Last year, the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Fla. received a lot of attention–and this year very well may win a Pulitzer Prize–after it published a deeply researched list of “America’s Worst Charities.” The national roster of 50 was based on the large amount of cash raised over the years from the unsuspecting public that went not to good works but to the fundraisers. A number of the top entries–including Kids Wish Network (No 1), Cancer Fund of America (No. 2) and Children’s Cancer Recovery Fund (No. 11) –previously had been written up in this space, also in less-than-glowing terms.
Now, I can’t possibly hope to compete with the massive resources of the Tampa Bay Times and its journalistic partners, CNN and The Center for Investigative Reporting. Looking for suspects, their teams of reporters, producers and editors methodically and systematically scour scores of databases, make hundreds of calls, search thousands of documents and even fly journalists abroad (to check out, I might add, a charity in Guatemala that I mentioned skeptically in November.)
I, on the other hand, operate here on what I call the Venus flytrap model of journalism. That means waiting passively in one spot for critters to come my way, acting quickly, then resetting.
Still, there’s nothing to stop me from starting my own list. So here goes. I’m calling mine “America’s Stupidest Charities.” The criteria is pretty simple: questionable charities that contact the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money even though they already were the subject of a critical NTS write-up.
The first candidate? (Drum roll, please.) The American Veterans Support Foundation, a trade name of the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation.
It was just 11 days ago that I profiled the NVVF after a call from a computer-controlled interactive voice. It wasn’t much of a conversation, really. The voice, which called itself “Jim,” made a quick pitch for “the veterans” and asked me to commit to a small pledge. “Jim” hung up after I asked for the last name. A little subsequent research by me showed that $21 million of the $24 million raised over six years had been spent in fundraising expenses, almost all of it going to outside paid solicitors. That’s a whopping 88%. (Charity watchdogs say that figure should be no higher than 35%). Only about 11% was spent in anything remotely resembling charity. (Again, the goo-goo’s say anything below 65% is unacceptable.) I also encountered conflicting information about its true location as well as non-functioning email addresses and telephones.
But maybe hope springs eternal, even if you’re a soulless computer. Today, I got another solicitation call on behalf of the NVVF. This time, the computer called itself “Jeff”.
This conversation was a lot briefer. As soon as “Jeff” started into his spiel, I knew what to do.
I asked for his last name. Click again. Perhaps Jeff and Jim are just naturally shy computers.
But today’s chat wasn’t so short so as to deprive the NVVF of the singular honor of being the inaugural prospect for my dumbest charities roster.
As always, I invite anyone interested or identified in this post to comment below. I especially would love to hear the counter-argument to my proposition that a sketchy charity trying to raise money from someone who has trashed it publicly on the Internet is about as idiotic as it comes.
Meanwhile, the flytrap again sits waiting.