Another curious fundraising pitch in Seattle

Those of you who follow this space know I sometimes write about Seattle-area fundraising pleas that to me don’t pass the sniff test. Sometime it’s a spot I hear on the radio. Other times it’s a telephone call, either from a person or a cleverly programmed interactive computer. The problem is usually not with the cause itself but with its financing or disclosure. After digging around I discover that little of the requested cash gift reaches anyone in need and most of it–in one case, 99.6%–goes to executive salaries, overhead and especially fundraising costs.

The other night, sitting at the New To Seattle world headquarters, I received a call that I would classify as another variation on this odorous theme.

The caller–a real person this time–said he represented  “King County Police Union Local 519.” (Seattle is in King County.) He asked for a non-tax-deductible contribution to support a child protection program called “My ID Club.” He described that as an endeavor that produces free laminated photo ID cards for young kids that could be tucked into, say, a backpack or bicycle helmet and provide quick contact information should a child be injured or found after getting lost. As though he was reading my mind, the caller added that “89% goes for the program; only 11% is overhead.”

Okay, I said I would be happy to review any written literature he sent me, but he said mailings aren’t used so as to cut printing and postage costs. He gave me a link to a website–kingcounty.myidclub.org–and said he would call back after I had a chance to look at the online information.

I haven’t gotten that promised return call. Which is probably a good thing for the caller. Because my poking around has now produced more red flags than a veterans day march in Moscow.

For openers, I couldn’t find a current labor organization with the official formal name of “King County Police Union Local 519.” Anywhere. However, there is something in Seattle named Public Safety Employees Union 519. Its web site says the union represents 500 employees in a variety of government agencies. Most of the units, such as King County Civic Television and the King County court-clerk system, do not look to me like police organizations. (A completely separate union, the King County Police Officers Guild, seems to represent a lot more cops.)

A visit to the website of the Washington State Secretary of State’s Office pulled up a page suggesting that “King County Police Union” was simply a name used by Public Safety Employees Union 519. I have to think that for marketing purposes someone feels it’s more effective to make a pitch using the evocative word “police” rather than “public safety employees” or “TV camera operators.” But more significantly, the page said the union employed the services of a paid fundraiser called Support Services Incorporated, or SSI.

A paid fundraiser can be a giant red flag.

In its own fundraising filing in Olympia, and using round numbers, SSI said for the year ending December 31, 2011, it raised $570,000 for the police union and also Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local 27 (no breakdown was specified), and ended up giving those two labor organizations $110,000. But lest anyone think SSI pocketed a whopping 80% of the take, SSI stated in a footnote that it paid from its share all expenses of the charitable component and kept for itself only 11% of the money raised. I’m going to assume that’s the same 11% that my caller cited as “overhead.” That would be $63,000.

In the absence of more specific information, I’m also going to assume all the fundraising concerned the My ID Card program and that everything raised went somewhere. So it looks to me like 30 cents of every dollar raised in the name of helping kids–that’s $173,000 of $570,000–got raked off by either the fundraiser or the unions, which aren’t charities at all but simply try to get better pay for their members (at taxpayers expense). Were they traditional charities, these numbers suggest a charitable commitment ratio of 70%. Besides being a lot lower than the 89% figure I was given on the phone, this really is nothing to write home about but is considered tolerable–barely–by many charity watchdogs.

However, that’s not the whole story.

I wondered who owns the rights to the Web domain name myidclub.org . An ordinary donor might assume that all .org extensions belong to nonprofits, but that’s not true. Anyone can get one. You can get one. Your company can get one. And it’s easy to look up ownership information.

As it turns out, myidclub.org is registered to something called Guardian ID Systems Inc. That sure sounds like a for-profit business that just might make My ID Club cards.

Guardian lists a PO box in suburban Burien. And not just any PO box in suburban Burien, but the very same one listed as the address for SSI! I’m going to make a wild leap here and suggest that Guardian ID Systems Inc. and SSI have common ownership or management or are at least affiliates.

If that’s the case, a donor really has no way of knowing how much–or little–of a contribution truly goes to produce each card as opposed to ending up somewhere else. Like in union bank accounts and the pockets of the owners of Guardian IDSystems/SSI.

The MyIDCard.org website that Guardian ID Systems Inc. owns states, “Every dollar that you donate to the MY ID CLUB enables one child to receive an ID card.” The lack of an arm’s-length relationship between Guardian and SSI pretty much makes this a meaningless statement. This is especially so since, cruising the Web, it certainly looks like once the equipment is purchased, it costs only pennies to produce a laminated card.

