Mr. Chatterbox: When It Comes to Charity, Do Your Research

Be generous, says Mr. C--but be careful, too.

By Robert Plunket September 1, 2015 Published in the September 2015 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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I love giving money to charity. It not only brightens my day, it makes me feel affluent. “Gee,” I think, “if I can afford to give $20 to the poor or the artistic (in Sarasota it’s usually the same thing), then I must be doing pretty well indeed.”


I do have my limits, though. I once gave $400 to the Asolo and worried about it for days. What if I needed it for the mortgage payment? What if it all ended up in some enormous pot without everybody knowing that it’s coming from me? What if it turned out that the Asolo is some big scam?


Well, after 48 years and 349 brilliant productions, I think we can assume that the Asolo Rep is not a scam. They’re very considerate recipients, in fact, and I got a nice “thank-you” letter. True, I secretly thought I deserved a handwritten note from Michael Edwards himself, but the letter was very well done.  And my name was listed in the program book—believe me, I checked. Every performance I went to.


Frankly, recognition is quite important to me when it comes to charity. I totally understand why people want their names on buildings. I actually pore over those lists in the program book, looking for names I recognize, and whenever I spot one I think, “Gee, what an upstanding person that is.” Unless, of course, it’s somebody who is real rich but only gave $100. Then I think, “What a cheapskate.”


In this issue, we celebrate the efforts and accomplishments of Sarasota’s nonprofit groups, and towards the back you’ll find a directory to 476 of them. They all make the cut when it comes to meeting the transparency requirements of local foundations.


But still, do your research. Keep in mind the two most important things. What are their fund-raising expenses like, and what are their programs like? If the fund-raising expenses are more than 35 percent, find out why. Experts say the best-run charities usually keep fund-raising expenses down to 35 percent.


The sad fact is that there are bad charities out there. In fact, fraudulent and misleading fund raising is a billion-dollar-a-year business. Organizations that use telemarketers are the worst offenders. They are master manipulators and know just which buttons to push.


The biggest button the telemarketers use is very Dickensian—dying children. Only the coldest heart would refuse a terminally ill child a trip to Disney World, particularly if all you have to do is chip in $10. Several reputable charities also use this angle, most notably the Make-a-Wish Foundation, a highly respected group that keeps Justin Bieber busy visiting hospital room after hospital room. Pee-wee Herman’s mother (Judy Rubenfeld) once told me that her son, back in his heyday, considered this the hardest part of his job.


Make-a-Wish has had an enormous impact on our culture. Last wishes are always well-documented and often end up on the news. The hit movie The Fault in Our Stars uses one as its plot. But beware. If your last wish has anything to do with guns, Make-a-Wish will not accommodate you. Fortunately, this being America, other charities have stepped into that particular breach. If you’re under 17 and want to kill a bear you can go to Hunt of a Lifetime, Catch-a-Dream, or Life Hunts.


Now, knowing all this, let’s say you get a phone call—and you probably have—from the Kids Wish Network. I personally would immediately hang up because I don’t believe in telemarketers of any kind, but many people stay on the line—my father always listened politely to their spiel—and find themselves talked into giving some money. The problem is that the Kids Wish Network (notice the cunning similarity in names) was recently named the worst charity in the country. Yes, they “provide services” to dying and disabled children, but the services are mostly one-time gifts of air fresheners and snack cakes from the Dollar Store.


The numbers say it all. In the past decade, Kids Wish Network has raised $137.9 million, mostly via phone solicitors.  The solicitors kept $115.9 million of this. Only 2.5 percent went to direct cash aid. Staff salaries are hefty, there are large “consulting fees,” and everybody on the board seems to be related.


The second button the telemarketers press is the word “cancer.” It’s such an emotional disease, so fraught with anxiety, that people will make little offerings as a sort of prayer that they won’t come down with it.  The names the scam artists use sound so right, like you’ve actually heard of them: Cancer Fund of America, Breast Cancer Relief Organization.


The only telemarketing charities I’ve actually fallen for are the ones involving sick policemen, like the American Association of State Troopers and the U.S. Deputy Sheriffs Association. There used to be a part of me that believed that if you didn’t give some money your name would go on a list that would be studied by policemen everywhere and that the next time you were pulled over you would get extra harsh treatment. It turns out, of course, that your name is actually placed on a list called “Suckers,” and it’s studied by telemarketers everywhere.


But these are the bad apples. They do, however, prove a very good point when it comes to charitable giving: Do your homework. Examine the financials. Keep in mind that paying a professional fund raiser is not necessarily a bad thing. In most cases, certainly with local groups, it’s a plus. The right professional can do it better and in the long run, more cheaply. Look very carefully at the programs. Are they actually things that are going to make a difference? Or are they just snack cakes and air fresheners? Be especially careful with a new charity. Does it duplicate the work of an established group that has already proven itself? Does it have an effective board? And who’s running it? Are they doing it from passion? Or from ego?


I’m already picking out who’s getting my money this year. I love the animal groups and am considering Florida Parrot Rescue and the Lemur Conservation Foundation. And I find myself strangely drawn to the group (21st Century Swimming Lessons) that teaches adults who are afraid of the water how to swim, as I often have nightmares that I’m on a sinking ship. And of course anything that gives free food to the elderly, because, believe me, we need it.


As for last wishes, well, not this year—I’m starting to work on my own.


To read past Mr. Chatterbox columns, click here. >>

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