Community groups seek new ways to operate as Enrichmond collapse remains unresolved

Volunteers collect litter at Brown’s Island during a July 2017 RVA Clean Sweep event. (Photo Courtesy of Dave Parrish/RVA Clean Sweep)

When a RVA Clean Sweep volunteer using a leaf blower accidentally sent a rock flying into a Carytown storefront’s window a couple summers ago, Amy Robins was glad to have insurance coverage for her litter pick-up group by way of a partnership with the Enrichmond Foundation.

“We’re like, thank God we have insurance,” she recalled in a recent interview.

But when the Enrichmond board of directors voted to dissolve the foundation without warning in mid-2022, it meant RVA Clean Sweep lost its coverage. The group and others that had operated under the Enrichmond banner also lost access to their funds being held by the foundation.

That experience led RVA Clean Sweep to seek what is essentially a deal to be acquired by the Richmond Clean City Commission, a litter cleanup group affiliated with the city and led by City Council appointees. The commission is in the midst of absorbing the volunteer group, a process expected to be completed this spring.

The transition is just the latest example of how local community groups are navigating the fallout of Enrichmond’s decision to dissolve and abruptly end support services.

In the months since that move, there has been little public comment from the foundering foundation. It apparently gave no formal warning about its plan to dissolve to partner organizations, and partner groups haven’t been able to access their funds held by the foundation.

In a July 2022 memo prepared for the mayor, city staff estimated that Enrichmond held at least about $120,000 on behalf of partner groups. The memo noted that it wasn’t an exhaustive accounting, and didn’t include the nearly $29,000 that Richmond Tree Stewards has reported lost.

Enrichmond for decades served as an umbrella organization for dozens of local community volunteer groups, providing fiduciary and other support to allow the volunteers to focus on their programming. With the backing of Enrichmond, community groups could effectively claim the foundation’s nonprofit 501(c) status as their own, opening the door to accept and hold tax-exempt donations.

At least one former Enrichmond affiliate recently decided to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, and thereby bring in-house the benefits offered by Enrichmond. And there’s a relatively young nonprofit organization that has decided to become a fiduciary agent for several local community groups, at least partially filling the void left by Enrichmond.

RVA Clean Sweep’s acquisition 

Volunteers at an RVA Clean Sweep litter-collection event in January 2023. (Photo courtesy of RVA Clean Sweep)

RVA Clean Sweep was founded in the spring of 2014 and that same year came under Enrichmond, specifically to get insurance coverage in case a volunteer got hurt on one of the group’s regular litter cleanup events.

“Insurance is really important when you’re running events and you have volunteers picking up glass and needles,” said Robins, who co-founded the group.

Amy Robins

In addition to insurance coverage, the group’s arrangement with Enrichmond allowed the foundation to collect and hold donations on behalf of RVA Clean Sweep for a fee. Robins estimated that Clean Sweep lost about $3,000 when Enrichmond went dark in summer 2022. Those funds were to be used to buy cleaning supplies such as trash bags and gloves.

Robins said she didn’t get any formal notice of Enrichmond’s decision to end its operations, and only learned about it through news reports.

“We realized the money was gone. We’re hoping still we can recover it. We’re scrambling at this point because we can’t apply for smaller grants and can’t run cleanup safely without insurance,” Robins said.

But the group never completely stopped its cleanups, rather it did fewer and was careful to make it clear to people involved that it didn’t have insurance to cover property damage or injuries that might arise. That decision was made because Robins feared that a prolonged hiatus on activity would cause volunteers to drift away from the cause of cleaning up litter in the city.

Robins said that the Carytown window incident in summer 2021 was the first time she could remember that the group needed the insurance coverage afforded by Enrichmond. However, communications with Enrichmond were poor regarding the claim and eventually the property owner forgave the damage.

“We went to file the insurance claim and had to follow up a couple times. We filled out the form and then it was crickets” from Enrichmond, Robins said. “We would get delayed communications and eventually the property owner just let it go.”

Robins said a new chapter for RVA Clean Sweep had been a long time coming. She had been interested in stepping back from leadership of the group, and Enrichmond’s end to operations renewed her interest.

In early 2022, Robins connected with Nettie Seagraves, chairwoman of the Clean City Commission, and they kicked off conversations. The arrangement they landed on was for the commission to direct the group’s volunteers moving forward.

Robins said last month that the transition to hand off the group’s contact list and social media accounts to the commission was underway. The transition started in November and is expected to wrap up this spring. The RVA Clean Sweep name will be phased out over time.

“I look forward to fresh blood being able to take things forward. I think that’s important. Organizations get stale when leadership doesn’t change,” Robins said.

Seagraves said the move to keep RVA Clean Sweep’s volunteers engaged in litter pickup is a win.

“We can’t lose access to 1,500 people willing to pick up trash in the city of Richmond,” Seagraves said. “Absorbing RVA Clean Sweep gives us access to their 1,500 members willing and hopefully able to clean up litter when we have these events.”

Tree Stewards becomes a nonprofit 

A recent Richmond Tree Stewards project. (Courtesy Richmond Tree Stewards)

Burned by the Enrichmond experience, the Richmond Tree Stewards, which does tree giveaways and cares for trees on city property, decided it would go independent rather than seek a new umbrella group. President Dave Pohlmann said the group became its own 501(c)3 organization in mid-October.

Pohlmann said the move was a direct response to the unexpected break with Enrichmond. When Enrichmond voted to dissolve, the Tree Stewards lost just under $29,000, funds it doesn’t expect to see again.

