I think I now know one of the reasons why there hasn’t been much of a law-enforcement crackdown over the years against charities that misrepresent themselves to prospective donors or spend most of what is raised on things having nothing to do with charity. Some of the most scuzzy charities actually belong to law-enforcement groups.
Last night, I got a telephone call at the New To Seattle world headquarters on behalf of an outfit called the National Police and Troopers Association, in Sarasota, Fla. The male voice immediately launched into a spiel about how contributions would help fight crime and God knows what else. I was asked to promise that I would send in money if mailed a pledge card. But the caller quickly hung up after I said it was insulting to be pitched by a computer–which the caller was–rather than a real human.
Afterwards, I did a little research. Not surprisingly, it appears that just about everything I was told was a fib. But the really sad–or shocking–part is that the NPTA is not a stand-alone charity essentially sent up by some telemarketer who keeps most of the money but a division of an actual police union organization whose members, I assume, are supposed to protect the public. Yet the telemarketer still kept most of the money while the sworn officers were, in my judgment, complicit in deception.
According to public records, NPTA is a trade name of the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO. The International Union represents 15,000 members in law-enforcement agencies across the country. As its name implies, it is a labor organization. The sole stated mission in its latest tax return, for 2012 (downloadable from this page) is to “bargain for just compensation and better benefits” for members.
That’s no charitable purpose as the public generally would understand the concept. You will not be surprised to know that my friendly computer caller made no mention of a union.
By my reading of the financial documents, for the year ending March 31, 2012, the union and its outside fundraisers collected $8.2 million and kept $7.7 million for fundraising fees and expenses, leaving about $500,000 for other purposes. That’s a fundraising efficiency of 6%–less than one-tenth the 65% threshold that charity watchdogs consider the bare minimum for a legitimate operation.
But it’s really stinks even more. According to the tax return, out of that last $500,000, the union handed out charitable grants–scholarships, and a death benefit for one officer in Indiana–totaling just $35,000. That rounds to just 1/2 of 1% of the money raised. The remaining $465,000 essentially went to negotiating higher pay for cops. Would-be donors who presumably also are taxpayers ought to know upfront that in our system of collective bargaining they are funding the other side.
I am not against cops nor unions. But since I don’t consider collective bargaining to be a charitable purpose, I reckon that from the perspective of the donating public the charitable commitment ratio–the percentage of total expenses spent in furtherance of true charity–was just one-third of 1%. Again, charity watchdogs set 65% as the minimum for respectability.
One of those watchdogs, the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, says in a published report the NPTA, which used to be based in Wauwatosa, Wis., refused to cooperate in an evaluation. In the charity world this usually is a dead giveaway that something is seriously wrong.
Indeed, the NPTA is so sketchy that it cannot even agree on the spelling of its own name. One of the pages on the NPTA website–see it here–references both “Troopers,” plural, and “Trooper,” singular. It’s your choice, I guess, in which name you waste your hard-earned money.
The charity website of the Washington State Secretary of State’s Office, which generally is clueless in these kind of matters, states that the International Union’s charitable commitment rounds to 18% rather than 0% as I see it. The state agency apparently was counting the collective bargaining expenses as charity. Of course, 18% is pretty lousy in and of itself, so visitors to the site who understand the significance of this statistic might be on some kind of notice.
The International Union ranked No. 7 on the just-published list by the Tampa Bay Times of “America’s Worst Charities.” That was based on the amount of money that fundraisers kept over a 10-year period. As I did, the paper also calculated the amount of direct cash aid given out as 1/2 of 1% of funds raised.
A spokesman for the union told the paper that professional solicitors will continue to be used. “While the percents (returns) are not what we would like them to be, it’s money we otherwise wouldn’t have to support our officers,” he said.
I think Al Capone had roughly the same ends-justify-the-means thinking.
The International Union was the highest ranked law-enforcement-labeled organization on the 50-entity Times list. But hardly alone. Three others in the top 20 were American Association of State Troopers, United States Deputy Sheriffs’ Association and Police Protective Fund. I’d say about 20% of the entire list consisted of charities with a law-enforcement theme in their name.
Seattle is hardly immune to home-grown enterprises of this nature. Last year I wrote about the King County Police Union, soliciting money to fund an identification-card program for children called My ID Club. The caller–a real human, at least–told me 89% of the money raised went to the program. But as I estimated after looking at filings, the real charitable commitment ratio was maybe half that, or less. And as it turned out, the King County Police Union didn’t exist, but was a trade name of Public Safety Employees Union 519, a Seattle labor organization that represented very few police officers.
As usual, I invite comments below from anyone affected by or interested in this post. It’s all in the interest of law enforcement.