Paul E. Kandarian
The numbers game can be a dispassionate one. But not for Irene McCormick. She injects her own inspiration into her work as chief financial officer for The College Crusade of Rhode Island, which was founded in 1989 by a public-private partnership of state and business leaders to address the impact of elevated high school dropout rates and low college-attending rates on the state’s workforce.
“I’ve always been that way,” said McCormick, who has been with the Crusade for 21 years, its CFO for the last two and a half. “If you can’t afford it, you can’t have it. A lot of nonprofits get in trouble sometimes dipping into one fund to pay for something else.”
She has been making sure that doesn’t happen at the nonprofit from the beginning, when, as controller, she was the primary staff person responsible for fiscal oversight.
And she’s done a remarkable job, keeping Crusade numbers where they should be, says Crusade President and CEO Todd D. Flaherty.
“Irene has presided over a string of remarkably clean audits for The College Crusade,” Flaherty said in nominating his CFO for the award. “For the past several years, our auditors did not issue a management letter, as there were no findings to report and no recommendations for improving fiscal controls.”
That points to a job consistently well-done, he said, adding that to perform “so well through external audit processes is an impressive accomplishment given the size of the organization’s budget; the mix of federal, state and private revenue streams; the variety of contractual and statutory obligations managed across varying fiscal periods; and the scope and financial detail involved in running more than 50 support programs for low-income youth and their families.”
In the Crusade’s beginning, it was open to every third-grader in the state for the first five years, a lofty ambition that the numbers wouldn’t support, McCormick says. It was also giving out scholarships for graduating high schoolers who were accepted at any Rhode Island school or a collaborative one anywhere else.
The group changed tactics by the middle 1990s, taking children from the state’s poorest communities – 500 at a time – which put things on an even keel.
Since 2001, the year the Crusade’s first class of students graduated high school, it has awarded nearly $26 million in cash and donated scholarships to 3,300. McCormick oversees all scholarship activity for the organization, including managing the relationship with the R.I. Higher Education Assistance Authority, which administers the disbursement for the Crusade.
McCormick is a member of the Crusade board’s finance committee, which is charged with stewardship for the organization’s $6.8 million investment fund, from which cash scholarships are drawn. For the past 15 years – most recently in December 2010 – McCormick has contracted with various actuarial professionals to develop projection models to gauge the adequacy of the organization’s scholarship resources against anticipated usage, which Flaherty said “is critical to maintaining the integrity of our commitments to the students we serve, and to the board’s process in deciding whether to enroll a new class.”
One of her latest accomplishments was landing a grant to put advisers at Community College of Rhode Island, to assist former Crusade students. Prior to that, there was no one there to help guide them through college. Plans are in the works for similar programs at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island.
Two years ago, McCormick applied for a federal indirect grant for the Crusade, which Flaherty said is “an extraordinarily complex and labor-intensive undertaking that involves interpreting myriad rules and regulations. The application was approved on first submission, a rarity in the field, and has resulted in approximately $200,000 a year in operating funds.” Moreover, the application was so well-prepared that the U.S. Department of Education is now using it as a model for how to develop such applications.
A modest McCormick said of that accolade, “I’m a very organized person, your typical accountant. They gave me a checklist to follow, and I followed it. And the R.I. Department of Education assisted us in putting it together.”
She serves the Crusade in a variety of other ways as well, including on its senior leadership team, a group making decisions that affect the day-to-day and long-term strategic health of the organization. And in 2008, when the Crusade operated for an entire year without a CEO during the country’s financial downturn, McCormick, along with the other senior managers, worked with the Crusade’s chair to navigate those hard times, Flaherty says.
“The benefits of having a CFO operating at Irene’s extraordinary level of execution are incalculable,” he said, “particularly in hard economic times when the lack of financial discipline and propriety at some nonprofits has been exposed.”
In her off time, McCormick is treasurer for Serve Rhode Island, for which she keeps the books but also gets down to dirty work: Last fall, she jumped in to help clean up Superstorm Sandy-ravaged Misquamicut State Beach. She also has organized a team of Crusade volunteers to make over a classroom at Roger Williams Middle School in Providence and recently taught a budget-development workshop at Blackstone Academy Charter School in Pawtucket.
She loves to travel, too, particularly to see her children and grandchildren, one of whom was in a school play in Houston. Ever the accountant, she watched the play and later factored the total trip cost at “about $500 a line,” she laughed.
But it was money well-spent, she said, as “I had the time of my life. I love seeing my family.”
And count the Crusade children among them.
“When the Crusade started, it was as an economic-development initiative, and still is,” she said. “We are investing in our youth; they’ll be the ones taking over the country we leave them.” •