“We were penniless and not tax-exempt. We thought it was crazy and we wouldn’t want to be in this situation again, so we went independent,” Pohlmann said.

While the funding loss has been challenging, Pohlmann said the Tree Stewards sought nonprofit status as a way to maintain operations and has been able to continue to conduct programming.

“We are trying our best to continue with our mission as originally written,” he said.

Pohlmann said it wasn’t difficult to secure nonprofit status, and it took about two months to get the paperwork needed to file. The group decided to embark on the project in July, shortly after news broke of Enrichmond’s vote to dissolve.

The Tree Stewards opened its own bank account and in October gave away 2,000 trees to Richmond-area residents during an event, according to a blog post on the nonprofit’s website.

A new role for Verdant Richmond 

The Enrichmond implosion has been felt beyond the groups in its orbit.

Verdant Richmond, a nonprofit founded in 2017 to restore green spaces in Richmond, recently started to offer fiscal agent services to community groups that formerly received such services from Enrichmond.

Verdant Richmond’s Fonticello Food Forest community garden. (Courtesy Verdant Richmond)

Verdant had six groups, five of them community gardens, officially operating under its umbrella as of last week, founder Lawrence Miller said.

The focus on community garden groups is intentional, as it aligns with Verdant’s own programming focus. But Miller said he expected that Verdant would cast as wide a net as Enrichmond did, which had various community groups under its wing.

“Our scale is entirely different from Enrichmond and our mission is different and we’re working just to support these groups,” Miller said.

Once word got around about the foundation’s move to end its activities, Verdant contacted the city’s parks department to see how it could help groups affected by Enrichmond’s decision. Miller said the parks department then asked if Verdant would be a fiscal agent for local garden groups. He said Verdant bought an insurance policy shortly after that, and in addition to offering insurance coverage also holds the donated funds of its member groups.

The first group to come in under Verdant was Fonticello Food Forest, which joined in September, Miller said.

“We’re happy to help. I want these groups to do well,” he said. “It does diverge from the mission, but this is a slight pivot, not a total change of course.”

Miller said conversations were underway with additional community groups to start partnerships with Verdant, but Enrichmond looms over those discussions.

“A lot of groups are gun-shy. They’re hesitant to join with us because of what happened with Enrichmond,” he said.

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Christopher Branch
Christopher Branch
18 days ago

Obviously something is amiss. It is going on a year since this imploded and still no accounting of where the funds went. I have tried to find a list of directors but have not found one. Does anyone know who the directors were that are responsible for oversight of this money that was meant to help Richmond ?

Michael Morgan-Dodson
Michael Morgan-Dodson
18 days ago

Ask the SCC for a list of officers; it might still be in their clerk’s system that you can check online

John O'Connell
John O'Connell
18 days ago
Deborah Hudson
Deborah Hudson
11 days ago

I’ve been shocked and saddened at the nearly three years of stories on this, and no investigations. Enrichmond Foundation was connected to Parity LLC, owned by Exec Dir John Sydnor. Now he’s employed at another non-profit, like nothing happened — I was able to find a complete list of board of directors in a Bacon’s Rebellion article: Hyperlinks are embedded throughout the article leading to official documents. Here are some additional articles I found: A woman named Beth Captain was the financial rep/CPA and her socials have gone quiet. Sydnor was also doing things like… Read more »

Victoria Woodhull
Victoria Woodhull
18 days ago

Enrichmond cannot account for almost $150K in member funds? The original article was posted in July of 2022 – has BizSense journalists gotten comment from any of the Board members? Are there any criminal charges being brought?
It is a great follow up to know that some of the groups have remained undeterred and are continuing their missions. Sadly, this is another reminder that greed is not exclusive to for profit businesses, but also shows up in altruistic non-profits – shameful.

Michael Morgan-Dodson
Michael Morgan-Dodson
18 days ago

The total is much more as they had grant monies that was for the cemeteries too. I think $300k-$500k that was specific to certain grants they received plus the member funds is just gone. All the board member are such close political allies of the Stoney admin and Richmond Dem Party that they don’t want to touch it. Who know what might come out of it.

Brian Palmer
Brian Palmer
17 days ago

You’re right, Michael. Enrichmond got north of $1 million in taxpayer money for East End and Evergreen—that’s city as well as state and federal money. Our money. The Virginia Outdoors Foundation, a quasi-state agency, alone handed Parity LLC, the holding company that Enrichmond created to buy the cemeteries, over a half a million dollars. All the govt. agencies that backed Enrichmond owe citizens transparency and accountability—from the City of Richmond to VOF and AmeriCorps. I wrote about this: Not related to the cemeteries, Enrichmond got COVID money from the Feds, about $115,000 in two payments, in 2020 and 2021.… Read more »

Jim Hurlburt
Jim Hurlburt
18 days ago

Interesting that the author opted not to mention that Amy Robins is the 5th District City Council liaison. If any group seems best suited to get to the bottom of this mess, it’s City Council.

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson
18 days ago

In response to other comments, this Richmond Free Press article digs a little deeper into the background and fallout of Enrichmond’s collapse: Best case scenario, there appears to be terrible mismanagement by the former executive director and the board, nearly all of whom have vanished into the shadows along with the funds entrusted to them by their partner organizations. It’s honestly embarrassing (though unfortunately not shocking) how little the Mayor and City Council have done to step in to investigate and rectify this situation, especially given how much Enrichmond was endorsed – and until recently, funded – by the… Read more »

Ed Christina
Ed Christina
14 days ago
Reply to  Mark Johnson

How has no one been arrested?