“At 6:25 pm (April 25th) the Executive Director dissolved the board of directors,” reads the last entry in the minutes of the final board meeting of Sacred Paths Center, a Pagan community center in Minnesota. A few days later, on Beltane, Executive Director Teisha Magee sent out an email saying the center closes May 31st.
“Why is Sacred Paths Center closing?” is a question asked by Twin Cities Pagans after reading the announcement. That question is quickly followed by, “What can we learn from their experience?” by Pagan organizations such as Solar Cross Temple in San Francisco and the Open Hearth Foundation community center in Washington DC. PNC-Minnesota spoke with past and present Sacred Paths Center (SPC) board members, volunteers, and their last financial auditor, looked over financial records and minutes of board meetings, and interviewed Teisha Magee to answer those questions.
In short, most everyone interviewed says the center’s Director and Board were not functional, the finances were in disarray, the building was too expensive, and the resulting drop in income after two years of road construction right outside their door didn’t help matters.
Despite that, they are united in saying the center almost made it due to the efforts of the Director, Board, volunteers and the most importantly, the community support. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics only 66% of new businesses make it past two years and only 44% celebrate their fourth anniversary. Sacred Paths Center made it three years and three months.
The public perception of Sacred Paths Center is that it is a non-profit community center with a board. And normally with something like that the director would report to the board and the board would have something to do with the operation of the center and would have fiduciary responsibilities. That’s not the case. – Ciaran Benson, former SPC board member and current volunteer
What happened, the successes and the failures, are of prime concern to Sean Bennett, Vice Chair of the Open Hearth Foundation. Four months ago they opened a community center and he says his board has been following news of Sacred Paths Center closely. “Even though the center in Minnesota has a different environment and a different dynamic there are lessons we could learn.” He says they were concerned and disappointed to hear of SPC’s closing, “We wanted to see it succeed. We want to know more about what happened and we will gather together as a board and see what lessons we can learn.”
To find out why the center is closing, you have to examine how the center was created. In January of 2009, after a few weeks discussing the idea of a community center with family and friends, Magee signed the lease for what is now Sacred Paths Center. The $1500 raised in a personal Paypal account allowed her to cover moving expenses and open the doors on February 13th.
Most of the flaws in SPC were formed at its birth, and contributed to its cycle of funding crises. It was set up as a private business and the financial accounts of the owner, (Magee,) and the center were mingled. According to the person who audited SPC in 2011, this was routine and it caused difficulties that plagued the center for the course of its existence, “When Sacred Paths was opened it was a private business with a sole proprietor and it wouldn’t be uncommon to have personal and business funds mixed together. That never really changed as the business morphed into a non-profit so the accounts never really got separated.”
“The center did our community a disservice because they mismanaged those funds. The community supported the center. The center did not support the community.” – CJ Stone, former SPC board member
Blurred financial boundaries was mentioned in a letter drafted on May 6th by the most recent, and newly dissolved, SPC board members as one of the reasons for the closure. The letter was addressed to SPC members, community, and friends and was intended to be made public, but the board later decided not to publish it. PNC has a copy of the letter. It also lists unpaid rent, unaccounted for funds and unsubstantiated spending as information they wished to make public. “It is with sadness that we, the former Sacred Paths Center board members, feel compelled to reveal the following information. On April 18, 2012 we received a call telling us that rent on the center was three months overdue. This came as a shock to us all, as the Executive Director told us a week earlier that rent had been paid up through March. A further look into the books found many financial discrepancies.”
“It was a very stupid decision on my part,” says Magee, referring to the conversation with the board about the rent. “When I told the board that it was under control I had a plan to get it taken care of, but it fell through. We had had several poor months in a row and many vendors that were due payments. I didn’t want anyone to realize how bad it was getting again and wanted to simply fix it before they had to know. Obviously, this blew up in my face.”
Former board members say this type of exchange between the board and the Director over unpaid bills had happened in the past and was made possible by a lack of clear financial documentation and board oversight. “This letter is very similar to the one I wrote last August,” says former board member CJ Stone. “We outlined what needed to be fixed, I thought it had been fixed, and it wasn’t. This board thought the same things. They thought the finances were under control, that the accounting irregularities had been stopped. I mean, you shouldn’t be asking where is the money? Where is it going? But that what happened in the past it looks like that what continued to happen.”
