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  • Letter to the Editor: SPC’s Ciaran Benson

    First, I want to thank you for your excellent write-up on what is happening at the Center.

    Awesome work.

    The PNC is really setting the bar for reporting on Pagan issues really high, and I appreciate that.

    I do want to respond to this statement:

    “The source says it unclear if the alleged possible problems with the bookkeeping are  from sloppy record keeping, mismanagement, or rise to an actionable item under Minnesota law”

    Speaking as a board member for the Sacred Paths Center who has been closely involved with these issues, I want to completely confirm and agree with this statement.  We don’t know the answer either.  That’s the reason we’ve arranged for this audit.

    We’ve talked with our attorneys and described what we’ve found to the Minnesota Council for Non-Profits and the MAP for Non-Profits center resources, and what we’re hearing from them is that our failings are very typical of non-profits of our age and size.

    I was surprised to find that they weren’t surprised by what we were telling them.  In one case the person I was working with reached into a pile of Frequently Asked Questions From Board Members and handed me a sheet that basically listed everything I’d just told her.  Apparently, we’re very mainstream in our failures.

    That’s not to belittle our failings – we really missed some obvious things that we should have been doing.  For example, we failed to file federal tax returns.  The IRS isn’t hot on our heals because we don’t owe them any money, but not having at least filed a return saying that we didn’t owe them money was dumb.  Not realizing that we hadn’t done it was dumb again.  Not checking to make sure that it had been taken care of and logging it in our corporate books was dumb a third time.

    We apparently have dumb down.  We’ve shown we’re pretty darned good at it.

    If we could bottle dumb, and people would buy it from us, then we would be where you would go to get it.

    It’s important to note that as a non-profit in Minnesota, these failings are for the most part already public information.  Where it isn’t public information – that in and of itself is where we’ve failed.  The federal and state governments know exactly what our failings are, and anyone who wishes to review our Form 990 will see that we haven’t filed one.  All levels of government have been very helpful in pointing out to us exactly what forms and reports we failed to file, and they have been very encouraging in asking us to get our act together.

    However, this is really small potatoes to the government.  We’re talking about dollar amounts that wouldn’t get you enough gas to get to Ely, and wouldn’t pay for a dinner for two at any of our fine Metro restaurants.

    Pizza Luce for example – we got some pizzas for our volunteers last weekend and the bill was more than we owe in fines.  Maybe.  I’m not sure – that’s why we are asking a professional to help us figure it out.

    Next, I would like to confirm the following:

    “An unnamed source disputes SPC’s claim that this is a routine audit.  They say that while the SPC board is acting in good faith and sincerely wants to resolve the issue, the temporary closure and audit were forced on the center by a SPC member. “

    It is absolutely true that this is not routine for the Center.

    It is however exactly the kind of audit that is routine for well-formed non-profits – especially those about 10 times our size financially.  But the Center has only done one other audit in its lifetime.  So, it is technically accurate to say that for the center this audit is non-routine.

    That quote though is in reference to something I wrote in a Facebook thread in response to posts such as;  “an audit is usually not a good thing.”

    Actually, this kind of audit is a great thing – it’s something some of us have been giggling about being able to get done for a year or more.

    This is really an awesome step forward for us as a non-profit.  We’re not big enough to be required to do one, but doing one is a very good practice for non-profits to get into, and we want to get as close to having “best practices” as we can with our available resources.

    However, we’ve been getting a lot of quite scared and confused questions about why we used the word “Audit”.  We’ve learned that most people seem to associate this word with getting hauled before the IRS and losing your house, your car, and having your bank accounts emptied.

    We’re really sorry about that – we’ve been so eager to get to the point where we had enough structure in place that we COULD be audited that it never even occurred to us to think of that other kind of an audit.

    So – yes.  This is not routine for us, but we really want it to become routine and to do this annually (hopefully without closing the doors next time).  It is routine and performed annually by most non-profits in Minnesota.

    We have learned though that calling it an “Audit” did cause a lot of alarm and confusion.

    Sorry about that.  We’ll try to be more clear in the future.

    I am glad to hear that people believe we have been acting in good faith.  Personally, I agree.  I believe the board and our Executive Director have been and continue to be acting in good faith.

    It is also absolutely true that the sudden rush to do this was precipitated by a member.

    However, anyone who has tried to force us to do anything – like, say, the federal government, has found that we are not the kind of organization that jumps when told to jump.  Even if we really wanted to jump, it would take us at least a week to figure out when the meeting to determine the height of the jump would be held, and we’d probably start that meeting no less than a half hour late.

    We’re a non-profit completely run by volunteers with a board that typically only meets once a month for 2 hours.  Anyone who wants to force us to do something had better grab a calendar and schedule something well in advance of your anticipated needs.

    We are, after all, Pagans, and we do run on Pagan standard time.

    I don’t want to go into too much detail because this is all still very confusing and happening very fast.

    However, I want to assure everyone that it wasn’t a malicious act.  The person who precipitated this sudden lurch of activity was acting from the very best motivation.

