“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.”
31 thoughts on “After the obituary, a post-mortem on Sacred Paths Center”
Wow. So that’s what happened. What a shame. Maybe folks in Paganistan can use this experience to launch a new center in the near future.
The un-named auditor is the hero of this story as the only person willing to say “complete ineptitude” in a public forum. If Twin Cities Pagans ever attempt a an actual community center (as opposed to a private business calling itself a community center) I sincerely hope they’ll offer the brave but anonymous auditor the position of executive director.
But then, the willing to make such a statement in a public forum could also indicate a lack of the tact which would be necessary to be successful as the executive director. If things are to be run as a business, then it might be more appropriate to say that this individual should be offered an INTERVIEW for the position of executive director.
Being honest and straight-forward with facts and opinions s/he was tasked with bringing out isn’t lack of tact, it’s doing the job s/he was asked to do. The kind of “we don’t want to blame or find fault” tact of the previous SPC board of directors was part of the problem.
If another community center is ever going to succeed it will need leadership that’s not afraid to speak the truth even if it’s unpopular.
Just because one is an auditor does not mean that they would make a good executive director. Being an executive director requires you to have, and keep, tons of balls in the air. It’s one of the reasons 501c3’s require a working board of directors. So one person doesn’t have to be responsible for everything in a non-profit (potentially non-paid) situation.
I personally find “complete ineptitude” to be a little mean spirited when said in a public forum, but to be honest, it’s one of the reasons I never pushed to get involved at the center. Lack of business acumen. I asked if they could set me up with a membership 3 times while at SPC, and was just referred to the website. After the third time, I just decided to forget it. Twice I tried to special order from the store and never heard back. As someone who has been involved in business ventures before, and someone with business training, that just looks like turning down money, to me.
Personally, I’m hoping that the center does eventually reopen under 501c3 status, with a full working board of directors. No CEO, just a group of accountable people with transparent processes.
The SPC was not just calling itself a community center, it was behaving as one. And although there was ineptitude in management and accounting (which was reported in detail in 2011’s audit results – available on the SPC website) there was considerable aptitude displayed in surviving for three plus years.
There are few Pagan organizations in the US that have had the acumen to garner $50K in support annually, and not a lot of companies survive for 3+ years – even when they have great accountants on staff.
Personally, I’m not convinced that an accountant in charge of the SPC would have done as well as a non-accountant did, just as my personal experience with the community center has taught me that a business manager such as myself would have not done as well either.
The core of the community center was Teisha and the few individuals who volunteered there regularly, and it was their personalities and their willingness to accept people into the Center, and to get them involved, that made the SPC some place that people wanted to be, and wanted to support.
There’s something special and, frankly, quite magical in what Teisha has been able to accomplish. Accuracy and processes and practices need to be improved – yes. But spirit and friendship are why these kinds of community centers exist, and represent their primary “product”.
Agreed – future centers would do very well to make sure that management, practices, and procedures are in place BEFORE they open the doors, and stay an important part of the heart of the center. But it takes people and time to keep those practices and procedures in place.
And while I sincerely doubt that the anonymously brave auditor would have been wiling to work 60 to 80 hour weeks for 3+ years in an unpaid position :), hopefully in the future more people with the professional skills necessary to make a successful community center will step forward and find ways that they can get involved and help with the daily operation of the center. With the exception of a very few individuals, the SPC just did not have that advantage.
The auditor might be better suited to Chief Financial Officer. Executive Directors usually have the responsibilities that involve direct interaction with both employees and volunteers of the organization,
working with the Board of Directors to ensure the entity is functioning according to its mission statement and goals, and working with financial officers to ensure the non-profit is working within its budget.
To JRobs point CFOs aren’t as ‘outward facing’ as EDs who are the Face of the non-profit.
I think that Tiesha had too much on her plate and especially in areas that were not her strong suit. Daily operations (tactical) are a completely different skill set than Strategic visioning (which is what most CEOs or EDs do). Tiesha was trying to take on programming (again a different skillset), finances, retail operations, etc, etc, etc. all unique skillsets to each one.