How could board members not know the center was behind in rent? The center never converted to a 501c3 and was instead registered as a corporate non-profit in the state of Minnesota. This meant Magee owned the center and the board was more of an advisory council rather than a governing board with fiduciary authority.
Yet all the board members PNC talked to were firm in their belief that no funds were stolen. They similarly agreed that Magee was unskilled in bookkeeping and there was little to no documentation of the center’s finances. “Here’s the money coming in. And here’s the money going out. They don’t match,” says board member Heather Roan-Robbins. The auditor for SPC notes, “If a vendor comes in and wants to be paid, they would pay them in cash and then that wouldn’t be documented.”
PNC spoke with T. Thorn Coyle, President of the Solar Cross Temple, about how her group handles finances. “Solar Cross is very careful to keep track of funds coming in and going out. If we say we are taking donations for the Native Elders Winter Fuel Drive, for example, the $1200 that comes in is accounted for and earmarked for that purpose. When the funds are disbursed, we get receipts.” She says not keeping clear records would make their lives exponentially more difficult and would be “doing a disservice to our supporters and members and to the work we are trying to accomplish.”
PNC-Minnesota reviewed financial documents from January 2011 to October of 2011, the only documents available, and we are unable to determine if SPC had a profit of $1,180 or a loss of $24,512. Profit and loss statements for the same time period conflict. When Benson was asked about the conflicting reports, he said, “I think the [-$24,512] represents the missing funds that got funneled through without being accounted for, people writing checks for things the center couldn’t pay for, and vendors and artists forgiving debt because they were told the center was broke and couldn’t pay them.” He said the money isn’t missing, as in stolen, but there is no record of it coming into the center and then being paid out.
The auditor explains how they know what the untracked amount was, even if they can’t document it, “What’s odd, and proof that nothing terrible was going on is that those bills still got paid somehow. So somewhere there is money that couldn’t be accounted for that came in in cash that was used to pay those bills because they got paid, but we have no record of how. That’s the discrepancy. I don’t think there is any money missing or stolen.”
“I’m great at details in other places. Like event planning, keeping track of people and their needs and interests. But when it comes to money, I’m terrible at remembering that the few dollars I spent here or there adds up quick and needs to all be accounted for,” says director Magee in regards to the undocumented funds. “The busier the Center and I got, the worse this became. I would plan to make proper notation of something, a vendor I had paid or some supplies that I bought, and then would get perpetually side-tracked until I forgot about it completely. It’s not an excuse by any means, but it is the reason.”
When questions were raised in July of 2011 in the midst of their second funding crisis, SPC underwent an independent audit to examine the center’s finances. The audit would determine if the alleged possible problems with the bookkeeping were from sloppy record keeping, mismanagement, or rose to an actionable item under Minnesota law. The auditor says, “The audit did not find malfeasance, it was just complete ineptitude on what to do, how to do it, when to do it.” The audit recommended education on financial best practices for Magee and the board, stronger financial oversight by the board, and that two persons approve all expenses.
Although the auditor says s/he was not surprised the center was closing down, s/he was surprised the director and board did not act on the audit recommendations. “Teisha [Magee] does a lot of things right. Managing the paperwork side of business is not her strong point. The people on the board, the President, the Treasurer, controls were to be put into the place so that no one would ever be out of the loop again for finances. Someone was to be checking up on that weekly to make sure [what happened last year] didn’t happen again so I was surprised to find out that those protections weren’t happening. Nobody was doing any of that stuff.”
Magee says she wishes the center had had the money to hire a bookkeeper. “We all kept thinking it can’t be that difficult, we’ll just figure it out ourselves and get it done when we have time. Turns out, it’s very difficult,” says Magee. “We have an immensely complex business model, financially speaking, and we never have time to catch up on something that needs and deserves full time attention. We also kept hoping for a volunteer to come along to help us with it, but it turns out that that was simply unrealistic. It needs to be a paid position.”
The auditor agrees, “I’m not sure everyone was prepared for how much work it is to take care of all the small details and make sure things happen when they are supposed to happen. I think everybody thought it would be easy to do, just like balancing your checkbook at home, and it is not that simple.”
“We were basically an advisory council.” – Heather Roan-Robbins, SPC board member
Although the center went from being a sole proprietorship to a corporate non-profit, the day to day governing of the center didn’t change. Under Minnesota law a corporate non-profit isn’t required to have a board. The decision making and the finances stayed under Magee’s authority after she elected to form a board to assist the center. When Magee was asked if the board was a working board or an advisory council she said, “The intention was that they would be a working board, and they did do a lot. Frankly, I’m still feeling unclear about the difference between these definitions. Our boards have done so much, but were rarely involved in the day to day operations. They did tend to be more about ideas for the future and less about how we were dealing day by day with reality. So, maybe the answer is both and that may be part of the problem.”
