Written by Heather Getha-Taylor, author of Hubert Project E-Case “Ripe for Change: Just Food’s Recovery from Executive Misconduct”
In Fall 2016, I taught a course on nonprofit management at the University of Kansas. In preparation for the session on financial management, I was struck by the scope of fraud and misconduct in charitable organizations. I selected some high-profile stories to present the myriad impacts of corruption on stakeholder trust, organizational reputation, and client services. Among those stories was one from our own backyard: the story of Jeremy Farmer and his 2015 embezzlement from Just Food, a food bank that serves Douglas County, Kansas.
One of the students in the class shared her thoughts on this unfortunate local story. Her comments helped move the conversation beyond the headline-grabbing elements of the situation to prompt the question: what can be learned from this example? That student, Heather Odell, partnered with me to tell the Just Food story in our Hubert Project e-case, Ripe for Change. This E-Case highlights the experiences of key organizational stakeholders, including current Just Food Executive Director, Elizabeth Keever, and Just Food board members Kristi Henderson and Nancy Thellman, who experienced the aftermath of Farmer’s misdeeds and together worked to ensure the organization’s recovery.
This E-Case demonstrates several key lessons. First, vulnerability for misconduct exists across organizations, and board members must be aware of their oversight roles. Second, even when board members act with diligence, covert malfeasance can still occur. Third, in the wake of a crisis, owning the issue and communicating openly goes a long way to foster stakeholder and community support for recovery. Fourth, with a commitment to change, organizations can be strengthened following a crisis. Finally, at all times, remember the mission.
The Just Food story shows what it is like to experience executive financial misconduct, but it is ultimately a story of hope. For other organizations experiencing similar circumstances, the Just Food recovery shows the power of resilience and the opportunity for regrowth. When Heather and I visited Just Food, we toured the organization’s garden area where fresh vegetables are grown. Over the garden is a wooden sign stenciled with “Just Grow,” a fitting summary for this story. Plants that successfully weather strong storms can continue to flourish. Just Food has learned how to “just grow” through adversity and emerge stronger in the process.