Longtime United Way director resigns

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United Way of Flathead, Lake, Lincoln, Glacier and Sanders counties inside the Gateway Community Center in Kalispell on Thursday, Aug. 23. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

Longtime Northwest Montana United Way Executive Director Sherry Stevens is stepping down from her position today after more than 34 years at the helm of the nonprofit organization.

Stevens is announcing her resignation in an open letter to the community that will publish in Sunday’s Daily Inter Lake. Stevens paid for the advertisement.

“I have been honored to work with so many dedicated and thoughtful volunteers who care deeply about our community,” Stevens states in the letter. She notes the local United Way program has raised more than $21 million and supplied numerous grants since 1985.

“I am committed to ensuring there is a smooth transition process by serving as an independent contractor alongside a volunteer transition team,” Stevens’ letter states.

Changes in the way donors give to Northwest Montana United Way, along with the financial pressure of maintaining the Gateway Community Center that house numerous nonprofits — including United Way’s office — have been ongoing challenges for the agency, Stevens acknowledged in an interview with the Daily Inter Lake last year. At a time when the agency’s donations have dropped, United Way has seen a dire need to stretch its services even further to help with unmet needs in the community, Stevens said.

During her tenure as United Way director, Stevens oversaw the transformation of the former Gateway West Mall into the Gateway Community Center. Four years ago Northwest Montana United Way made a deal to purchase the former mall space for $2.4 million from American Capital Management. Along with the 100,643 square feet of building space came decades of deferred maintenance, both for the building and the expansive parking lot that has deteriorated.

Westside Center for Community Change, known as Westside CCC, was created to hold the asset of the property apart from United Way’s assets.

Another 60,000-square-foot portion of the building is owned by the Flathead County Economic Development Authority and occupied by TTEC, which operates separately, though it relies on the Gateway Community Center for parking lot maintenance.

Last year questions arose from citizens and members and past members of the boards of directors involved with the center about United Way’s ability to invest in building and parking lot maintenance. Concerns also were voiced by both citizens and nonprofit organizations, ranging from a sizable decrease in donations over the past several years to the management of the Gateway Community Center.

Stevens’ resignation comes as she and the organization are in the throes of a second lawsuit in less than 18 months.

The current lawsuit pits Stevens and Northwest Montana United Way against Two Bears Family Center, an organization that provides services such as drug testing and supervised visitation for families seeking reunification. The center’s founders, Kim Kearney and Bernadette McDonald, had entered into a verbal agreement with Stevens in 2018 that United Way would serve as Two Bears’ fiscal agent until the organization was able to obtain its tax exempt status. But Kearney and McDonald sued Stevens in October this year after she allegedly terminated that fiscal oversight abruptly and proceeded to evict Two Bears from their location at the Gateway Community Center without just cause, according to the lawsuit.

Kearney and McDonald say the ousting also interrupted the organization’s operations and temporarily displaced vulnerable clients in need of services. At a recent hearing, McDonald said the two had to “scramble” after they were given only a few days to vacate the center.

The lawsuit also raised the issue of United Way’s financial records. Multiple times in 2019 Two Bears requested copies of financial records pertaining to their organization, but Stevens either failed to provide those records or would not respond to the request at all despite her claiming the organization was operating at a deficit, the suit alleged.

However, at a recent hearing, United Way’s legal representative introduced evidence prepared by the nonprofit’s accountant showing a shortfall of about $19,693.

The Daily Inter Lake has called Northwest Montana United Way and Stevens individually about a dozen times in recent weeks to discuss the basic operations of the nonprofit, but attempts were unsuccessful.

United Way branches act independently from the national United Way with boards holding the fiduciary responsibility to make sure operations run smoothly. As a nonprofit, all United Way branches are encouraged to be as transparent as possible with members of their communities, donors and others. One way transparency is practiced is by posting Internal Revenue Service 990 forms, tax audits and a list of the board members on a public online forum so people can easily access such information.

Pursuant to Montana law, while it is not illegal for the nonprofits to not have the information public, if recent 990 filings and a list of the board members are requested, they must legally be provided.

In Montana, Northwest Montana United Way is one of two branches that do not post this information.

The Daily Inter Lake tried multiple times over the course of multiple weeks to collect the same basic information from the United Way in Kalispell. A recent tax filing was finally provided, but a list of the current board members was never provided.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com. News Editor Lynnette Hintze contributed to this report.

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