The telemarketer on the phone at the New To Seattle world headquarters said he was calling from the King County Police Union (Seattle sits in King County). He was hoping I would contribute to a project called My ID Club, in which children in the Seattle area are issued free photo ID cards to help resolve missing-kid situations. He said 40,000 cards had been issued in 2015.
Interesting, I said. How much money did you raise last year to cover those 40,000 cards?
The caller said he didn’t know. “I’m not an accountant,” he said, a bit annoyed.
Okay, I said, how many police officers belong to the King County Police Union? He wouldn’t answer that question, either. He then cited a rather lame excuse–another call coming in–to quickly end our conversation.
But I sort of know the answers to these two questions: lots of money, and almost no cops. That’s because I’ve been called before in the name of the King County Police Union. It’s a trade name used by Public Safety Employees Union 519, based in Seattle. What looks like a public-spirited civic endeavor is, in my view, a more cynical effort by a union and its fundraiser to make a buck for themselves. By my reading of public documents and a little common sense, a lot less of the money raised was spent on ID cards than the average donor might imagine.
Last year, I nominated Public Safety Employees Union 519 as a contender for my list of America’s Stupidest Charities. The criteria is simple: nonprofits that call me asking for money despite a previous critical write-up in this space. Does it get dumber than that? I first described the practices of Local 519 way back in 2012 (read it here). I now have the honor of renominating the organization for my list.
According to one of its websites (more about this later), Public Safety Employees Union 519 represents about 500 workers. Almost none is a sworn officer. Most are Superior Court clerks, assorted non-commissioned employees working for King County legal system units and camera operators for the county TV system broadcasting public meetings. Indeed, the only police contracts I saw listed covered police captains in suburban Bothell–four, according to that department’s latest annual report–and police lieutenants in suburban Kirkland, who, judging from that agency’s website, number about three. That’s a total of seven cops.
Visitors to this space know that I tend to assess fundraising efforts from the standpoint of the would-be donor. So to me it’s not hard to imagine why the union might want to solicit in the evocative name of King County Police Union rather than, say, King County Court Clerks Union or King County TV Operators Union. Public Safety Employees Union 519 has been using the King County Police Union d/b/a for decades. (Seattle police are represented by the Seattle Police Officers Guild while King County Sheriff’s Office deputies and sergeants are represented by the King County Police Officers Guild.)
According to its IRS Form 990 for 2014, the latest available, Public Safety Employees Union 519 raised $445,000 in the name of the My ID Club program. Assuming the 2014 number of cards was the same as the 40,000 I was told on the phone for last year, that works out to $11.13 of fundraising per card. To me that is a huge amount, especially since, looking around the Internet, it seems clear that in bulk the fair-market cost of equipment and supplies for producing photo IDs and laminating them works out to way, way less than $1 per card.
So where did all the cash go?
Well, about $84,000, or 19% stayed with the union as gross profit simply for allowing use of the King County Police Union name. And I do mean profit–Public Safety Employees Union 519 actually had to pay a federal income tax of $16,000 because in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service the My ID Club project was no charitable endeavor but simply a profit-making endeavor.
The profit allowed the union to charge its members–including those seven or so cops–a little less in union dues toward its primary purpose of collective bargaining, which definitely is not a charitable endeavor. I don’t recall being told in any call I’ve received on behalf of the King County Police Union that a portion of any money I contribute would be used to negotiate public worker contracts that might increase my taxes.
Another tax return that Public Safety Employees Union 519 filed for 2014 called the entire remaining $361,000 “fundraising expenses.” According to its Washington State charitable registration, Public Safety Employees Union 519 used only one commercial fundraiser that year, an outfit called Support Services Inc. Meanwhile, the website myidclub.org is registered to a corporation named Guardian ID Systems Inc.
Support Services Inc. and Guardian ID Systems Inc. list the same physical address and PO box in suburban Burien, as well as the same corporate officer, Robert Casey. (Click here and here.) So I think it’s fair to conclude they are affiliates under the common control of Casey, and that the $361,000 went there. Responding to an email from me, Casey essentially acknowledged that fact. It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for the telemarketer to provide the stated benefit rather than the client, here, the union.