People like to talk about non-profit size in terms of ability to raise financial support, but there is another aspect to determine size of an organization and that is the scope of the mission. Sacred Path’s scope was very ambitious, but the operational model to support it wasn’t in place to support that wide of a scope of mission.
I hope the community as a whole can come together to strategize how to begin a new journey to create a truly and legally recognized non-profit community center. It’s something that is going to need planning up front, and people with experience in all the different skill sets to make it work.
Robin, you have a good point about scope vs. financial support. In the last six months I was on the board, we were able to determine we had tapped 3% of the possible Pagan donors. Now, if you know anything about direct marketing, you know 1% is standard, normal, what to expect. 2% is big smile territory. 3% is OMG-land. Anything above that, and helmets are issued because heads are exploding. We got 3%.
It wasn’t enough. Even if we had cut our biggest expense in half, it wouldn’t have been enough. At that point, we had done all we could with the membership model, and we had to start cultivating another model. Note I did not say “abandon the membership model and cultivate another model”; I said cultivate ANOTHER model, and I meant TOO.
We decided we would push our education. We decided we would reach out to other-than-NeoPagan metaphysicalists, like EK or Bahai or who-freaking-ever was alt-religion. And we started doing that.
It required a new level of order we were not able to achieve. Many things were “clear only if known”, Teisha was the only one who knew them, and we somehow couldn’t make the cutover where she trained someone to do it and then that someone did it. And sometimes when we did make the cutover, it was like watching a post war on a blog: something would get changed, then get changed back, then get changed again–“clear only if known” fighting against “seems most practical” plus a comm fault.
And none of it could be done on Pagan Standard Time. For the new model to succeed, deadlines had to be made, had to be hard, and had to be stuck to. Committees had to meet regularly, not “every two weeks or so, maybe, unless something comes up, but we’ll get it next month for sure”. Resources had to be tightly scheduled, which meant courses had to start on time, and so on. We had to plan our fundraisers six months in advance, prep and review the content for the media, meet newsletter and social media deadlines, etc. And so on. Another uphill battle.
I think an SPC 2.0 (positive meanings of that) is possible in the Twin Cities. I also think NO ONE should fool themselves about how much work it is to make a real community center that really serves not just the Pagan community but every alt-community we’ve got. And in the Twin Cities, we’ve got. That diversity makes it a big job and an exciting challenge. Good luck to whoever is next.
Actually, I’d ask her to be the Treasurer!
PLEASE REPLACE ABOVE COMMENT WITH:
Actually, I’d ask the Auditor to be the Treasurer!
It IS remarkable that solicitations of the donor list got a 3% response. BUT, a community center is very different from a public charity. And a membership organization is very different than a sole proprietorship.
To anyone outside of the Pagan community, the complexity of the SPC business model, combined with lack of transparency would have suggested possible fraud, and that probably scared away a lot of potential members, especially those with significant expertise which SPC needed.
To people with long experience in the Pagan community nationwide, SPC looked like it was run by wonderful people who didn’t grasp how to operate a community center, and insisted on inventing the wheel and making all their own mistakes.
Like most Pagan institutions, SPC was functionally a sole proprietorship. People normally don’t donate to sole proprietorships, no matter how much good they do for the community; they support sole proprietorships by SPENDING there. This model works well for selling goods and services, and — as Eye of Horus demonstates — can also provide meeting space on a rental or free basis.
But the sole proprietorship model is structurally inadequate to a community center.
A community is gathered around shared values and gives most generously when they feel that THEY own it.
Thank you for this story. It’s a good one, and one from which I’m sure ALL of us in the community can learn.
It sounds like they accomplished some amazing things, and I hope they are able to regroup and get a new start in the future!
A magnificent article – thank you for all your hard work.