    The individual who did this is now not only working with me and our Executive Director to help monitor the performance and results of the audit that began Thursday – they have volunteered to cover the cost of the audit our of their own pocket.

    This person is a partner with the center, doing what they can to help us Change & Grow.

    In the future I hope this individual finds a way to partner with us that is less dramatic.

    But I have spoken extensively with the person who forced this timing and I completely understand and respect why they felt this was the right thing to do.

    I like their energy.  Their timing needs some work, but I really like their energy.

    But be that as it may, we already knew that we needed an audit.  We were already putting it together and would have had it either complete or well underway later this month.  Admittedly though, that’s exactly where we’ve been for almost 2 months now, so I can understand why it might look like we’re not being proactive about it.

    Anyone familiar with non-profits of our size knows that we didn’t close because someone threatened to tell government agencies things that are already public information.  Every level of government has already been mailing us polite reminders that we owe them forms or paper work so someone telling them again that we’re behind on our filings and reports really would just be a drop in the bucket at this point.

    The real honest reason that we closed is that we don’t have two people in the position to both do due diligence to this audit and keep the Center open and functioning while completing our inventory and restocking following last week’s massive sales.

    Right now the Center is entirely dependent on Teisha to remain open.  But as the Executive Director she has to work with the Auditor every minute of the day helping identify or provide reports and forms, and getting information out of our accounts.

    She’s also the only person qualified and experienced enough to work with our inventory and vendor and consignment systems to get the Center reconfigured for the results of Change & Grow.

    So – we didn’t close because we’re hiding anything – we closed because Teisha is doing something else right now and we haven’t figured out how to be open without her full attention.

    Speaking personally, right now my main concern is getting the inventory, restocking, and audit complete and getting our doors open again.  The impact this is having on our community is not something that I’m willing to allow to continue one minute longer than it has to.

    Teisha and I found a woman outside of our center this afternoon.  She was standing just outside the locked door, sobbing because her partner had just died.  They had never been inside the center, but had always talked about checking it out, and now she wanted to do it for herself and her departed lifemate.

    We stopped the audit, we opened our doors, we let her in, we offered her tea and listened to her story.  We let her look through the store as long as she wanted then we escorted her back to the Ancestors Shrine and helped her grieve.

    Our volunteers gave her what she needed by way of stones and any other ritual items that she was hoping to buy to pay her respects and for her own needs.  We didn’t sell them to her.  When someone comes to the center in need like this, we don’t accept their money.  Instead our volunteers gave her everything she had said she was looking for out of their own pockets and purses and backpacks.

    This is not unusual in any way.

    This happens every single week at the Center.

    This is why the Center exists.

    This is why our volunteers are here.

    This is why these kinds of Centers must one day exist everywhere.

    And this is why we are so very committed to making sure that the Center remains a safe and neutral place for everyone.

    The Sacred Paths Center governance is committed to putting aside our personal feelings and egos and making sure that we fix these problems that we’ve found – and are asking professionals to help us make sure that we haven’t missed anything.  This isn’t about us – it isn’t about protecting anyone or hiding anything.

    This is about our devotion to working for the public good and ensuring that we identify and resolve the core problems of our Center so that we can rise to the high level of trust that has been placed in us.

    Thank you again for this wonderful article and the awesome people who came forward to help communicate what is happening at the Center.

    Ciaran Benson
    Volunteer
    Sacred Paths Center
    Oh yeah – I’m on the board too, but I’d be doing this for the Center even if I wasn’t.

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    4 Responses

    1. The honesty is refreshing, and there are some small things that can be done after the audit, like setting up an automatic calendar reminder that goes to the entire board and says things like “FILE YOUR IRS FORMS!”

      One underlying thing that I truly believe you must root out for long-term survival: “We are, after all, Pagans, and we do run on Pagan standard time.”

      I personally find this internalized attitude appalling. This is embracing a stereotype rather than recognizing a cultural challenge that must be overcome if SPC is going to truly learn from this experience and stick around. Paganism in the United States is growing up; part of that growing up is accepting the connection between things like punctuality and responsibility.

      • Hi DianaRajchel,

        Thank you for writing and for your kind comments.

        I completely agree with you about “Pagan Standard Time” – it is something that we absolutely need to step away from.

        Last month during our Change & Grow we were actually able to start having weekly board meetings and spawned off a bunch of committees that were working together on an almost daily basis, and so we did manage to rise to more of a normal business level of activity.

        That brief view of what real, effective, corporate life is like has really shocked some of our volunteers, and I think some folks were hoping that everything would go back to a “business as usual” once we got to August.

        Obviously we can’t do that and still achieve our goals. We need to be behaving as a well-formed corporate citizen and at the same time also respecting our spiritual guides and divine relationships.

        There are some groups that have done brilliant jobs of this, and we are looking at them as examples and asking them for help in figuring out how to do it ourselves.

