When members of the Winslow Veterans of Foreign Wars post found out that their bookkeeper had stolen more than $7,700, it was a blow emotionally and financially.

“It was really a violation of trust,” Post Commander Eric Hunt said recently outside Waterville District Court, where he attended a disclosure hearing for Cara Bird, to determine her ability to pay back the money she admits she took. Bird’s case has been continued until June.

The news followed several other thefts from nonprofits in Winslow and other high-profile thefts in Maine.

In March, Charles Spaulding was charged with theft after a Winslow police investigation into the theft of $15,000 from the Winslow Travel Soccer Club.

In February, Wendi Willette pleaded guilty to stealing as much as $10,000 from the Winslow Wrestling Sports Booster Club, a smaller amount from the China girls field hockey team and $60,000 in state assistance.

It comes as no surprise that the victims were small, mainly volunteer groups. Unlike large organizations, small groups often lack the capacity to put checks and balances in place, said Scott Schnapp, director of the Maine Association of Nonprofits.

“When those structures aren’t in place, it leaves the organization in a risky position,” Schnapp said.

Bird handled the VFW’s accounts for about four years before members noticed something was wrong.

Vendors started refusing credit for purchases because they hadn’t been paid for earlier deliveries. Then the bank called to say it hadn’t received a mortgage payment.

With the VFW’s various enterprises, from hall rentals to bingo and other games, it was easy for money to go missing, Hunt said.

It didn’t take long for the VFW to go over its books and determine Bird was responsible. She was the person the organization trusted to manage its books, and she was empowered to write and authorize checks.

Instead of going to the police, the VFW had Bird sign a promissory note last June admitting responsibility for taking the funds and agreeing to pay them back.

But later that month, Winslow police started investigating allegations that Bird had taken as much as $1,500 from the VFW Ladies Auxiliary during the same time. She was charged with theft in early December.

The problems at the Winslow VFW were the same as those that confront many small nonprofits and charities. Nonprofits are set up around a mission and frequently attract people who have passion for the group’s program but who may not have managerial or fiscal skills, Schnapp said.

“Oftentimes, because they are very programatically focused, the administrative side can suffer,” Schnapp said.

In its best practices guide, the Maine Association of Nonprofits suggests procedures to mitigate fraud. Among the suggestions are keeping financial duties separate from other responsibilities, monitoring and recording transactions and cash flow, and requiring periodic reports of financial activity to the board of directors.

More than anything, cases where funds have been misappropriated ultimately represent a failure of leadership, Schnapp said.

A problem for the nonprofit sector is that board members sometimes do not take seriously their responsibility for oversight, he said.

“People love to sit on boards, but they don’t always like to do the important work they are responsible for,” Schnapp said.

The issue of fraud and embezzlement in small organizations is probably more widespread than people would like to believe, said Peter Pitegoff, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, who specializes in business and nonprofit law.

But even large, well-established organizations can fall prey to fraud and abuse.

This month, Russell Brace, the former president of Camden-based United Midcoast Charities, which distributes money to 50 smaller nonprofits, agreed to pay $4.6 million to the company to settle a lawsuit that he stole more than $3.8 million over a 13-year period.

In another case, Stacey Backman, a former accountant at Coastal Enterprises Inc., a Wiscasset-based financial nonprofit, pleaded guilty last October to stealing more than $365,000 over a period of four years.

Pitegoff, who also serves on CEI’s board of directors, said the company has since tightened internal controls, but its story is a cautionary tale about the risk groups face.

“Any organization is susceptible to bad actors,” Pitegoff said.