this week the founder sent an angry email demanding she be removed from an account…it was an email newsletter she’d subscribed too and I had to send yet another email telling her how the unsubscribe button works LOL.

  10. What I learned…*

    When I joined the board of a 501(c)3, I am in the United Stares, I learned I knew very little how these organizations actually work. I had a lot of preconceived notions to release. Here are a few:
    – non-profits have operating costs
    – kind members will absorb the operating costs
    – many think boards of 501(c)3 should have zero operating costs
    ~ if your organization has enough money and volunteers, you are very fortunate

    1. OP*

      Bingo. IMO, any organization that claims a number under 35% as overhead / G&A / operating costs is probably pulling some serious financial hijinks or vastly underpaying their employees or stiffing vendors to get there. I wouldn’t trust them with a ten-foot pole.

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