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Richmond nonprofit dissolves; months later dozens of community groups still don’t have their money or answers

Laney Sullivan at Fonticello Food Forest in Richmond.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Laney Sullivan at Fonticello Food Forest in Richmond.

Last year a Richmond-based nonprofit quietly dissolved.

That’s not an unusual or especially newsworthy thing, but for the fact that this particular nonprofit served as a sort of bank for dozens of small community groups. Groups with volunteers who planted trees, cleaned parks, and restored old buildings on Richmond’s public lands.

And when Enrichmond dissolved, those community groups lost access to their money. They estimate hundreds of thousands of donated dollars just disappeared. Months later they still haven’t gotten answers.

Tucked amidst one of Richmond’s parks is Fonticello Food Forest. Laney Sullivan helps run the two-acre site – with gardens, fruit trees and community programming.

“We have every Wednesday free food distribution from 12 to 3 p.m.,” says Sullivan, sitting at a picnic table at the site.

They’re a small all-volunteer organization, and when they started they partnered with a larger umbrella nonprofit called Enrichmond. Enrichmond was founded in 1990 by the city to help support public parks, so Sullivan felt good about signing a contract with them.

“They had a great reputation, you know, set six, seven years ago,” Sullivan recalls. “And it was a very easy way to keep our books and accounting and be eligible for grants.”

Sullivan could log into her account on the Enrichmond website and see how much money they had. Community members could make tax-deductible donations through the website and specify that the donation was for Fonticello Food Forest.

“Because we could use their nonprofit status,” explains Sullivan. “And so for many years, it worked very well.”

Until last Summer.

Sullivan remembers calling to ask the accountant at Enrichmond how much money Fonticello Food Forest had in their account. They had recently done a fundraiser and she didn’t know how much they had raised. But she just never got a response.

Not long after read in the news that Enrichmond was dissolving.

“And that our money was no longer available… I was in shock at first and didn't believe it,” says Sullivan. But she went to the website, and it was no longer there. She had a workshop coming up and was trying to get funds to pay the instructors. She wound up paying them out of her own pocket.

Sullivan estimates her group lost about $4,000, although she doesn’t know the exact number because that accounting information is also no longer available to her.

Since Enrichmond dissolved, Fonticello Food Forest has found another non-profit to work under, called Verdant Richmond. It’s a group that allows partners to have members sit on the board, which was important to Sullivan after her experience with Enrichmond. Her group has also been able to raise new funds.

But, she says, that doesn’t mean it’s no harm no foul.

“(Enrichmond) stole $4,000 from us, which the community gave to us to do things for the community, so they stole from the people,” Sullivan says. “So there is a foul even though there's less harm and other organizations were very much harmed… And for those people, to all be screwed over in this way, is really heartbreaking.”

Heartbreaking because this isn’t just a story about one community garden. It’s a story about neighborhood groups all over the city.

Mac Wood in Pump House Park in the James River Park system.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Mac Wood in Pump House Park in the James River Park system.

“A third of Richmond’s green space was managed by groups under Enrichmond’s 501-C3 status,” explains Mac Wood, secretary for Friends of Pump House Park.

Like Sullivan, Wood works with one of those community groups that was impacted by Enrichmond’s dissolution. Friends of Pump House Park, which raises money to restore a historic building in the James River Park system, estimates they lost about $30,000.

Wood and Sullivan are among the founders of the Enrichmond Accountability Project. Wood says that when Enrichmond’s board voted to dissolve more than 80 volunteer organizations across the city were impacted. Between them, they estimate about a quarter of a million dollars just disappeared.

“And we lost access to all the funds that had been donated to us. I want to make that really clear,” Wood says. “This money was donated to the individual friends organizations. And we were told that those monies would be used by the organizations only.”

The Enrichmond Accountability Project has been pressing for answers for month: Where did the money go? Who was responsible? And why weren’t city officials more aware of what was happening at an organization receiving taxpayer dollars?

They’d like answers to those questions, the restoration of their funds, and an apology. So far they’ve gotten none of those things.

Enrichmond’s lawyer at the time, Andrew Sherrod of Hirschler law firm, stopped responding to their questions. He later told us he’s no longer representing the group.

“If we can get accountability and our money back and we never find out what happens that wouldn't be the end of the world,” Wood says. “But it would be really nice to know why things like this happen so that we can prevent it in the future.”

The story of how it might have happened begins in an unlikely place: two historically Black cemeteries on the outskirts of the city.

Mallory Noe-Payne

East End and Evergreen Cemeteries

Erin Hollaway Palmer, along with her husband Brian Palmer, started volunteering at East End Cemetery in 2014.

“You would drive down the access road and see a wall of trees and underbrush, brambles, maybe a couple of headstones,” recalls Hollaway Palmer.

She and her husband joined an already dedicated group of volunteers who had been working in the cemetery since 2013, under the guidance of John Shuck. They helped found the Friends of East End Cemetery to continue the work.

One of her favorite places in this historic space is a headstone she remembers uncovering herself.

