The candidates are lining right up for inclusion on my two-week-old list of “America’s Stupidest Charities.” The criteria is ridiculously simple. A sketchy charity actually nominates itself when its representatives cold-call the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for a donation even though that very same charity had been the subject of a disparaging post in this very same space.
I mean, is it even possible to be stupider than that?
The first entry was the American Veterans Support Foundation, a trade name of the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation. As I recounted here on January 29, a computer-controlled interactive voice called just 11 days after I wrote up a previous call, pointing out only 11 cents of each donated cash dollar went to anything remotely resembling charity and even raising questions about its location and veracity.
A few days later, the second candidate materialized. It was Cancer Support Services, a Dearborn, Mich., affiliate of the oft-criticized Knoxville, Tenn.-based Cancer Fund of America. I wrote here on January 30 that the combined organization raised $14 million in cash gifts but only spent $21,000–that’s 1/5 of 1%–on things I considered charity, with most of the rest going to the fundraisers. That was even worse than when I ripped up the organization two years.
And now, let me introduce the third candidate. Drum roll again. It’s Community Charity Advancement, doing business as the Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund. The charity–and I use that term loosely here–is based in Pompano Beach, Fla.
A few nights ago, I received a fundraising call on behalf of the charity. As seems to be all the rage these days, the caller was an interactive computer trying its best to impersonate a human. Using the name “Darlene Lewis”–at least that’s how it sounded to me–the caller asked if I would pledge $15 to help the cause.
As is my habit, I started throwing out some basic questions. One of the first ones was “What is your tax identification number?” This is a good thing for a would-be donor to know since it makes it easier to track down info on a charity. It’s a matter of public record, so there’s no issue of privacy.
No charity that has called me ever has failed to have that on hand upon request–before this call. “I’m still in training and don’t have that information,” “Darlene” said, adding that she would put her “supervisor” on the line.
Sure enough, I was soon speaking with someone who identified herself as Diana Jones–a real person. Surely, she would be able to provide the tax ID number.
“We don’t have it,” she said. But, she added, the number would be on a pledge card that would be sent to me in the mail as soon as I committed to that $15.
I said I would be pleased to review any written materials sent to me, but that I couldn’t possibly commit to a pledge until I learned more.
“Diana”–I’m putting that in quotes because I sort of doubt that was her real name–said she was “not able” to send me anything unless I made a pledge.
Not goin’ happen, I said. The conversation quickly terminated.
This was the third time in less than a year that Community Charity/BCRSF had called me. After the first, last May, I looked at its latest filing, for calendar year 2011. I wrote a post here declaring that not a single penny of the $2.2 million raised in cash went to what I considered its stated charitable mission. Instead, I figured that 87 cents of every dollar raised went to an outside paid telemarketer named Courtesy Call, of Las Vegas, with the rest going to overhead and outside contracted management.
I noted that the charity had only been around for a few years and kept changing its name. First it was the religiously evocative Seven Sisters of Healing Inc., then the more secular-sounding Community Charity Advancement before finally settling upon the heart-tugging Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund as a trade name. (I pointed out that Community Charity for some reason also solicits under the name US Firefighters Association.) In addition, I identified numerous discrepancies and other warning flags. including that the charity had refused to be evaluated by the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. “This is about the strongest warning possible in the world of charity that mischief is afoot,” I wrote.
I updated that post in October after I got a second call from Community Charity/BCRSF. That call ended with a hang-up at the other end after I started asking about Courtesy Call.
Yet it appears I’m still on the Courtesy Call/Community Charity/BCRSF speed dial.
I’ve now had a chance to review the Community Charity/BCRSF tax filing for 2012, the latest available. The charity took in 50% more cash–but still gave squat to what I consider the charitable mission it proclaims to the donating public.
As I read the document, Community Charity/BCRSF collected $3.58 million in cash. Of that, Courtesy Call kept $3.03 million–85%. That’s a fundraising efficiency ratio–the amount of donations remaining after the cost of fundraising–of 15%, well below the 65% threshold that charity watchdogs say is the absolute minimum for a reputable charity.
Of the remaining $550,000, not a single penny went out in cash grants or assistance. Some $40,000 stayed in the bank. Another $465,000 was spent for overhead and outside contracted management.
It’s not terribly clear from the filing where the remaining $45,000 went. But let’s be sporting and assume it somehow all was spent on a proper charitable purpose. On a cash basis, that means the charitable commitment–the percent of total expenses directly spent on the mission–was something like 1.3%. This is way beyond the pale. The watchdogs say 65% is the lowest acceptable minimum here, too.
Yet the website of the often-clueless Washington State Secretary of State calculated BCRSF’s charitable commitment ratio for the same year as 57%. This still stinks but is a lot higher than 1.3%. The reason is that the Community Charity/BCRSF filing includes receipt and distribution of donated goods, also known as gift-in-kind, or GIK, valued at $3.9 million. While GIK is a valid form of donation, it is prone to outrageous exaggeration in value. That, and the fact that GIK generally costs a charity almost nothing to procure and deploy, can make a charity seem a lot more financially efficient than it really is.
In the case of Community Charity/BCRSF, its 2012 filing suggested that almost all the GIK was unspecified medicines and medical supplies–among the goods most susceptible to value exaggeration–sent to unspecified recipients in a single country: Honduras. Maybe. In another part of the filing, Community Charity/BCRSF wrote that its most significant activity was sending medicine and supplies to “South America.” The last time I looked, Honduras was in Central America separated by three countries from South America.
As always, I invite comments below from anyone on the merits of this nomination for stupidity. I’d especially love to have a further dialog with “Darlene” and “Diana,” those crack fundraisers for Community Charity/BCRSF. Based on past experience, there’s a good chance I’ll be hearing again from them or their colleagues. Duplicate nominations are accepted.