In a move to clarify the board’s role and responsibility, a new set of by-laws was created in August 2011. Even after those by-laws were adopted, the board for SPC continued to function in an advisory role, and board members either didn’t have the authority to make decisions concerning the center or were not knowledgeable enough about a board member’s customary responsibilities to do so. Ciaran Benson explains, “There would be a new board, like the one I and Clark [Stone] were on, and we’d read the by-laws and think that was our job descriptions and we’d go out and try to do our jobs which would bring us into conflict with Teisha [Magee] because we were getting into stuff that was really her domain.”
The auditor also noticed confusion between the board and Magee during her audit. S/he made recommendations s/he felt cleared up the confusion and helped the board take on a larger role in running the center. “When the big funding problem happened last summer and we talked about the restructuring that needed to happen and all the recommendations that I made, it really came down to this isn’t just a friendly buddy-buddy system, you have to document this stuff,” explained the auditor. The auditor believes a lack of knowledge and skills from the the board and the director prevented them from implementing the recommendation, “Going forward, the board and Teisha [Magee] both agreed that would happen. Looks like neither of them understood what they were agreeing to at the time or worked to make that happen.”
Benson says there were board members who felt that the board should be responsible for, and have access to, the financial health of the center, but the majority of the board disagreed. “The majority of the board saw the board’s role as being spiritual advisers, and helping to guide the mission of the Center. Quoting them the bylaws and introducing board training from the Minnesota Council of Non Profits didn’t clarify anything , it just made people more resolute [against involvement with center finances].
Lack of Start Up Funding and Reserves
Once your expenses start, you never catch back up if you get behind. – SPC Auditor
The start up funding of SPC consisted of the private funds from Magee and $1500 raised from supporters after a few weeks. With fixed expenses coming in at around $4000 a month, that’s not generally considered sufficient cash reserves. Small business experts suggest a new business have between six months to two years operating expenses saved and in the bank before they open their doors. This is in addition to the one time costs associated with starting a business like buying equipment or renovating your space. Businesses can cut costs if some of the work can be done by volunteers or people are willing to donate goods and services.
SPC had many volunteers willing to help get it ready to open its doors and so their start up costs were light. What they didn’t have was a cash reserve built up to help them through lean times. They started out, almost from the beginning, behind in their bills and without a cash reserve built up, the center experienced repeated financial crises.
Six months after SPC opened, the community was told they were holding an emergency fundraiser to help pay bills that had piled up. The funds were raised. During 2010 the center was barely financially stable and its August fund raiser was held to build up cash reserves. Only a modest $3000 was raised at the event. Then the road to SPC underwent a two year construction and revenue from the front store dropped. In July of 2011 the center said it needed $12,000 within a month to pay past due bills or the center would close. Pagans from across the country donated and the amount was raised. But the center could not get ahead of the bills or build a reserve. “… they would get behind, we would have a fundraiser, the community would raise large sums of money, and then that money would pay off all the back bills and then the next month they are in the same boat,” said SPC Volunteer Coordinator Becky Munson.
Volunteers are one of the reasons the center stayed viable for as long as it did. Every person who staffed the center was a volunteer, even the owner and Executive Director Teisha Magee. Magee worked all day, most days at the center and she did so without drawing a salary. This is a considerable savings as the average community center director in Minneapolis brings home $78,000 a year. She says that the past three years have been thrilling and an amazing adventure for her family, but it came with a cost, “…it’s caused us to miss a lot of things in our private lives as well. I have cooked almost nothing in my own kitchen in over three years! Nearly all of our birthdays have been celebrated at the Center and we’ve missed countless other events and occasions because of my commitments here.”
Munson says Magee was at the center all the time, even when other volunteers were helping out. “I can’t even quantify how many hours I’ve seen her put in and I know there are so many more beyond that I didn’t experience. She puts in all of her time all of her energy and her own money to keep it going. She’s really given a lot. It’s amazing.”
