The agency was officially without a leader after former BBBS director Dale Suttles, a Boyle resident and current director of advancement at Sunrise Children's Services, stepped down, citing a desire to be closer to home.
In February, BBBS turned to Eric Ward, who spent 10 years as the athletic director at Georgetown College, to simultaneously reassure donors while making some massive changes to the way the organization is structured. Ward had been friends with Stein since helping Stein, the founding owner of the Lexington Legends, get the franchise off the ground, but had not been involved with BBBS.
“I read the article in the paper in January (about the financial problems), and as soon as I was done reading, I called Alan,” said Ward, who was making the rounds to local groups Thursday. “We had to raise enough money just to get to the point where we could raise money.”
The initial call for donations yielded about $230,000, and the Bowl for Kids Sake fundraiser, which was about two weeks away when Ward was hired, brought in $200,000 more.
Besides the fundraising push, Ward began overhauling the company’s finances and management, slashing operating costs, paying off $43,000 of the $83,000 in past-due accounts payable and reworking the budget for the rest of 2012.
Ward said a staff that was more than 30 people at the time money was discovered missing has been reduced to 10. Ward said most of the remaining employees have had their job descriptions changed to use the talents already in-house.
Instead of trying to restart the program in the entire service area, Ward said the emphasis instead will be on growing and strengthening the program in counties that were already among the most active.
Before the financial problems were discovered, Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass served Anderson, Bourbon, Boyle, Clark, Fayette, Franklin, Garrard, Jessamine, Lincoln, Madison, Mercer, Montgomery, Scott and Woodford counties. While existing matches between big and little brothers and sisters will still be supported, Ward said the group will be more aggressive in Boyle, Fayette, Madison and Montgomery, where participation numbers have been the highest in the past.
The current 20-person board likely will be shuffled when the annual meeting is held in the next 60-90 days. The new board will be charged with charting the way forward by creating a new strategic plan.
“The next eight months will be very important, but I can tell you we will get through the next eight months,” Ward said. “For the first three months, I couldn’t tell you if we would make it through the next 30 days, so it’s encouraging.”
While there was some concern among some participants due to public speculation about whether the organization would dissolve, Ward said it didn’t impact the hundreds of big and little brothers and sisters. Despite the upheaval, Ward said there wasn’t a single match that has been disrupted.
If the enduring matches between little and big brothers and sisters are testaments to the quality and stability of the actual program’s model, Ward acknowledged the business side of BBBS was a mess.
“I can’t say at this point there was a responsible use of resources,” Ward said “We should have been able to withstand that, but there were weaknesses in business practices. The (embezzlement) just caused those to be exposed.”
Cutting personnel and closing offices were only symptoms of endemic problems Ward believes have now been addressed. To those with lingering doubts about the financial future of the group, he said the old business model and the lax business practices are a thing of the past and he foresees a renaissance for a program that has proved it can work for decades.
“We can’t just think outside the box,” Ward said. “We have to destroy the box so there is no temptation to crawl back inside.”