        But I don’t want to hide the fact that we are still organized as a purely volunteer run non-profit that has a board that only meets for two hours once a month, and that we basically have one horrendously overworked but incredibly overachieving individual who is doing nearly every single bit of work that is necessary to keep us open and operating.

        We’re trying to fix that this weekend, but we understand that the odds of us being able to pull off such a large transformation in a few days is pretty unlikely.

        However, we’ve also learned that we can’t pull it off over the course of 6 months either.

        Trying to create this transformation in our organization over the last half year didn’t work, so this time we’re trying the “other option”.

        It’s a dualistic approach, and so probably the wrong approach :) but it’s the next thing that we can see to try.

        And believe me when I say we’re writing down what’s happening – don’t be surprised if a tell-all “How to avoid what WE did” book for Pagan non-profits comes out of this :)

    2. Most organizations perform audits and perform inventory on a regular basis without having to shut down and lose income. As far as I understand SPC is not a 510(c) organization. They claimed to be one years ago and caused all sorts of problems. Even Non-profit organizations need to run as a business, not like a garage sale or a mere fund-raising enterprise.

      Again, I may be posting this too late for people to notice but I hope not.
      This is to Lynn W. in St. Cloud or anybody in any city that wants to open a Pagan Spiritual Community Center. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
      # Figure out exactly what the community center will do for and offer to its people. Do you just need a place to hold meetings and workshops? Do you want or more precisely do you need a shop to sell pagan merchandise and such. Is an outside area needed or at least highly desirable? How many people do you want it to hold? How many rooms, for different workshops/events do you want/need and how big do they need to be? ,,,,,,,,,

      # An outdoor space will definitely add to the appeal, nuance and income for the center. Groups, large and small, pay for pavilions and space at parks to hold their rituals and gatherings so why not tap into that resource. Especially if you have an outdoor space that can be altered by growing a hedge or putting up a (wooden) fence to make the area feel more private. You won’t have to worry about people walking by and disrupting the feel or focus of the ceremonies

      # The people using the space are the ones that have to be able to keep it afloat. If everyone that comes to the center puts some money in the collection jar, that’s a start. Not everyone using the SPC (that can afford it) does that. There was a well-established group that held an event at the SPC with 85 members attending but they gave only $18, total. Even if someone rents a space and makes money with their teaching do they put a ‘personal’ donation into the jar?
      # Have low overhead expenses. Because it’s a matter of incoming revenues being larger than outgoing expenses. Usually you should have 3-6 months emergency fund, in addition to the working capital, so you can survive even if no money is coming in. This is how you can make a spiritual community center work even if you have fewer people (pagans) than the twin cities. Income needs to be larger than expenses.
      # Maybe find a member that would be willing to rent an abandoned barn for your use. Remember you may just need a space (or maybe more). If you can some how finance a foreclosed house large enough to hold your meetings and gatherings, even better. Each city has its own laws and zoning rules when dealing with Spiritual Gathering Places and owning is much, much better than renting. Renting just gets you a month and if you aren’t putting aside any money that is all you get, one month.
      # It would be great for (an older) pagan that has more space than they need to do a reverse mortgage for the extra space for now and the whole building and land for later.
      # Do you need to be close to public transportation? Is it OK for the people to walk a few blocks? Is it safe to walk at night in that neighborhood?

      # A Spiritual Center can be in a neighborhood, like a church, but you may need special zoning. Having a business selling stuff usually complicates the zoning issue but can also bring in money provided the staff cost less than the income from the store. Then again, being open may also be a way to advertise the center. A lot of these are judgement calls. Hope you have a good umpire.
      # A community only refers to the ones that can actually get to and will use the center. SPC can’t and shouldn’t count all the ‘pagans’ in the twin cities area because a lot of them can’t get to or even want to use the center. And “in the twin cities” covers how much land? How many hundreds of square miles? 100 square miles = 10 x 10 miles. How far away do you really expect people to come from? What is the traffic like in and around the desired area? Will that scare people away?
      # I only come into the cities when I absolutely have to, usually less than once a month. I have occasionally attended things at the SPC and we put some money into the contribution jar when we are there . But we are by no means ‘regulars’ and therefore should not be counted on for consistent support. We donated a good chunk of money for a previous ‘bail-out’ and at one time we were members. We like the idea of a Spiritual Community Center but the SPC was put together in a very short time (for such a large enterprise) and maybe it needs a complete overhaul or even better a new start in a new location. I would advise you to think this all the way through. It can be done, but it needs the right combination of a lot of factors to survive.

      # Keep in mind that by definition, Pagan = not of the Muslim, Christian or Jewish Faith. So if it’s a Pagan (only) community center then anybody and everybody else should be encouraged to stop in. Especially ‘seekers’.

      # There needs to be a group of volunteers, or even paid workers, that regularly work at the center so no one person becomes overwhelmed by all the responsibilities.

      # There may be other things to consider not mentioned here. It’s not an easy thing to pul off.

      Good luck.

    3. [...] questions were raised in July of 2011 in the midst of their second funding crisis, SPC underwent an independent audit to [...]

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