Like the King County Police Union telemarketer who called me, I am not an accountant. And I have no way of knowing exactly how the money given to Support Services Inc./Guardian ID Systems Inc. was divided among fundraising, the cost of making and supplying the My ID cards, and profit.
But I know a lot about charitable telemarketing (although Public Safety Employee Union 519, a labor organization, is really no charity). The telemarketer can get as high as 90% of the money donated, and rarely less than 60%. In its 2014 filing with the Washington State Secretary of State’s Office, Public Safety Employees Union 519 said solicitations on its behalf were only via telephone.
In his email to me, Casey offered this expense breakout: 20% for the union, 69% for the My ID Club program, and a “gross profit” for his business of 11%. But he left out fundraising expense, which is a standard metric normally listed as a separate category and reported publicly as part of a campaign in the name of a nonprofit organization. Here, I imagine fundraising was most of that 69%. In a follow-up note to Casey, I asked specifically about the fundraising expense, but haven’t heard back.
I’ll be sporting and assume fundraising costs were only 40% of the money raised (although I have never seen a telemarketing fundraising percentage that low, but then again, the telemarketer here is also the provider of the charity-like service). Furthermore, I will assume that the reasonable cost of each of those assumed 40,000 cards, including production and delivery, was $2.50, even though, as I noted earlier, the materials component was a fraction of that.
So by my dead reckoning, of every $100 donated in the name of King County Police Union, $22 went for the cards, $40 went for fundraising, $8 went for the non-card related overhead of Support Services Inc/Guardian ID Systems Inc., $19 was gross profit for the largely cop-less union to win better contracts, and $11 went to Support Services Inc/Guardian ID Systems Inc. as its gross profit.
These numbers produce a fundraising efficiency (percentage of funds left after the cost of raising them) for the My ID Club project of 60%. This is below the 65% threshold for fundraising efficiency set by charity watchdog Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, although that threshold technically applies to an entire organization rather than one project.
These numbers also produce a charitable commitment ratio (percent of total expenses spent directly on the stated mission) for the My ID Club project of 22%. That is way below the 65% threshold for charitable commitment set by the BBB, although, again, the BBB standard is intended for a charity as a whole rather than a single project.
To put it another way, in my opinion not much was spent on the cards given the amount of money donated, while the union and its telemarketer managed to pocket a lot more. As is so often the case, the big winner was the telemarketer. The big loser, of course, was the donating public.
Casey in his email defended the My ID Club program while expressing a rather poor opinion of me. “We are very proud of the program we’ve created and your blog shaming of it cannot detract from its success and popularity in the community,” he wrote. “The My ID Club is a service which requires incredible time and energy traveling around the Puget Sound 80-100 times a year with over 2,500 events in its 20-year history … Print how popular we are with the public service agencies we support and the families who use the program in King County.”
Now here’s the promised bit about that union web presence. The tax return of Public Safety Employees Union 519 for 2014 stated on its last page, “The organization makes policies and financial statements available to the public via its website.” The website listed on the tax return’s first page was www.local519.org. But that URL doesn’t do too much. It displays an “Under Construction” message that, judging from the Wayback Machine archives of old web pages, has been there for a long time. (For instance, click here to see the same notice on June 11, 2011.) The other URL for the union that I am aware of, www.pseu519.org, does not appear to contain any posted financial statements, either. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the tax return of the proud owner of the King County Police Union name was filed under penalty of perjury.
In case you wonder, I got the 2014 tax filings by directly requesting them from the union. While I was grateful for the quick service, the union, like all exempt organizations, is required by IRS regulations to provide them if asked.
Besides Casey, I also sent a detailed request for comment on the themes in this post to the union. I’ll update this if I hear back.
Casey also wrote me that I’m now on his Do Not Call List for future solicitations in the name of King County Police Union. Now that’s definitely not a stupid act.