Another dubious charity solicits in Seattle

U.S. soldiers in Iraq (Wikipedia)

Joe sent me.

This afternoon, still New To Seattle, I received a telephone call from “someone” asking for money on behalf of a charity called the United States Armed Forces Association. I use quotes because it became pretty clear I was on the horn with a cleverly programmed interactive computer using a male voice. I decided to name it “Joe.”

When I asked Joe if in fact I was speaking to a computer, Joe even laughed and said I wasn’t the first to raise that issue. But I don’t recall that Joe said no.

Joe pressed for a verbal pledge of money, saying that would be followed up with a mailing. I said I first wanted to review the mailing before making any commitment. Joe didn’t like that. Joe wanted that oral pledge up front. We went back and forth, with Joe largely repeating the same talking points. It seemed like Joe’s chips were heating up. Eventually, Joe got off the line, maybe to call someone else around Seattle.

Perhaps thanks to the Gates Foundation, Seattle has a reputation as a giving place when it comes to charity.  The dubious operators know that, too.

Last month, I wrote about the Seattle radio pitches of the Cancer Fund of America, a Knoxville, Tenn., charity that spends less than one-half of 1% in furtherance of its charitable mission–an astoundingly low amount. The rest goes to executive salaries, overhead, fundraising and direct mail.

Before Joe called, I had never heard of the United States Armed Forces Association. Who was controlling Joe? And where does the money go?

A little poking around the Internet brought me to the home page of a Silver Spring, Md., outfit called Veterans Support Foundation, which used to be called the Vietnam Veterans Assistance Fund. The page said VSA does business as the United States Armed Forces Association. The text says USAFA/VSF funds other nonprofits supporting veterans, provides housing for homeless and at-risk vets, and assists disabled vets.

But looking at its latest IRS tax return and audited financial statement, I’d say that what USAFA/VSF does mostly with the money that Joe generates from folks is pay for fundraising and overhead.

For the fiscal year ending September 30, 2011, USAFA/VSF received $2.4 million in gifts from the public, $300,000 in government grants and fees, and spent $2.7 million, essentially breaking even. As I read the documents, the charitable commitment ratio–the amount spent in direct furtherance of the stated charitable mission as a percentage of total expenses–was a lousy 25%. Only $655,000 was spent funding other nonprofits supporting veterans, providing housing for homeless and at-risk vets, and assisting disabled vets.

Okay, 25%–the same number calculated by the charities section of the Washington State Secretary of State–is a lot better than Cancer Fund of America’s 0.5%. But that’s still way below the 65% or so that most charity watchdogs consider the absolute minimum. As I have written, I think United Way of King County is playing number games when it put its own charitable commitment at 97%. But even by my reckoning that ratio was a more-than-acceptable 92%.

At USAFA/VSF, the other 75%–a whopping $2 million–was spent for fundraising and overhead. Of that sum, $1.8 million was paid to two companies on the same floor of the same Southfield, Mich., building. One, called Associated Community Services LLC, received $1.8 million for “telemarketing.” I suppose this firm is Joe’s boss.

The other, called Central Processing Services LLC, was paid $700,000 for and “data collection and management.” I suppose this firm helps Joe target his calling efforts.

USAFA/VSF’s fundraising efficiency ratio–the percentage of incoming contributions left after subtracting the cost of generating them–was 56%. This is way below what any reputable charity watchdog considers acceptable. (At UWKC, the latest fundraising efficiency was 95% by my calculation.)

USAFA/VSF refuses to be evaluated by the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. It’s not hard to imagine why. According to its financial statements, USAFA/VSF is affiliated with Vietnam Veterans of America Inc. The BBB says VVA also had dreadful financial efficiencies and flunked 10 of the BBB’s 20 standards for charitable accountability.

As always, I welcome entities mentioned here, or anyone else interested in the issues raised, to add their two cents below. But meanwhile, you now know a lot more about Joe in case you get a call, too.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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9 Responses to Another dubious charity solicits in Seattle

  1. Anonymous says:

    I got a call today too. Never heard of this organization. I said no and wanted to check them further so thanks for your information
    Betty in CA

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  6. NewToSeattle says:

    Unfortunately, I do not. Sometimes the major charity watchdogs catch this, but often they do not. It’s possible for someone to figure this out with Internet research. I have the benefit of having written about charities and their accounting for years.

  7. David T says:

    Hi Bill,

    These guys solicited me also and something did not seem right. I told them I would send $10 to cover the cost of their mailing so I could learn more, find out what their give percentage was and consider a ‘real’ gift. Of course I lost the first mailing and they called back so I said $15 for their trouble. They sent quite a nice glossy tri-fold. THAT can’t be cheap. You have given me that data. These guys will get my $15 and that is it. I almost feel guilty now sending that to them because it sounds like the sooner they go out of business the better, but a promise is a promise.

    Do you know of an online database that tracks overhead for multiple charities?

  8. Pingback: Another day, another dodgy charity calls around Seattle | New To Seattle

  9. Ellen says:

    Joe sure called the wrong guy. I would have loved to hear that…conversation. These charity watchdog articles are so informative and important – thanks Bill.

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