Questions still remain about Strive to Excel

In the run-up to shutting down the Strive to Excel program at the end of 2011, it became clear that the nonprofit mentoring program's primary focus had become taking care of its executive director.

The group's latest tax filing shows that held through to the end.

As Strive closed out operations, it notified its lenders that it would not pay back the more than $155,000 it owed, according to its 2011 federal tax return filed earlier this month.

But its board voted to forgive Tim Singleton's outstanding note of $1,322 and turned over $7,785 in "various equipment" to him. Why and what he received is unclear.

Watching out for Singleton always seemed to take precedence. The board, whose members changed over the years, put his interests ahead of the long-term health of an organization whose stated purpose was to help at-risk young people prepare for college or technical school.

Singleton was left too much to his own devices, including writing his own paycheck and signing off on his own expense reimbursements, with no oversight from the organization's board.

The board had met infrequently in recent years and struggled to assemble a quorum when it did. According to Strive records, the board had not held a formal meeting since April 2008 until it reconstituted in September 2011.

According to Strive's 2011 tax return, which covered the period between June 1, 2011, and May 31, 2012, Singleton received $83,115 in compensation. The return also showed that contributions to Strive dropped. The organization brought in $109,300 less in contributions and grants than it did the year before. The money spent on scholarships, college campus visits and student mentoring and enrichment activities also declined.

That last item is the disheartening part of this story.

The current board members did make some things right. They donated money so that Strive could repay the Beaufort County School District for the insurance and benefits it provided Singleton, according to dissolution documents filed with the Secretary of State.

The school district also fell short in its duties when it came to Strive. It was only after questions were raised about the group's operations that it asked Strive to report on its activities and finances and eventually told the group it had to move out of Hilton Head Island High School by the end of 2011.

The school district had provided Strive rent-free space at the school, processed Singleton's payroll check and benefits plan for several years, and provided liability insurance under a blanket policy.

Accountability has been sorely lacking with Strive, but we're hopeful a state Attorney General's Office review of the group's finances and operations will shed some light. Last year, the office requested bank documents, meeting minutes and other documents from Strive.

A spokesman for the office said last week that he could not comment about Strive because of the ongoing investigation.

In January 2012, Strive was cited for filing incorrect financial statements under the state's Solicitation of Charitable Funds Act. Renee Daggerhart, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's office, said Strive was not fined because it submitted corrected reports within the 15-day window provided by law.

Many questions about Strive's operations remain unanswered. The S.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act indicates that when a nonprofit organization's bylaws don't provide specific provisions for disbanding, it must pay off debts and give remaining assets to other nonprofit organizations, the state or federal government, or to some other public purpose.

Did the transfer of assets to Singleton meet these requirements? Did the board have the authority to forgive Singleton's loan? Can the organization just walk away from money owed to its lenders?

Strive to Excel is an object lesson for nonprofit boards in this area. An organization's mission should take precedence over an individual's concerns. Boards have a fiduciary responsibility to the community from which they seek volunteer help and financial support.

That cautionary tale might be Strive to Excel's most lasting legacy.