Jun 6, 2023 - News

The Enrichmond files: Inside the group's mysterious collapse

What remains of Enrichmond. Photo: Ned Oliver/Axios

A city storage locker filled with corporate records is finally shedding light on the mysterious collapse of the Enrichmond Foundation.

What's happening: After the foundation closed abruptly last year, it transferred its records to the city, which in a rare act of transparency has made the entire cache of documents available to the public.

Why it matters: With no one who knows anything talking, the records offer the first real clues about what happened at the foundation, which owned two historic Black cemeteries and served as financial steward of 86 small community groups.

Details: Financial records indicate Enrichmond was strapped for cash as it struggled to manage its relatively new role as owner and steward of Evergreen and East End cemeteries.

  • Emails show the organization's director, John Sydnor, rushed to scrape together money to fund the initial purchase of Evergreen in 2017, voicing concern that another unnamed group might beat them to it.
  • Fast forward to Enrichmond's final months in 2022: A balance sheet showed the cemeteries' expenses for the fiscal year outpaced grants and donations by more than $250,000, and minutes from a board meeting show the organization putting together a last minute plan to transfer ownership to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

Zoom out: By the end, the organization estimated it had amassed $700,000 in debt, per the records.

  • That included money raised by the small community groups Enrichmond partnered with. It remains unclear precisely how much money they lost, but different documents list the sum at between $300,000 and nearly $500,000.

Context: Enrichmond served as a fiscal sponsor for neighborhood groups that organized community cleanups, raised money for local parks and planted trees.

  • In exchange for receiving and depositing donations, Enrichmond charged them a 5% fee.

Of note: The contents of the locker were first reported by WTVR.

What they're saying: No board members have publicly commented since Enrichmond closed, and Sydnor has not responded to requests for comment.

  • When NBC12 caught up with him outside his house last month, he refused to comment, saying only, "You've got to be kidding me."

State of play: Attorney General Jason Miyares' office is investigating Enrichmond's dissolution, including by sending staffers to leaf through the storage locker.

The big picture: Brian Palmer, a journalist and longtime volunteer with the group Friends of East End, has long voiced frustration with Enrichmond's stewardship of the cemeteries.

  • He published a 7,000 word essay he titled "The Enrichmond Files" after taking his own spin through the documents, telling Axios his biggest takeaway was how little vetting it appears Enrichmond went through before city, state and conservation officials decided to back its purchase of the cemeteries.
  • "You look at these papers and look at their behavior and see, for some reason, they kept being allowed to fail upward," he said.

What's next: City officials have set up a fund to reimburse community groups and are in early discussions about pursuing ownership of the cemeteries.

💭 Ned's thought bubble: Picking through the remnants of Enrichmond's office was surreal.

  • They're being housed in a steel cage in a warehouse attached to the Department of Parks and Recreation, surrounded by holiday decorations, sports equipment and other municipal miscellany.
  • Amid two folding tables piled high with documents, there was a trash bag filled with Enrichmond's old desk phones, plaques and awards (including a medal awarded by the governor in 2020) and a past-due notice from an archaeologist hired to remove human remains from the roots of a fallen tree.
  • A spokeswoman for the parks department observed from a corner as I rifled through boxes.

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