Okay. Readers of this space know that since becoming New To Seattle I have received all kinds of strange phone calls from all kinds of strange charities asking for money. I don’t believe I have taken a fundraising call yet from a charity I consider to be completely on the up and up. These charities often (1) use outside fundraisers that keep most of the cash money raised, (2) play legal accounting tricks to make themselves seem more efficient, or (3) make inconsistent claims.
The other day, I received a call on behalf of a nonprofit that actually seems to be hitting all three goals. Let’s call it a charity reverse hat trick.
The caller was a woman soliciting for something called Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund, or BCRSF. I had never heard of the organization, which isn’t surprising given that there are thousands and thousands of charities out there with the heart-tugging word cancer in their name (many of questionable legitimacy). The woman said the nonprofit was located in Pompano Beach, Fla., but that she herself was in “Southern Nevada.” I learned long ago that is telemarketer code for Las Vegas; charities don’t like to tell prospective donors they’re being hit up from America’s gambling capital.
She couldn’t answer many of my basic questions, especially how much of the money raised went to the fundraiser and how much went to the stated charitable mission. “I don’t have that information,” she said over and over.
After looking at some documents I pulled on my own, I now know why.
As I see it, according to IRS tax return filings for 2011, the latest available year, by Community Charity Advancement, BCRSF’s legal name, the charity spent none of the nearly $2.2 million in cash raised on what I consider its stated charitable mission. (You can download all the federal filings I mention from this New York State government page.) A big reason is that 87 cents of every dollar raised–nearly $1.9 million–went to BCRSF’s fundraiser, a company identified as Courtesy Call of–yep–Las Vegas. The other $300,000 went mainly to outside contracted management and certain overhead. (I am using round numbers.)
At first blush, that suggests a real-world charitable commitment ratio–direct charitable mission expenses as a percent of all expenses–of 0%, and a fundraising efficiency ratio–the cut of donations remaining after subtracting the cost of raising them–of 13%. Both are truly dreadful numbers, since charitable watchdogs generally set 65% as the lowest acceptable figure for each ratio. (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve encountered a 0% charitable commitment ratio in Washington State.)
But the often-useless charity website maintained by the Washington State Secretary of State’s Office puts the charitable commitment ratio at 52%–still lousy, but a lot higher. How can this be? The aforementioned legal accounting tricks. In its filings, BCRSF said that it received another $2 million in donated medical goods, also known as gift-in-kind, or GIK, which it then distributed to others. As I have written here and elsewhere, while GIK is a valid form of donation, it is subject to outrageous exaggeration in value, financial efficiency and even existence. That’s because a couple of big donated gifts of goods generally cost a charity almost nothing to procure and in the hands of the wildest operators often consist of little more than paperwork shuffling without even handling the stuff.
And as it turns out, according to its audited financial statement (also downloadable from the New York State site), BCRSF got all of its $2 million of claimed donated goods from one of the wildest operators in the business. I am referring to World Help, the Virginia-based charity that just got caught making up donations and values (although it says it was duped by an outside consultant). For 2011–the same year it sent that $2 million gift to BCRSF–World Help, once one of the country’s largest charities, has been forced to reduce the value of GIK it said it received and distributed from $224 million to a mere $1.6 million.
World Helpless seems more like it now. That’s a 99% drop, so stunning it has drawn the attention of state charity regulators investigating the issue of fraudulent GIK valuations as a way of attracting would-be cash donors. The fall has also forced some charities that said they had received largess from World Help, including at least one other beating the bushes in Seattle, Children’s Cancer Recovery Foundation, to restate downward their own results.
So far, BCRSF doesn’t seem to have done that. But applying that 99% haircut would reduce that claimed $2 million to a mere $20,000. By my reckoning, including that sum in the mix, BCRSF’s total charitable commitment ratio still stays at 0%–a lot less than the 52% stated in Olympia–and its fundraising efficiency something like 14%.
That gets me to the third prong of my dubious-charity test: inconsistent claims. On its website, BCRSF has a list of what it says are six cancer research institutions that it sent grants to in 2011. Among the listees is something called “Seattle Cancer Alliance.” (I am going to assume without investigating further that means the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, its proper name.) However, the BCRSF tax return for 2011–the very same year–listed the total amount of grants given to organizations in the U.S. as–zero. Not one dime, or even a penny. As for the disposition of that claimed $2 million in donated goods, the tax return said explicitly that it all was sent to South America. However, BCRSF’s audited financial statement stated just as explicitly that the goods all went to the Dominican Republic. The last time I looked, that country sat on half of an island out in the Caribbean and certainly wasn’t part of South America.
BCRSF states on its home page that it is “dedicated to the education, health and well-being of women through aiding cancer research and assisting those unfortunately afflicted with this devastating disease.” Right now, in my judgment there’s no evidence that its claimed receipts were so comprehensively directed.
Nor was I surprised to learn that BCRSF has a short and chameleon-like existence. It was only founded in 2008, and the original name was the religiously evocative Seven Sisters of Healing Inc. Its application to the IRS for tax-exempt status, dated June 10, 2009, made no mention that I can see of cancer support or cancer research. Its stated “primary purpose” was to “provide health care equipment and products to those in need in the United States and Central and South America.” That was sufficient for the IRS, which approved the tax-exempt application just a month later.
Well, maybe not evocative enough, or maybe too religious-sounding. In 2011, according to Florida state records, Seven Sisters of Healing Inc. changed its name to the more neutral Community Charity Advancement. Still not a grabber? By that time the organization was soliciting under the name Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund (as well as, somewhat bizarrely, US Firefighters Association). I’m sure it is just a coincidence that the medical name is very similar to that of the bigger, reputable, much-longer-established Breast Cancer Research Foundation in New York.
As is my custom, I invited anyone mentioned or interested in this story to post their comments below.
Does BCRSF have anything to hide? Said the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance in a January report, “This organization either has not responded to written BBB requests for information or has declined to be evaluated in relation to BBB Standards for Charity Accountability.”
This is about the strongest warning possible in the world of charity that mischief is afoot. Penalty box, I say.
UPDATE ON 10/1/2013: In addition to being dubious, the Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund isn’t too smart or organized, either. One might reasonably think from this post that I am not a supporter of the organization, nor a good candidate for a pledge. But unbelievably, I just another solicitation call on behalf of the charity. The caller said she, too, worked for Courtesy Call. And like the last one, she wasn’t terribly well-informed. “What is Courtesy Call?” I asked politely. There was a sigh on the line, followed by a long pause, followed by the distinctive click of a phone being disconnected at the other end.