Pagans seem unwilling to support brick and mortar places period. We at the Maetreum of Cybele are still fighting for our lives against the Town of Catskill over our property tax exemption. We are incorporated, our corporation is IRS 501(c)3 recognized, we have NO employees. We have always been open to the public, raised our own operating expenses, own our property. We have been doing the charitable work all along that Pagans are often accused of not doing. We always have opened our property to all Pagans and Pagan groups to share without cost. We shelter women in need and even recently got a young woman from Nepal through the asylum process. We have been fighting the good fight for recognition of Pagan religious groups for five years now but still need to come up with over ten thousand dollars for our legal bills right at the end of that fight. Please consider donating to our legal fees, it’s tax deductible.
If every Pagan reading this made just a five dollar donations, we would be out of the hole. Donations can be paypaled to email@example.com,
The Sacred Paths Centre failed, we are still here. Help us stay around to continue to help others.
No offence, Cathryn, but you apparently read a different article than I did. The local community most definitely did work to support the community center, and had the community center acted on the recommendations the auditor gave, they may have actually managed to survive, at least until the four year mark.
Your situation is completely different from the one they face, and I’ll be honest, reading this comment here almost makes me not want to donate to the Maetreum. I’m going to, next pay check, but that’s more because I believe that this case of religious descrimination needs to be fought to the bankruptcy of Catskill, not because I feel any particular affection for you or the Matreum.
I think the failure of brick and mortar places is epidemic across the country. I’ve seen it in each of the 4 different states I’ve lived in. While SPC lasted as long as it did thanks to great community involvement, that involvement lacked the $ to survive. Like it or not, money is a necessary beast we all have to contend with.
In my own community, there was an idea pitched a few years ago about a community center. There was a building and the parties involved were all gung-ho about signing a lease and opening doors. When I brought up the harsh realities of managing that enterprise, I was met with deafening silence and told they’d “get back to me” in a few days with a business plan. I’m still waiting on that…
My own failure with SAPA (San Antonio Pagan Alliance) came about from a distinct lack of involvement from the community, including the other board members. I exhausted myself physically and financially for over a year and learned that the only people I could truly count on to show up or participate in anything were my own coven sisters. At this point, THEY are my community and it will be a long, long time before I stick my neck out to help the apathetic group who like to call themselves the Big Shots here.
Fantastic article, Cara! Thank you so much for your work on this. Wow! A lot more in-depth than I had expected.
Good work, Cara. Exactly the well-reasoned, even-handed reportage I have come to expect from you.
Thank you for the in-depth and considered report- one clarification: when I said “the main problem at Spc – the income (money/energy) and outflow did not match-” I was not implying that money was being syphoned off, just that in any given month we were taking in less than the bills required.
To those looking to start a pagan community center in the future–We needed better accounting, yes,absolutely; but that would not have solved the problem. We also needed better income stream and lower expenses. Income is harder to grow when a community is ambiguous (as this one is) about how visible it wants to be. We cannot keep asking the same people to give more than they have— we needed to either shrink our expenses and human power needs considerably– or grow the community to broaden the resources/energy coming in, and that requires being willing to be visible with a clear, inclusive message and purpose.
We had heart, and the heart/hearthfire is there in this community- now how can we build it a good strong vessel….
I am not a pagan, but my wife is, and she has given money to SPC, and to previous similar organizations, such as the Alexander library. So I have a financial interest, and I do hope a better organization arises next time.
I am a CPA and have been on the Board of a couple of non-profits, both of which were somewhat similar in size to SPC, based on the amount of money coming in and going out. I think it was the Board that was the most negligent in this case.
On both of the Boards I was on, we received financial reports every month. I was the Treasurer in both cases, but you certainly don’t need to be an accountant to be a good treasurer. You just need to be comfortable with numbers. I realize that isn’t a common pagan skill, but I am sure there are some amongst you. ;>)
If I was on a Board that received no financial statements, I would have resigned immediately, because the organization would be using my position to indicate that there was outside monitoring when it wasn’t true. For those who want to be spiritual guides and ignore the finances altogether, please resign your position as a Board member, because that a main component of what a Board member does.
