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Metro Nashville leaders question relationship with the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee

Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee
Posted at 5:54 PM, Jun 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-27 19:16:02-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — For years, Nashville has counted on the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee to collect donations after disasters and get that money in the right hands.

But now there are calls to end that long-standing relationship between the organization and the Metro government.

This all comes after a NewsChannel 5 Investigates piece exposed how the foundation gave out more than $8 million after the 2020 tornadoes and has no idea how or even if all that money was spent.

And now one Metro councilwoman is concerned enough to speak out.

"I don’t know that anyone can see those stories and not be disappointed and maybe even a little angry," Metro Councilwoman Courtney Johnston told NewsChannel 5 Investigates.

She was talking about the recent investigation looking at how the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee handled tornado relief following the deadly twisters in March of 2020.

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"It is just unfortunate that we’ve gotten to this place where so many questions have been asked by so many people, and they’ve not answered that now we have an investigative report and it’s quite damning," Johnston said.

A memorandum of understanding, or MOU that Metro signed with the Community Foundation back in 2012, puts the foundation in charge of the collection and distribution of donations after disasters. The agreement or contract lays out exactly what the Community Foundation is supposed to do.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates found it hasn't always followed these rules.

For example, donations are supposed to serve victims based on need. But when we interviewed the Community Foundation's Amy Fair, we discovered that after the March 2020 tornadoes, the Foundation gave dozens of grants to groups that never applied for money or even said they needed it.

"They never asked for that money?" we asked Fair.

"Correct," she replied.

The Community Foundation is also supposed to "track the distribution of money" that goes out and "audit these distributions."

But we found that hasn't happened either. It turns out, the Community Foundation never followed up on a $30,000 tornado relief check it sent to Metro Schools in 2020, and MNPS had no idea they'd received the money until we recently asked about it.

"How many other MNPS’s are there out there?" we questioned Fair.

"I don’t know. I can’t say for sure," she told us.

And while the Community Foundation lists all of its grant recipients online, in many cases, the website just stated the money went for tornado relief.

"Do you think you’re sharing enough information?" we asked Fair.

"I do, for the time right now. I mean, we provide the information on the website. We’re not required to," Fair said.

But actually, the MOU said 30 days after making a grant, the Community Foundation is supposed to post information about the recipient of the money and why they got it.

"It is in black-and-white," Councilmember Johnston said.

Johnston, who represents the Crieve Hall, area is clearly frustrated.

Her district was hit hard by flooding in March of 2021 and afterward many here needed help, she said

But Johnston insists the people she referred to the Community Foundation did not get assistance.

"None of them?" we asked.

"None of them," Johnston said.

The Foundation claimed it spent nearly a million dollars on flood relief after the 2021 flooding in south Nashville, but that information is posted nowhere online, even though the MOU requires it.

So, this past March, Johnston sent an email to the Community Foundation, asking how it had spent the flood relief money.

Months later, she's still waiting for an answer.

"You never got any information, any accounting of the money?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Johnston.

"No. No. No," she said.

The day after the March 2020 tornadoes, the Community Foundation was asked to appear before the Metro Council.

No one from the Foundation showed up.

Council members expressed concerns and questioned the process for getting money to those who needed it.

Metro's Legal Director reminded the council of the MOU.

"The Community Foundation is responsible for documenting every dollar that comes in, who donates and the disbursement for all of those funds," then-Legal Director Jon Cooper said.

Then a week later, at the next council meeting, the Community Foundation promised full transparency.

"Once the dust has settled, we will get information about how they really did apply that so we can put out the information and share with people how everyone really was impacted in the community," Fair said to the council.

But more than two years later, when we asked for specifics or any sort of documentation, the Community Foundation told us no.

"Do you think the city should continue its relationship with the Community Foundation?" we asked Johnston.

"Not based on what I consider to be a breach of contract," she said. "We are telling people this is where you send your money, and there is a certain amount of accountability, transparency and diligence that needs to go into the handling of those dollars, and that is clearly not happening here."

Insiders tell NewsChannel 5 Investigates that there have been ongoing concerns and discussions in the mayor's office that the Community Foundation is not being diligent in adhering to the requirements of the MOU.

They said the Finance Department has repeatedly asked the Community Foundation for information and received incomplete answers. The Finance Department is continuing to request information and, we are told that if the responses continue to be insufficient, then terminating the MOU would likely be on the table.

Meanwhile, the Community Foundation, which manages disaster relief for Metro without charging the city any fees, said in a statement: "The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee has always served this role on a voluntary basis, at the request of Metro Nashville and its Office of Emergency Management. We have recently expressed our willingness to continue in this role. Should those with decision-making authority within Metropolitan Government come to a different conclusion, we respect their right to select other partners for the disaster fundraising function within Metro Nashville’s Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan (CEMP). We will support any organization that serves in this vital role and all of the other incredible nonprofit partners serving Nashville residents in their respective roles in the CEMP.”