4/19/2013 UPDATE: If you are looking for information on the annual Mother’s Day walk/run, Komen’s Chicago affiliate has apparently taken over this event. See: http://www.komenchicago.org/about-us/news/MothersDay_RFTC.html
Yesterday Y-Me abruptly closed its doors. Its website is no longer online. A statement posted yesterday said, in part: “There are no words to express the sadness we all feel but we felt it important that you hear this news from us directly. Thank you for everything you have done for Y-ME over the years.”
Founded in 1978 in Homew00d-Flossmoor, IL, the group went from a two-women operation at a kitchen table to a national non-profit with support groups throughout the United States. It is probably best known for its hotline, “the only place in the world where someone touched by breast cancer can call – 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year – to talk to a breast cancer survivor and be understood in 150 different languages,” according to Y-Me promotions. Y-Me’s hotline fielded 40,000 calls annually.
I have never talked to Y-Me hotline volunteers as a patient. But last year I was invited to attend a metastatic breast cancer training session. The materials and presenters were excellent. The volunteers were wonderful people, just exactly the right people you’d want doing this.
Y-Me’s mission was “to ensure through information, empowerment and peer support that no one faces breast cancer alone.” Today, a call to Y-Me’s hotline–a number disseminated across hundreds of cancer related sites and countless breast cancer navigator’s offices, yielded only a busy signal. No message. No referral for someone who might be in crisis.
Callers will face breast cancer alone, after all.*
How could this happen?
“A serious cash flow problem stemming from an unexpected cash flow crisis and low revenues from our major fundraisers put the organization in financial instability,” Maureen Durack, a Y-ME board member, told Fox Chicago News.
Y-Me’s has hosted an annual Mother’s Day walk/run event in Chicago’s Grant Park for the past two decades. Last May’s event drew 30,000 participants. On the day of the event, Y-ME CEO Cindy Geoghegan, told the Chicago Sun-Times Art Golab: “But what [we] were not as sure of is that we met our goal of money and we think some of that could be attributed to all of the controversies in breast cancer community.”
The Sun-Times further reported that the 2011 event raised nearly $3 million, more than half of Y-ME’s budget. The 2012 goal was $3.5 million. Geoghegan told the Golab she’d didn’t think her Y-Me would achieve that figure; subsequent reports indicated the 2012 event tallied $2 million in funds.
While it would be convenient to blame fallout from this past spring’s Komen/Planned Parenthood controversy, it seems likely that Y-Me’s issues were longer standing. When Geoghegan came onboard two years ago, she restored the Y-Me name (it had been changed to Breast Cancer Network of Strength). Lacking any statement from Y-Me or access to its financial statements, we don’t know.
If Geoghegan knew in May that the situation was dire, why were no contingency plans in place?
For a group that prided itself on communication, Y-Me’s silence is baffling. Thousands of people and many corporations supported their annual drives. They deserve better. More importantly, the person who is reeling from a breast cancer diagnosis deserves better than a perpetual busy signal.
*UPDATE NO. 1: Janine Guglielmino from Living Beyond Breast Cancer reminds us that LBBC has a Helpline: “Our Helpline (like Y-ME’s) is staffed by volunteers who have had breast cancer. They go through a rigorous three-day training and get ongoing education. We answer the phones live on Tuesdays from 11-3, and we answer calls within 24 hours at all other times. We can match people the same age or with the same diagnosis. Our Helpline number is (888) 753-LBBC (5222), or women can request a call online at http://www.lbbc.org/Learning-From-Others/Survivors-Helpline.”
*UPDATE NO. 2: ABC 7′s Stacey Baca’s July 13 report included the following additional details:
>A board member for the Y-Me breast cancer organization says the group expects to file for Chapter 7 bankruptcy soon.
>Saturday morning, Y-Me will e-blast its donors, volunteers, and supporters, to thank them, and tell them that it is official: Y-Me is no longer.
