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Grant spurs training tool to prevent nonprofit executive fraud, misconduct

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas researcher will study a Lawrence food bank's response to and recovery from executive fraud and misconduct as a part of a grant from The Hubert Project.

Heather Getha-Taylor, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs & Administration, said the award supports creation of open-source multimedia learning materials to help address contemporary public and nonprofit management topics.

For the case study, she will interview Just Food staff and board members who have worked to recover from the embezzlement of former executive director Jeremy Farmer, who resigned in 2015. In 2016, he pleaded guilty in federal court to a charge related to stealing from the Lawrence food bank.

"My hope is that the Just Food experience would provide an educational moment for students and organizations," Getha-Taylor said. "This project can help tell the story of the hard work that Just Food has done in terms of recovering from executive misconduct."

New Executive Director Elizabeth Keever has received community awards for helping navigate Just Food through the rocky times, and Getha-Taylor said she also is planning to shed light on leadership of board members to address accountability issues and put control systems in place going forward.

Just Food's story would be valuable for nonprofit organizations across the country to be able to educate themselves and perhaps look internally at their own processes, she said.

"The values of the nonprofit sector are all about a commitment to service," Getha-Taylor said. "Yet there is a risk for fraud. There are external controls, but those mechanisms are limited and can't prevent all potential acts of malfeasance."

Just Food's board members have worked hard to seek to rebuild the trust in the community, she said, and relied on donations to address unpaid taxes under Farmer's leadership and to continue to raise money to keep operating and serving those in need of food in the community.  

Heather Odell, a KU master's of public administration student, will contribute to the development of the project as well. 

Getha-Taylor said ideally the open-sourced multimedia project when completed could be used in classrooms and training sessions across the country.

"This is a really valuable opportunity to bring scholarship and practice together," she said. "We have a teachable moment in our backyard. I want to be able to share this story in a way that others can learn from it."