All this suggests to me the “true” charitable commitment ratio on a donation to the My ID Club effort is a lot, lot, lot lower than even my earlier-calculated 70%. If I’m right, the ratio falls considerably under the 65% floor that, say, the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance considers the minimum acceptable.

As always, I invite anybody, including those mentioned, who has a view on these matters or disputes my assumptions to post comments below.

Another key missing fact here is how many My ID Club cards were issued in 2011. I’d wager way, way, way fewer than the implied number of 570,000 (the amount raised in dollars divided by that claimed per-card cost of $1.00). What’s that smell?

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Another curious fundraising pitch in Seattle — 32 Comments

  1. Thank you for this information, it really helped me! My intuition told me that this wasn’t the best use of my donation funds.

  2. I just received a call from (206) 582-4574 who stated they were with the police department. That phone number did not yield any useful results, but after briefly searching for “King county police fundraisers” (because he spoke so fast, I didn’t quite catch it all). I ended up here and from the sounds of it, it was the same organization that called me. I found it very suspicious and I’ll be curious to see what comes in the mail from them. I don’t plan on giving them any of my hard earned money.

    • In my experience, the overwhelming majority of telemarketing calls on behalf of law enforcement organizations have problems, generally because little of the money raised–and in some cases none of the money raised–goes to good charitable causes, and the caller has no incentive to tell you this.

  3. Short story: I worked for these guys over 25 years ago.

    I wouldn’t give them a dime.

    Longer story: I was a college student and looking for a job. Saw an ad. Applied and wound up working the phones for a while.

    It’s not a SCAM, per se; everything they do is technically legal, or at least that’s how they train their employees.

    In practice, though, the best phone sales guys stretch or abuse or downright ignore the law. Why not? They rarely get caught and if they do, they say they’re sorry and they move onward.

    I wasn’t good at the phones part (only making about 8-10 bucks an hour, which, keep in mind, was pretty decent money in the late 80s) so I switched to being a driver.

    Back then, we worked the neighborhoods by using a reverse phone directory. Each phone solicitor would have a few pages and would work right down a street. Sometimes you hit a good street and could use the “your neighbor, Mr So-and-so, just donated” and clean up.

    Everyone working a given zip code and so we kept a driver or two out there in that neighborhood. The driver would call in to the office every so often from a pay phone (remember, cell phones were hugely expensive and nobody had them back then) and write up receipts for the donors, then drive to the house and pick up their check.

    We deposited those suckers overnight and got the $$ as fast as we could.

    Back then, the driver got 8% of everything he could pick up. Since we wouldn’t stop at a house for less than $20, and since we could easily hit 8-10 houses an hour if we were really clicking, you could easily make 15-20 an hour as a driver.

    The phone guy got around 20% of what they raked in, if memory serves. The office manager got another 8 or 10 percent, and then the company that ran all this got a percentage, and finally we had the amount that went to the union.

    It’s a huge waste of money. It clobbers lower-middle incomes, it clobbers the elderly, and it’s a shame it’s still going after all these years. It might not actually be a scam (there IS a product that is produced- back then, we published a “drug and alcohol abuse educational book”, it was a real book, about 1/3 ads and very generic) but I would never, ever give them money today if they were to call.

    Good blog item. Found it searching for something entirely different but good work.

    • Thanks for the very interesting history. I don’t think a pick-up driver is involved anymore; someone called is told a pledge card will be mailed, but only after the telemarketer gets an oral pledge of a future donation.

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  5. Thank you for your investigation and report. I was going to donate from a call a few days ago, and they sent a form to send in credit card information. That raised a red flag for me, so that’s when I googled the “police union” (“King County Police” was the first flag, since it’s Sheriff). Now I know that there’s no way I will donate to this scam.

  6. thank you for this article. I did a little research myself after a man called my CELL PHONE using a FAKE name KEN (yeah right). I said I was going to donate 50.00 until I found this blog and did more research. The same person who owns the fund raising company MAKES THE ID CARDS. SO basically most of the money I was going to donate would go in this persons pocket. Thats like microsoft calling people to donate to them so they can give out free laptops to the kids. How are you going to fund raise for your own merchandise? Dont fall for this..give directly to your local police department.

  7. Thank you for the article. I just got the same call and wanted to check it out first before I commit to it. He asked me how much i can donate and when I told him about $50, he offered to send someone tomorrow. I said no thanks. I hate ‘donating’ over the phone and I’m glad I found your article.