>“Did we know there were some financial issues? Yes. But did we believe they could be solved? Yes,” said Margaret Harte, the founder of Y-Me’s signature fundraiser, the annual race on Mother’s Day, and a two-time breast cancer survivor.
>This year, more than 20,000 women took part in the race, raising about $2 million, but board member and former executive director Sharon Green says it was not enough money to sustain the hotline.
>Financially, Y-Me was strapped. According to Charity Navigator, a non-profit that tracks 501-c-3s, Y-Me was in the hole $1.6 million for fiscal year 2011.
>The Better Business Bureau (BBB) says the group did not meet 5 of its 20 standards – mainly, it didn’t provide an annual report to the BBB.
>Y-ME is being accused of financial collapse due to money mismanagement.
>Its board of directors confirmed on Monday that it [Y-Me] is filing Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
>“I think the failure of the organization was decisions made five or six years ago about real estate leases, etc. etc.,…and really poor management,” Margaret Harte said, a longtime volunteer and the founder of the group’s annual Race at Your Pace.. .“I am appalled that people can sit on boards and do nothing and then make decisions that totally wipe out, destroy the work of many people,” she said.
>“I don’t believe there was any wrongdoing,” [Sharon Green, Y-Me’s first executive director and a current board member] said. “It’s just an economic situation that they’ve been dealing with for some time, and it got to be very difficult to meet the monthly bills.”
> Asked what happened to the funds raised by the recent race, Green said, “None of that money was wasted. That money was used to keep the hotline going as long as we could. Nobody bought cars or anything like that; it was used for important programs. It just couldn’t be sustained
>Y-Me IRS forms show contributions plummeted from $16.7 million in 2007 to $5.2 million in 2010.
>Former Y-Me CEO Margaret Kirk was paid $231,000 in 2009, her last full year on the job. The next CEO was paid $120,000 for part of 2010, according to the forms.
>An audit released Monday by Attorney General [Lisa] Madigan’s office showed Y-Me’s investments carried a value of $803,204 as of June 30, 2011, down from $1.5 million a year earlier. This indicates either investment losses or that the money was used to pay expenses.
> Volunteer and race founder] Harte said Y-Me had overexpanded and leased office space it could not afford [in Chicago] and in other cities.
This past January, Hull House, a landmark Chicago social services organization founded by Jane Addams in 1889, closes its doors. Hull House received some government support; Y-Me most likely did not. Beyond that, these non-profits seem to have much in common.
Hull House board chairman Steven Saunders blamed the economy and attendant declining government support for Hull House’s demise. Saunders told the Chronicle of Philanthropy (as cited by Rick Moyers) that financial reports prepared by management had sugar-coated the situation and that because staff members had maintained a positive attitude, the board failed to understand the magnitude of the financial problems until they were too large to solve.
Clarence Wood—a former chief executive of Hull House —faulted the board for not grasping the concept of “living on the edge.” Wood told the Chronicle of Philanthropy “the reason the staff members like me were staying positive in attitude was that we are very used to social-service agencies always being on the brink of destruction.”
In his February 27, 2012 commentary, Moyers, co-author of A Snapshot of America’s Nonprofit Boards, the first national nonprofit governance survey, observed that responsible governance requires a strong partnership between the board and the chief executive:
Hull House is a sobering case study of governance failure in which neither the board nor the staff seems to have recognized the crisis while there was still time to turn things around.
Hull House’s situation was far from unusual. Thousands of nonprofit organizations are heavily dependent on government financial support, have no operating reserves or are in debt, and are seeing increased demand for services.
The executives and boards of these organizations need to recognize that being perpetually on the brink of destruction is not normal or sustainable, and it does a tremendous disservice to an organization’s mission and the people it serves.
Without more financial discernment on the part of boards, a more honest and candid partnership between boards and executives, and bolder actions while there’s still time, more organizations are going to fold.