This is the second Sam Sector III case. If you check on a regular basis you can follow the escapades of Sam “the greatest and only nonprofit detective in the world” as he answers the questions facing today’s nonprofit leaders. Each installment will take only a couple of minutes to read, will provide you with some information, and will end in a bit of a cliff-hanger so that you will return in about 7-10 days to find out what happened. This of course is fun for me, and a different way to get information out to all of you who have an interest. Please let me know if you like it, hate it, or wish that Sam would find a real job that pays.
Sam perched, legs crossed, on the edge of Stella’s desk. His hardworking, underpaid secretary’s fingers flashed across the keyboard of the 1985 Mac SE. “Criminy Sam, if you want me to find that survey, it would help if I had equipment made in this century!” With that she smacked the right side of the screen, the corner with the duct tape holding it together, and the computer came to life. “Here, is this the one you wanted?” Sam squinted hard at the tiny screen. “Yeah, that’s the ticket. Print me out a copy. I guess I know what the staff will tell me, but ya gotta trust the process Stella, so I’m gonna start with a board and staff survey.” Sam glanced at the survey and stuffed it in his inside jacket pocket. “I’ll get this over to Social Service, Inc. later today; meanwhile, I wanna stop and see Harry to hear what’s shakin’ in the foundation world. Oh, can you call Gert and ask her to meet me for lunch tomorrow at the Shed, make a reservation, say 11:45 before they get crowded. I wanna talk with her about implementing change.” Stella rolled her eyes and cracked her Black Jack gum. “Come on Sam, the Shed hasn’t been busy since the ‘20s. I think you’re the only reason that they stay in business. You don’t need a reservation at any time.” Sam growled at Stella and headed back down the stairs, two at a time to convince himself that he still had it.
At the Dew Drop Inn, Harry, the owner and retired nonprofit executive director, was behind the bar as usual, wiping the dark wood to bring up the shine. “Heya Harry, what’s shakin’?” Harry looked up as Sam sat on a bar stool. “I got some nice pickled eggs, pumpernickel and some beer cheese to go with a pint of stout, whatta ya say, Sammy?”
“Set me up, Harry. I need some information about Social Service, Inc. and the foundations. Whatta ya hear?”
Harry unscrewed the top of the pickled egg jar, plunged his hand in the brine and pulled out two eggs. He rolled them on a paper napkin in front of Sam and added a big chunk of black bread and wedge of moldy looking cheese. Sam’s eyes watered as he took a bite of the pungent cheese. As Harry drew the stout, he looked at the tin ceiling and wrinkled his brow. “There are some problems there, Sam. I hear that some of the big foundations want to give’em a batch of money, but they don’t think that they can handle it. They need to improve their record keepin’ systems, the board’s bouncing between meddlin’ and not payin’ attention. I also know that one of their big funders is taking a look-see because they are concerned about how the money is being spent. They are concerned that SSI’s program restricted money may be supporting some of the new services that they are trying to start. It is the old story of a non-profit stretching beyond its capacity and getting caught up in poor reporting systems, lack of policies, and inadequate board oversight.”
Sam swallowed some stout, eyed the napkin with the spreading lavender brine around the half gnawed eggs, and reached in his pocket for some charcoal tablets to settle his stomach. “What would you do first in this one, Harry?”
“I’d work to solve the board oversight problem first, to show that I mean business and that these problems will not happen again, then I’d develop the appropriate policies to institutionalize the rules of the game, and finally move to create systems that meet the needs of both operations and monitoring. But ya gotta move fast on each or the word will be out on the street that they can’t handle it. Then, Katie bar the door, nobody will fund ‘em. Hey, how about some home-pickled, green tomatoes to go with the cheese, Sam?”
“Gotta go Harry, put’em in some wax paper for me to take.” Sam plopped a few saw bucks on the bar, dropped the wax paper packet of pickled tomatoes in his inside jacket pocket and headed out the door with his fedora at a jaunty angle.
He made the trip to St. Paul using the side streets so as not to put too much strain on the ’60 Ford Falcon. When he arrived at Social Service, Inc., Sam made certain to slip in the side door so as not to announce his arrival. This gave him a chance to check out the staff situation without their knowing that he was there. What he saw was confirming. There was tension in the air. When people talked it was in low, hushed terms. This was certainly not an environment that promoted energy and creativity. Sam sashayed into the reception area to see how he would be received formally. “Hiya, Paula.” he read the name plate. “I’d like to meet with Les, if I could. Sam’s the name, detecting’s the game.” Paula smiled at Sam. “I know you, Mr. Sector, you are going to be working with us — and thanks for that — but I’m sorry, Les is not in right now. Would you like to speak to Martha, the associate director?”
“Sure.” Sam snorted, this was even better since he might learn something from the number two.
Martha was an experienced nonprofit manager nearing retirement. She looked like a no-nonsense type with a severe navy blue suit. She looked familiar, like Sam might have worked with her before on an earlier case.
“Good to see you again, Sam, let’s go into my office. Would you like some tea?”
Sam shook his head no, belched a combination of pickled egg and beer cheese, and popped another charcoal tab. “I just need a coupla things, Martha. I’d like to interview the board chair and two other members of the board. Maybe one other officer and perhaps a new member of the board — then I’d like to get out this survey for all the board and staff to take.” With that Sam reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out the folded up survey. As he spread it out on the table, Sam saw that the pickled tomatoes had leaked onto the paper and his jacket pocket was damp with pickle brine. Sam made a mental note not to transport pickles in wax paper in his pocket.
“Sure, Sam, here is the contact info on the board members, and I’ll get out this survey to the board and staff today.” She held the damp, aromatic paper at arm’s length so that it would not contaminate her suit.
“By the by,” Sam settled back in his chair. “How are things going from your perspective?”
“Not good, Sam.” Martha wrinkled her nose. “Les is getting down because he can’t figure out what the board wants him to do. I think that when we had budget problems last year, they lost confidence in Les and have started to second guess him at every turn. Because of this, Les is starting to worry about his job. You can guess what happens next. He starts trying to control everything, he appears threatening, he loses confidence in his staff, and morale plummets. Sam, we need to make some changes here, and we need to make them fast. Please move quickly to help the board understand their role.”
Sam nodded solemnly, rose from his chair, folded the paper with the board contact information and, without thinking, stuffed it into his pocket with the pickled tomatoes, and affixed his fedora low over his right eye. Just outside the building, Sam heard a hissing sound from the alley as a tall, thick, menacing-looking man in a trench coat moved toward him. Sam squared and prepared for action.
If you have ideas that can help Sam as he works on his current case, or if you have "cases" that you would like to see Sam take on, please email me.