Board members stormed out of meetings. Finances were in disarray. The director implied he was the victim of threats and quit. His replacement was forced to resign. The agency couldn't raise a dime in the private sector. Things were so bad, state officials sent in a mediator to smooth things over. The state's description of the Pasco Hernando Early Learning Coalition: "dysfunctional."
Four years later, the same organization won enough votes to make it the most popular nonprofit agency in the Tampa Bay area.
The coalition, which oversees subsidized child care services and the state's prekindergarten program for the two counties, was among the nine winners of the WEDU Be More Awards. Others included the Early Learning Coalition of Sarasota County, Community Tampa Bay, the Spring of Tampa Bay and the Polk Museum of Art.
The awards, in their fifth year, recognize charitable agencies and give them a fundraising boost, said Laura Fage, vice president of communications for the PBS station.
"The most difficult challenge for nonprofits is name recognition," she said. The winners will be featured in a one-hour special at 9 p.m. Feb. 25. They also will be given a video of the special to use in presentations.
The coalition won in the people's choice category, in which the winner was determined by which organization got the most votes. Voters were allowed to vote once per day for 30 days.
Coalition director Jim Farrelly said he didn't even bother to prepare an acceptance speech for the awards ceremony on Thursday.
"I didn't think we were going to win," said Farrelly, who was hired in 2008 with a directive to help improve the agency's operations and image. "This is a dream." He made up a speech on the spot in the vein of Sally Field's famous "You like me, you really like me" Academy Awards speech.
Farrelly gave credit to communications director Nicole Gonzalez, a University of South Florida graduate who told him she aspired to be a public relations executive on Madison Avenue.
"I told her this was a great place to start," he said.
Gonzalez raised awareness of the contest by putting a link on the coalition's Web site that allowed people to cast votes easily. She also encouraged the agency's 350 child care providers to vote by getting donations from educational toy companies that were raffled off to those who participated.
"Our board voted every day," Farrelly said with a chuckle. He said his daughter, who works in China, also cast votes online.
Farrelly said a contest that depended on votes is a major accomplishment for an organization that just a few years ago was defined by infighting and complaining.
"We are the most popular nonprofit agency in the Tampa Bay area. There was a time when we certainly were not."
On Thursday, Farrelly was greeted with screaming and yelling as he pulled into the parking lot after the awards luncheon in Tampa. Only this was the good kind.
"Everybody made up signs," he said. "They got balloons and they had pompoms."