They tore up the street. You couldn’t park, you couldn’t get to the place for a year. So what little income was coming in was gone. I teach classes there and my students couldn’t get to my classes. – Heather Roan-Robbins, SPC board member
777 Raymond Avenue seemed like the ideal place for a Pagan shop and community center. The neighborhood was welcoming and eclectic and the landlord was friendly. It was on the bus line, had ample parking, and was very spacious. It was also expensive and grew more expensive. The rent, set at $1500 when Magee signed the lease, rose to just over $2000 in 2011, and was negotiated back down to $1500 for 2012. Utilities averaged barely under $1000 a month and board members suspect they paid the entire building’s utilities, but couldn’t resolve the dispute.
The center adjusted to the expenses during the last part of 2009 and seemed to hit their stride in 2010. The store was bringing in the lion’s share of income, but memberships and room rentals were up. They learned the business cycle and knew to plan for slower summers and busier winters.
Then construction for a light rail track started. It was a very large straw that broke the camel’s back. Getting to the center became increasingly difficult. Parking got harder to find. In 2011 memberships started to drop as did store revenues. What little cash reserves they built up in 2010 were quickly used. Businesses around the center struggled and a few of them failed.
“If the light rail, the economy and the surprisingly expensive building hadn’t conspired to make this venture extra hard, I think we would still be at it,” Magee says. “You only have to look around the neighborhood and count the endless number of vacancies to know that it was not my bookkeeping skills alone that caused us to close at this time.”
The center had considered moving, and in late 2011 and early 2012 it became more of a priority. “The space was too expensive. We had a space committee looking, but we never found a good alternative, but I’m sure there is one out there,” said Roan-Robbins. They needed a rental that had enough space to hold rituals and private rooms for healers and readers and an accessible library.
Which brings us to three months unpaid rent, the phones shut off, and Magee facing up to $25,000 in debt when all accounts are settled.
Was SPC a Success?
In its three years the SPC generated more community than the last twenty. – Ken Ra, on the Sacred Paths Center Facebook group
If the measuring stick for that question is, “Did they stay in business?” the answer would be they enjoyed limited success. If success is measured by business acumen and non-profit best practices, they can only be described as, in the auditor’s words, “Complete ineptitude.” Those are both “back of the house” ways of looking at the community center.
What is clear is that the community gave significant monetary and volunteer support to the center. “I know it looks like Pagans can’t support things like community centers. That they aren’t willing to step up. Not true,” says Stone. “The money for a community center was there. In every way the community supported the center. They increased donations, attendance increased, more events were there, memberships increased.” In 2011 the center brought in approximately $50,000 in revenue. In February they generated $4000 in revenue and in March, the center received $440 in membership dues alone.
Benson echoed that sentiment, but added that Pagans need to learn the business skills that make projects like this successful. “The community support is there, but you need to take advantage of the existing best practices of non-profits and not reinvent the wheel. Pagans are always trying to reinvent the wheel and that doesn’t always work.”
If the center is judged by how well it accomplished its mission, “To provide a place where people can come to dream, explore, learn and teach in a sacred and safe environment as they travel their spiritual path” was SPC a success?
The center was heavily and consistently used, hosting between 45-50 scheduled events per month. There were weekly gatherings such as the Monday night potluck and the Thursday night Mentoring Elders program. The community enjoyed concerts by Murphey’s Midnight Rounders, Celia, Sharon Knight, and S.J. Tucker. Witch wars were laid to rest at SPC, the most notable being the rift healed between the Minnesota Church of Wicca and the Wiccan Church of Minnesota. Photos and ashes rest on the memorial ancestor shrine. Fundraisers were held for community members facing costly illnesses.
Magee is proud of the center and all it accomplished, “The customers who found the exact person, resource or item that they needed. The numerous teens doing research projects that dragged their parents to our doors to prove that Paganism is not scary. The people pouring their hearts out to us at the counter because they knew that it was safe to do so. We all need safe spaces, I’m proud that we have provided that.”
Magee says many people are asking her if she will reopen Sacred Paths Center or start a new community center. She says she is not sure what she will do. “I’m so very tired right now. Tired from the heartache, tired of the rumors, tired from the stress of running a business that is not thriving.” When asked if it was worth it, she responds, “Of course.”
Benson relates one of the most illustrative stories of how the center served the community. The center was closed for inventory when Benson and Magee found a woman crying outside the center’s locked door. Her partner had recently died. She told Benson and Magee that her and her partner had talked about going to the center, but had never gotten around to it. She asked them if she could come in. “We stopped the audit, we opened our doors, we let her in, we offered her tea and listened to her story,” Benson related. “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.” He continued, “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.”