The news last week was heartbreaking on a number of levels: Special Olympics Oregon announced that, because of financial troubles, it was canceling the statewide summer games it had planned to hold next month in Corvallis.

The games, which had been scheduled for July 14 and 15, were expected to draw about 1,500 athletes with intellectual disabilities to Corvallis. The cancellation has to sting for those athletes, their families and their supporters.

Last year marked the first year that the summer games had been held in Corvallis after years in Newberg. Oregon State University served as the home base for last year's event, a move that gave the athletes a chance to experience something like an Olympic village atmosphere. Other events in the games (which included bocce, golf, softball and track and field) were held in other locations throughout Corvallis. By all accounts, last year's games went well, and we were settling in for what appeared to be a long and fruitful association between the Special Olympics summer games and Corvallis. In fact, Special Olympics officials said they were looking forward to many more years of holding the summer games in Corvallis.

And it wasn't just Corvallis that benefited from the games: By the time that the athletes' friends and families had settled in for the weekend, it was a happily busy stretch for hotels, restaurants and shops throughout the mid-valley — all part of a remarkable summer for tourism in the area.

We expect that the partnership between Oregon State University, Corvallis and the Special Olympics summer games will resume, just as soon as the organization recovers its financial footing.

There's no word how long that will take, but it is worth noting that Special Olympics made the decision to cancel the summer games after its new CEO, Britt Carlson Oase, reviewed the organization's books with Lori Van Dyke, its new chief financial officer.

A story in the Portland Business Journal reported that Special Olympics Oregon lost $325,000 on $4.5 million in revenue in 2016, according to its most recent annual report made public. The organization has not yet filed its 2017 report with the Internal Revenue Service — but in its news release announcing the cancellation of the games, it said it expected to lose money again in 2018.

The review also found that the organization had overstated the amount of money owed to it, so its financial situation was even more tenuous than it might have first appeared.

"Coupled with existing debt, there is limited cash available for required pre-payments to vendors for the critical infrastructure needed to produce" the state games, the organization said in its press release last week. Considering all that, the organization appears to have made the right call to cancel the games.

We don't pretend to have any inside knowledge of what happened at Special Olympics Oregon, but last week's news release offered a clue: "Once we opened the books, we found significant challenges facing the organization," Van Dyke said. "In recent years, record management, processes and accounting practices were not well maintained."

Those are words that should strike right at the heart of anyone who volunteers with a nonprofit organization, in particular board members. Even the best nonprofits can fall prey to overly optimistic financial estimates; when you buy into a nonprofit's mission, it can be easy to pretend that the finances will take care of themselves.

They do not. Even when everything seems to be going great, board members need to watch over the books with a careful eye and to ask pointed questions when necessary.

We are confident that Special Olympics Oregon, which enjoys a deep reservoir of support throughout the state, will be able to bounce back once it sets its financial house in order. In the meantime, there's a lesson here for the rest of us: Nonprofits have to balance their books too. (MM)


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