Alleged PTO Theft Shows Need for Safeguards



A parent-teacher organization in Sarasota says it will review its safety precautions following accusations one of its volunteers stole more than $7,000. “We’re just assuring all of our donors we will take every precaution to reasonably safeguard funds,” says Caprill Hembree, president of the Southside Elementary Parent Teacher Organization.

Sarasota police say Tiffani Donovan, 48, stole checks made out to the PTO and deposited them in her own personal bank accounts, Police arrested Donovan last week on 11 counts of Uttering a Forged Check and one count of Scheme to Defraud. Police say between July 4 and Dec. 17, 11 checks totaling $7,325 made payable to the PTO and endorsed by Donovan were deposited into Donovan’s personal account.

Donovan’s LinkedIn page identified her as director of Advertising Print and Digital for Sarasota Magazine, though that page can no longer be viewed. Calls to Donovan’s voicemail at Sarasota Magazine and to her home were not returned. Publisher Kelley Lavin informed SRQ that Donovan was no longer employed by Sarasota Magazine.

Experts say embezzlement by volunteers has grown as a problem for nonprofits over the past decade. Robert Benton, a partner at Washington, D.C. law firm Wiley Rein, noted a Washington Post investigation that showed more than 1,000 nonprofits between 2008 and 2012 reported “significant diversion of assets” in their IRS-required 990 financial disclosure forms. “The best answer is for nonprofits to adopt as sophisticated a set of financial controls as is reasonable for an entity of their size and their budget,” he told SRQ. At a minimum, that should include having different people who process requests for checks and who write them and requiring multiple signatures for checks exceeding certain monetary thresholds.

Since the arrest last week, Sarasota County School District officials say Donovan has been blocked from its volunteer list and will no longer be able to volunteer at any school in the district, pending the outcome of the ongoing investigation. District officials stressed the funds in question were not school district funds, but funds for the independent PTO.

“Nonprofits in their rush to do good, which they do a lot of, sometimes assume people trying to help them do good are honest, and that’s oftentimes a bad assumption.” Benton said. He recommended any small nonprofit work with a local accountant to make sure appropriate protections guard the organization from embezzlement.

Hembree said the Southside PTO became alerted to a potential theft by other donors and followed up on facts immediately. After an internal investigation discovered a problem, Hembree said the organization went to police. But she’s unsure what could have been done to prevent abuse in advance of a situation unfolding. “We have a really good system in place, but when someone is going to take advantage of the system, someone will take advantage,” she said. “We do plan to put in some more checks and balances, and we already have a lot of communication with our volunteers.”

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