I don’t understand Magee’s comment that the bookkeeping was so hard because of the “immensely complex business model.” Bookkeeping is not that hard, under any model. But it is time consuming. At both of the non-profits I was at, we had part-time bookkeepers doing the detail work, and putting the information on Quickbooks. We paid them maybe $10-20,000 per year. I think the next organization needs to bite the bullet and spend this money.
It was stated that it wasn’t the accounting that doomed the organization, but how do you know? The information simply wasn’t available. A good financial system isn’t sufficient for long-term health, but it is necessary. SPC only lasted so long because it got so much support, despite its financial ineptitude. Who knows what would have happened if the Board had received timely financial information and taken appropriate action?
I hope the next such organization is started up by the community instead of run by one person. It’s been done before, that’s why Wicom was an improvement over MCOW. And the controls are put in right away and the Board members take their role seriously. Otherwise future contributions will be sending good money after bad.
I was on the board of the SPC. We received a balance sheet at every meeting. Nothing seemed awry until, as a volunteer, I started noticing that people were showing up to disconnect services that had been reported as having been paid for on the balance sheet. That “disconnect” between the reports and reality is actually what initiated our first audits.
And, as the audit showed, the balance sheets were not factual and did not represent the actual flow of money in the company.
As a CPA, I can certainly understand why you might not understand why someone else without your training or experience would see accounting as difficult. It would have been very helpful if you, or someone with skills such as yours, would have volunteered your services to help when the SPC needed you.
Either way, the SPC did not have $10-$20,000 per year to pay for accounting services. I think your expectation that they should have “bitten the bullet” and paid that kind of amount is unreasonable, given the financial data that we’ve already released.
I do agree that boards of community centers, especially when organized as non-profits in Minnesota, have a fiduciary responsibility that should be taken seriously from the onset.
However, instilling that mindset at the 2 year mark in an established organization is not an easy undertaking. I personally think that it would be best if any others contemplating their own community centers make a sincere effort to follow the MNCN’s guidelines for best practices for non-profits.
But, I would think that – being that is where I’m coming from.
Truth be told, the accounting is only a part of the problem, and only a part of the solution. Having a $20,000 accounting system in place would not have saved the SPC in its current location.
I would also add than an example of the financial data the board was given and was working with is available on the website:
Click to access 2011_q1_report.pdf
As you can see from the report, it was clear that the SPC was having some financial difficulty, but there was no indication at that time that the numbers we were working with were not perfectly valid and reasonable representations of the real world.
It’s not the kind of financial report that a company making more than $25K/annum probably normally sees, but it did need to be able to effectively communicate with individuals who, for the most part, were only just beginning to receive business and financial training.
Having gone through Teisha’s Excel spreadsheets to create those reports myself, it looked for all intents and purposes like a rather simplistic, but certainly functional accounting system was in place.
Its not the system I would have used, but it looked like it was working for Teisha.
Which I guess is a part of the magic of what Teisha was able to do – without really any financial or accounting training herself, and with accounting practices that she herself has described as being mostly made up after the fact, the board was really getting a lot of what looked like real data. And when we asked that the “misc” be decreased from $600/month, it was.
And, for the most part, and “on average”, the operation was able to get by with the financial controls that it had.
We could see that there was room for improvement, but as has already been pointed out – there was no indication that the numbers we were getting weren’t coming out of a tangible and completely adequate (although highly personalized and eternally temporarily inaccessible) contemporaneous system.
You are right, I seem to have mis-interpreted some of the article above. It appeared to me that the Board wasn’t receiving financial reports. It sounds like you got them, but they simply weren’t accurate. I do wonder about the comment in the article towards the end when Magee said that rent was paid up when in fact it was still three months in arrears. A financial statement should have made the late payments clear, as showing no rent expense for three months. So does that mean that the financial statement was falsified, or just that the statement was very confusing so as not to make it clear about the missing rent payments?