“So it says mother, Roberta Manson. She died. February 14 1941,” Hollaway Palmer reads to me, brushing aside some fallen debris. “She’s one of my favorites.”

Manson was born on a North Carolina plantation during the Civil War. One of about 15,000 people buried in this segregated cemetery, all African-Americans and many, like Manson, who had lived through Reconstruction. Records for the cemetery have been lost so the number is an estimate based on the size of the grave and density of the gravesites.

For years, Friends of East End cleaned and documented these graves. Working with partners at local universities they mapped more than 3,300 grave markers.

Then in 2017 and 2019 the local nonprofit Enrichmond took ownership over this site and another historically Black cemetery next door, Evergreen Cemetery. Evergreen had been better cared for than East End, but was still overgrown and featured the graves of many famous Black Richmonders.

Enrichmond bought one cemetery with financial support from the quasi-governmental organization the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. The other cemetery was gifted to Enrichmond by a Richmond court.

At the time the new ownership of the two sites was a move celebrated by local officials. Enrichmond’s Director John Sydnor, toldpress he was quote “humbled, scared and excited.”

But Friends of East End, the volunteer group, felt differently. Especially after the nonprofit told them that in order to keep volunteering in the space they’d have to sign a new agreement giving Enrichmond ownership over all the research they had done.

“So that was essentially demanding that we hand over access to the map that we had created over a period of years, you know, of painstaking work all for, for what, you know, just because they could?” questions Holloway Palmer, looking back on it today.

Things escalated. Friends of East End got a lawyer and went back and forth for months over the details of the volunteer agreement. During that period, Hollaway Palmer says she was approached more than once and told she couldn't volunteer or work in the cemetery until she signed the agreement.

The two organizations couldn’t agree, and the long-time volunteers were shut out.

As the owner of the cemeteries Enrichmond got tens of thousands of state dollars thanks to a new law meant to help the maintenance of historic African-American graves. But Hollaway Palmer says they couldn’t figure out how that taxpayer money was being spent. She watched the cemeteries fall into disrepair again.

“It was kind of just staggering and unfathomable that an organization would not only, you know, hoard the resources, but prevent us from working and then not do the work,” she says. “While also, you know, taking credit for the work that had been done.”

Enrichmond didn’t have any previous experience with historic preservation. Activists started to raise questions about why they had been chosen by the city and state to undertake the monumental task of owning, restoring and preserving more than 70 acres of historic Black cemeteries. Descendents began to take sides. Some supported Enrichmond while others raised questions.

Then things unraveled.

As the concerns mounted Richmond City Council voted to withdraw its annual contribution to Enrichmond. Just a few months later the nonprofit’s Executive Director left. And soon after that, this past Spring, the board voted to dissolve.

“The board just, you know, vanished, and there was no trace of communication or no way to get clear answers,” remembers Richmond city councilor Stephanie Lynch.

Lynch has been involved in the effort to get accountability from Enrichmond. Both for the cemeteries and for the other nonprofits who were under Enrichmond’s umbrella and have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lynch says to get answers there would need to be a forensic audit.

“When did they know that they were no longer solvent? And who was moving money around and robbing Peter to pay Paul and the different bank accounts?” she asks.

The former executive director of Enrichmond John Sydnor responded to our requests, but declined to give an interview on the record. Former board members did not respond to any of our multiple emailed requests.

John Mitchell, whose ancestors are buried in one of the cemeteries, is the only Enrichmond representative who agreed to talk to us.

“I'm the last man standing,” Mitchell said during a recent interview. “My first priority is cemeteries. The second priority for me is making sure that the partners… that they will be compensated soon…. because they’re still trying to do their work.”

Since 2017 Mitchell has been involved with Enrichmond in different capacities: volunteer, paid staff, and board member. He says he’s currently working with the city to complete the dissolution of the nonprofit. He says that will involve turning over financial documents and assets to Richmond city.

But when repeatedly questioned about how things got this way, Mitchell insists he doesn’t know.

“There's nothing that I can say that will say that, ‘Oh, I know what happened.’ I literally don't,” Mitchell says.

Charlie Schmidt is an attorney and expert in non-profit governance at the University of Richmond who's been following the matter closely. He says it warrants an investigation by officials. Especially given the fact that Enrichmond received city, state and federal taxpayer dollars.

“You need that police power, you need the subpoena power, you need to be able to get their records,” Schmidt explains.

The local commonwealth’s attorney told us they were waiting for an investigation by law enforcement before deciding whether any action could be taken. But neither Richmond nor state police are currently investigating.

Schmidt says the best person for the job is the state Attorney General – who has authority over nonprofit fraud and access to state police resources.

“The Attorney General today could assign an assistant attorney general and call up the state police and say, ‘Let's go subpoena all of these records and get to the bottom of this.’ And that is really where the ultimate authority, I think, and the ultimate responsibility lands,” Schmidt says.

A spokesman for the state attorney general says they haven’t received a formal complaint, but that the office stands ready to take action where appropriate.

In the meantime, two historic Black cemeteries that were abandoned by government officials for decades are left, once again, to languish.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.