I’m impressed with Bob Scott of Highland Park. He reminded The Watchdog how important it is to research a charity before making a donation.
The cause was breast cancer, and the retired Exxon-Mobil employee was ready to go pink.
The caller claimed to be from the Women’s Cancer Fund and promised that Bob’s donation would help women with cancer who face financial burdens.
“It seemed like a worthwhile cause,” he told me.
The caller asked for a credit card, but Bob is no dummy. Days later, he received a pledge letter in the mail. He tried to find tax documents online to research the fund.
The IRS requires nonprofits to file a Form 990. You can usually find them online, either at the charity’s website or other sites such as Charity Navigator or GuideStar. He couldn’t find one for the Women’s Cancer Fund.
He checked the pledge letter and noticed fine print on the back stating the fund is part of another charity, Cancer Recovery Foundation International. He found that group’s Form 990, and that’s when Bob got serious about playing detective.
The two charities are linked to two more cancer-related charities that have ties to Greg Anderson, a cancer survivor who writes books (The Cancer Conqueror is one) about how to survive cancer with good nutrition, positive thoughts and prayer.
On the tax forms, Bob found that the charities pay millions to a Michigan telemarketing firm, which makes phone calls to donors like the one he received. The firm takes a huge cut of its catch.
And he discovered that Anderson and his daughter, who runs one of the other charities, are collecting big salaries.
“It really chaps me,” Bob said in his complaint to The Watchdog. “I needed to work off some steam with someone.”
Anderson and his daughter, Erica Johnson, did not return calls left at their charity offices for this report.
I asked ace researcher Jen Graffunder to do a deep dive into the tax documents and double-check Bob’s detective work. Her findings? Sorry for the pun, but Bob’s work was on the money.
Tax records show that the charity that solicited Bob paid Anderson, as president and founder, $220,000 last year — a $46,000 raise from the year before.
Telemarketing and direct-mail companies hired by Cancer Recovery Foundation International raised $6.6 million last year, kept $5.7 million in fees and gave the charity back a little less than $1 million.
What about helping women with cancer? In 2016, $9,965 was split among women applicants — out of $3.2 million received in contributions.
Shocking stuff. How much a charity spends to raise money and how much it pays its top executives — all available on the tax forms — are an indicator of a charity’s credibility. Add to that how much a charity spends on its promised programs. In this case, not much.
All four charities use the same Michigan telemarketing firm, Associated Community Services, known for its aggressive calling tactics.
Company officials did not answer my request for an interview.
Anderson’s daughter runs the third related charity, Breast Cancer Charities of America in The Woodlands. She was paid $149,000 last year.
Telemarketing and direct-mail companies raised $3.1 million last year — and kept $2.5 million in fees. That left the charity about $666,000 from donations made by phone or by mail. Terrible numbers.
Callers were ‘too aggressive’
The fourth cancer charity in this grouping is the Children’s Cancer Recovery Foundation. It, too, was founded by Greg Anderson. What makes this one interesting is that he lost control this year.
Amy O’Leary, the new executive director, terminated the charity’s relationship with the other cancer charities, she told me. She also ended the relationship with the telemarketing company because the callers were too aggressive and donors “were being harassed” with continued requests, she said.
“I actually terminated the staff from the original group,” she said. “We have a whole new team. We have a new board of directors. We’ve changed bank accounts. We updated to a new server to make sure the termination was cut and dried.”
Five years ago, this charity was named one of America’s worst charities by the Tampa Bay Times because of its high fundraising costs and low spending on promised programs.
In the charity’s 2016 tax report, before O’Leary took over, the telemarketing and direct-mail company raised $4.1 million and kept $3.5 million of that in fees.
No more. “We’re starting fresh in 2018,” she said. “We’re trying to clean up the name. ... If you do a Google search, [complaints] all show up — the [phone] harassment and everything.”
Instead of telemarketing, the new leader said she’s trying to raise money locally in Pennsylvania, where the charity is based.
How to check a charity
Here’s a tool to research a charity the way Bob did. Search for a charity’s Form 990 on the Internet. Then search in the form for Schedule G, “Supplemental Information Regarding Fundraising or Gaming Activities.”
This page shows how much is spent on fundraising, and what’s left of the donations to fund programs.
Bob’s final advice: “Perhaps you can remind readers to not donate to organizations using telemarketers. If they can’t raise money on their own or with volunteers, they may not be that reputable.
“Secondly,” he continues, “never pay a solicitor with a credit card over the phone.
“And third, if you can’t easily find their financials on their website, there is probably a pretty good reason they don’t want you to see them.”