Those of you who follow this space know I sometimes write about Seattle-area fundraising pleas that to me don’t pass the sniff test. Sometime it’s a spot I hear on the radio. Other times it’s a telephone call, either from a person or a cleverly programmed interactive computer. The problem is usually not with the cause itself but with its financing or disclosure. After digging around I discover that little of the requested cash gift reaches anyone in need and most of it–in one case, 99.6%–goes to executive salaries, overhead and especially fundraising costs.
The other night, sitting at the New To Seattle world headquarters, I received a call that I would classify as another variation on this odorous theme.
The caller–a real person this time–said he represented “King County Police Union Local 519.” (Seattle is in King County.) He asked for a non-tax-deductible contribution to support a child protection program called “My ID Club.” He described that as an endeavor that produces free laminated photo ID cards for young kids that could be tucked into, say, a backpack or bicycle helmet and provide quick contact information should a child be injured or found after getting lost. As though he was reading my mind, the caller added that “89% goes for the program; only 11% is overhead.”
Okay, I said I would be happy to review any written literature he sent me, but he said mailings aren’t used so as to cut printing and postage costs. He gave me a link to a website–kingcounty.myidclub.org–and said he would call back after I had a chance to look at the online information.
I haven’t gotten that promised return call. Which is probably a good thing for the caller. Because my poking around has now produced more red flags than a veterans day march in Moscow.
For openers, I couldn’t find a current labor organization with the official formal name of “King County Police Union Local 519.” Anywhere. However, there is something in Seattle named Public Safety Employees Union 519. Its web site says the union represents 500 employees in a variety of government agencies. Most of the units, such as King County Civic Television and the King County court-clerk system, do not look to me like police organizations. (A completely separate union, the King County Police Officers Guild, seems to represent a lot more cops.)
A visit to the website of the Washington State Secretary of State’s Office pulled up a page suggesting that “King County Police Union” was simply a name used by Public Safety Employees Union 519. I have to think that for marketing purposes someone feels it’s more effective to make a pitch using the evocative word “police” rather than “public safety employees” or “TV camera operators.” But more significantly, the page said the union employed the services of a paid fundraiser called Support Services Incorporated, or SSI.
A paid fundraiser can be a giant red flag.
In its own fundraising filing in Olympia, and using round numbers, SSI said for the year ending December 31, 2011, it raised $570,000 for the police union and also Seattle Fire Fighters Union Local 27 (no breakdown was specified), and ended up giving those two labor organizations $110,000. But lest anyone think SSI pocketed a whopping 80% of the take, SSI stated in a footnote that it paid from its share all expenses of the charitable component and kept for itself only 11% of the money raised. I’m going to assume that’s the same 11% that my caller cited as “overhead.” That would be $63,000.
In the absence of more specific information, I’m also going to assume all the fundraising concerned the My ID Card program and that everything raised went somewhere. So it looks to me like 30 cents of every dollar raised in the name of helping kids–that’s $173,000 of $570,000–got raked off by either the fundraiser or the unions, which aren’t charities at all but simply try to get better pay for their members (at taxpayers expense). Were they traditional charities, these numbers suggest a charitable commitment ratio of 70%. Besides being a lot lower than the 89% figure I was given on the phone, this really is nothing to write home about but is considered tolerable–barely–by many charity watchdogs.
However, that’s not the whole story.
I wondered who owns the rights to the Web domain name myidclub.org . An ordinary donor might assume that all .org extensions belong to nonprofits, but that’s not true. Anyone can get one. You can get one. Your company can get one. And it’s easy to look up ownership information.
As it turns out, myidclub.org is registered to something called Guardian ID Systems Inc. That sure sounds like a for-profit business that just might make My ID Club cards.
Guardian lists a PO box in suburban Burien. And not just any PO box in suburban Burien, but the very same one listed as the address for SSI! I’m going to make a wild leap here and suggest that Guardian ID Systems Inc. and SSI have common ownership or management or are at least affiliates.
If that’s the case, a donor really has no way of knowing how much–or little–of a contribution truly goes to produce each card as opposed to ending up somewhere else. Like in union bank accounts and the pockets of the owners of Guardian IDSystems/SSI.
The MyIDCard.org website that Guardian ID Systems Inc. owns states, “Every dollar that you donate to the MY ID CLUB enables one child to receive an ID card.” The lack of an arm’s-length relationship between Guardian and SSI pretty much makes this a meaningless statement. This is especially so since, cruising the Web, it certainly looks like once the equipment is purchased, it costs only pennies to produce a laminated card.
All this suggests to me the “true” charitable commitment ratio on a donation to the My ID Club effort is a lot, lot, lot lower than even my earlier-calculated 70%. If I’m right, the ratio falls considerably under the 65% floor that, say, the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance considers the minimum acceptable.
As always, I invite anybody, including those mentioned, who has a view on these matters or disputes my assumptions to post comments below.
Another key missing fact here is how many My ID Club cards were issued in 2011. I’d wager way, way, way fewer than the implied number of 570,000 (the amount raised in dollars divided by that claimed per-card cost of $1.00). What’s that smell?
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