  8. Putting aside the fact that there is no King County Police Union, the biggest problem with fundraising using the MyID Club card is the lack of financial transparency. As I indicated in my original post, the paid fundraiser is also the outfit producing the cards, so there’s no way for a would-be donor to know how much of the donation goes to the My ID Card project, and how much goes into the pockets of the fundraiser/card producer and what I would call royalties paid to parent union (Public Safety Employees Union Local 519, most of whose members are not police). All indications, though, is that the non-charitable cut is way over 50%. Moreover, since Public Safety Employees Union Local 519 is classified by the IRS as a 501(c)(5) labor organization rather than a 501(c)(3) charity, contributions are not tax deductible to the donor.

  9. Thank you for the blog– it came up on a Bing search, as I just today received a phone call from “Norm Eckels on behalf of King County Police Union” wanting to collect money for the “My ID Club Card Campaign.” The caller also stated they are offering a new feature this year that links the cards to “Amber Alert.” [Sounded super hokey to me– doesn’t every citizen have access to Amber Alert if the need arises?!] His schpiel was heavily laced with innuendo about me personally ensuring the safety of my own children– which felt creepy– how does he know I have children? And to be clear, the CARD doesn’t keep my kid safe– it only helps in the recovery should anythign bad happen. When I told him I didn’t want to contribute at this time, his tone changed drastically (from enthusiastic to annoyed), but he kept up the pursuit. When I told him “thank you for the information, I will research it more online before I go any further,” he hung up on me!! RE Scott’s comments, I’m glad his police department was able to partake in such a seemingly beneficial program. I agree with Barrett: (coming from a career in print production) my gripe is that these ID cards cost pennies to produce and this “org” seems to be misrepresenting how much of the money is actually going toward the production of the cards. Further, in my school district, the cards come free each year with the kids school photos whether or not the kids can afford a photo packaged– a perk the photog company throws in at no cost. Sure, the card is handy and good reminder to parents to collect important data on your kids several times/year, but aside from the finger print, the cards are nearly useless: the little 3/4 inch photos aren’t much use if your kid goes missing, and the height/weight information becomes outdated monthly, if not weekly, as kids grow so fast. ANY parent can (and should) collect and store finger prints, photos and DNA of their own children for FREE. So where are these hundreds of thousands of $’s going? I’m guessing to pay some fat cats to sit in a recliner all day and make phone calls.

  10. Re: Scott’s comments. What was the name of the police agency you worked for, the name of the police chief, your position within the agency and the location of the event? Without that supportive and verifiable info, I am unable to tell if you are legit or perhaps schilling for the organization under discussion. Thanks for your help with this!

  11. My issue was not with the product produced per se. It was with the fundraising end of it, especially the misrepresentation of charitable costs to donors as well as the fact that the King County Police Union really didn’t exist.

  12. I worked for a police department in Western Washington. Our Chief signed the agency up receive and produce ID cards at local events from MyIDclub. MyIDClub provided at no cost to the department, all of the equipment, computer, printer, camera, laminate machine, banners(with custom logo) and card stock to make 1000 cards. I know the first event I worked at, it was a huge success. I had kids and parents lined up for 3 straight hours. I can’t speak to the fundraising and how they handle it, but or the overhead they collect. But I think it’s fair to say they did our small agency a great service.

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  15. Interesting point, and Washington State is indeed a two-party consent state. But the fundraising caller would have known from the outgoing tape of kct that a message would be recorded. I’d say that’s constructive consent or even actual consent.

  16. I’m not a lawyer–and I sure don’t play one on TV–but perhaps KCT should first make sure Washington is not a dual party notification state. Massachusetts is, and I can imagine (unfortunately) this attempt to shed light on these horrendous fundraising practices backfiring, with KCT being labeled the wrongdoer for taping (even inadvertently) the conversation.

  17. Since my megaphone here at NewToSeattle.com is pretty modest, you might consider contacting one of the TV stations in Seattle. You don’t have video, but you have audio, which is almost as good.

  18. Received a VM from such organization as listed above tonight. The caller did not realize he was being recorded on my machine and was talking to another person asking for a donation. When she said no and hung up, he called her a whore… I went online trying to find a way to give feedback to King County Police and found your entry. Thanks for the heads up. At least it makes me feel better about who is representing our Police force (since they are not).

  19. Another good investigation! Thanks for having the time and skills to conduct the due diligence that scams like “My ID Card” hope donors won’t do.

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