Lax controls lead to nonprofit thefts in the Southern Tier: Experts believe many heists go unreported

Volunteers entrusted with the often-limited dollars of Southern Tier nonprofits have stolen almost $400,000 in recent years, leaving some groups scrambling to stay afloat and restore reputations.

Those responsible for the seven recent Tier nonprofit thefts all played a major role in handling their organization’s finances, taking advantage of a range of weaknesses in the nonprofit sector.

They often duped neighbors and friends who served alongside them on small governing boards. Some clung to powerful positions for years, playing the bully when questioned, or volunteering to take on all the financial duties. Others described their theft as a last resort, calling it the only way out of personal financial struggles.

Smaller nonprofits with poor fiscal oversight are particularly vulnerable in the Southern Tier, a problem fueled by insufficient government regulations. Some cases involved governing boards composed of volunteers without the necessary experience or commitment to fulfill their responsibility.

But while several local nonprofit thefts have come to the public light, experts believe many simply go unreported. Those in charge worry about tarnishing the organization’s reputation. Rather than risk damaging future fundraising efforts, they prefer to keep cases of mismanagement and stealing quiet.

“Sometimes the groups won’t go to the (district attorney), because of personal relationships and bad reputation. Many try to take care of it themselves,” said Doug Sauer, the chief executive officer of the New York Council of Nonprofits. “(Thefts) send a total message to the community about whether people want to give to the group.”

Even when thefts are reported, police, prosecutors and nonprofit officials admit they often don’t know exactly how much was stolen. Poor accounting practices contributing to thefts often make it impossible to fully uncover the damage, and some cases involve schemes investigators believe lasted well beyond legal statutes of limitation.

6:00 PM, Jun 29, 2013