Also SPC was smaller than I was thinking. Reading that report again, I see that $50,000 was the best year, so it was quite a bit smaller than the organizations I worked with. But that does mean that my estimate of $10-20,000 per year for a part-time bookkeeper was also over-stated.
In any case, financial integrity of an organization is essential to its continued existence. Either enough money must be allocated to bookkeeping or a firm commitment of enough volunteer labor to do this work should be obtained before any general calls for donations go out. It is my opinion that even if it costs $10,000 per year to have good accounting, out of $50,000 donated, it is still worth it, because at least the other $40,000 is much more likely to spent well. Otherwise, all $50,000 is unaccounted for. I will not spend my money for any such unaccounted activity.
Anytime someone refers to the amount of money that was raised as if it’s a stupendous amount, I’m kinda amazed. Really, we’re talking around $50,000 per year. That might seem like a lot compared to the average income of people reading this, but for a business like this, that’s very little. Anyone with any experience with a small business should be amazed and impressed that they managed to stay open for as long as they did with such a small amount of income. It really speaks to the dedication and resourcefulness of everyone associated with the center that they managed to accomplish this.
I know that I will miss Sacred Paths and the help it provided to my own business..Keys of Paradise started around the same time that Sacred Paths started and Sacred Paths was where we tried out a lot of our new products and got a lot of feedback. I learned a lot from Teisha and will be forever thankful for what Sacred Paths helped me and Keys of Paradise achieve.
I’m going to be frank, and I know a lot of people won’t like hearing this, but making excuses and defending what the people who ran SPC won’t help the next group of people who try to open a Pagan community centre. I have no doubt that the people who ran SPC were good people and an asset to the community. I don’t doubt that they had the best intentions at heart – but I think we’ve all heard numerous times where the road paved with good intentions leads.
The fact of the matter is that you need business people to run a business. I get that there was no malice intended on the part of the board or the ED, but they were still irresponsible with the community’s money. They stayed open so long because they were getting a lot of community support and the respect that those funds deserved was not given. The same sloppy accounting and financial practises were continued after they were highlighted by the auditor. And there is no excuse for that.
I think that the next time folks get together to open a place that has the dream of serving the community in a spiritual sense, they need to make sure that they have those with the business sense behind the scenes doing the work that will keep the doors open. Part of being honest with your short comings is that you find the people who are strong where you are weak (that’s one of the first things you learn about when you take a small business course).
Service to the community isn’t just about being there to offer a shoulder or an understanding ear, it’s about making sure that the work that needs to be done to KEEP YOU THERE is done. And sometimes that means that you have to pay a salary. It shouldn’t be expected that the community will offer volunteers. IMO, that takes for granted the generosity of those who offer of their time. If you can get those with business skills as volunteers, that’s gravy. But to imply that because those people are unable or unwilling to give their time to you for free are somehow also to blame is an attitude of entitlement that a non-profit really shouldn’t have.
I personally would love to see every major city in North America have a Pagan interfaith community centre. I would even volunteer if there were one close to me. But dreams and ideals without business sense will only continue to waste the community’s money, and that’s something that we all need to take very seriously.
Since there is no “like” button: +1.
Just because a person doesn’t understand how to run a business (which has components of administration, relations, accounting, marketing, operations, on and on..), doesn’t make them any less of a person. That just means they don’t have one or more of the necessary skill sets to make a business go all on their own. That’s what having multiple people with specific specialties is all about. As a technologist, I appreciate having business people that take care of marketing my software, and doing my books. Why? Because I recognize that those aren’t my strong suits. I’m best at (and I’d rather be) coding. While I have greater and lesser levels in the other skill sets, I generally prefer that someone else do them.
There’s a saying: 90% of being smart is recognizing what you’re good at, and doing that.
Teisha did a great job, with the skills she had. Ideally, we take away some positive (and negative) lessons learn from this, and when the opportunity for another spiritual community center comes around, apply those lessons. We, as a community, owe ourselves nothing less than the truth. In the end, it will make our next attempts stronger and more successful if we apply those lessons.
Comments are closed.