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Giving to Charity or To Big Business?

Chumming for Dollars

The odds are great that every person reading this article has been touched, either by being a survivor or through kinship or friendship, by the scourge of breast cancer. And that is why con artists know that setting up a “charity” with vague aims to help women with breast cancer and using paid telemarketers to cold call potential donors with a fast pitch that trades on the good names and reputations of legitimate non-profits is a good bet and a way to beat the system for profits all around.

Recently, this reporter received such a call. The spiel was, “I’m calling on behalf of your local breast cancer coalition.” When asked whether she meant the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition, she said, “Yes.” When asked specific questions, the caller hung up.

Laura Weinberg, the president of the Great Neck BCC, told the Record that local coalitions have been dealing with the fallout from at least one questionable organization for over 10 years. We spoke with grassroots breast cancer coalition presidents from Manhasset, Babylon, West Islip, Huntington and also Alelphi’s Breast Cancer Hotline and Support Services, executive director, Hillary Rutter. None of these local groups have ever used telemarketers for fundraising.

Not only do donor dollars get diverted to charities with questionable motives and tactics, but also local groups catch the blame from irate donors who report double charging on credit cards, duns from pledges not made, and harassment calls from telemarketers asking for yet more money within weeks of making a contribution.

Although there may be more than one such organization on Long Island that trades on the breast cancer pitch and uses telemarketers, the group that has surfaced most often is the “Coalition Against Breast Cancer, Inc” (CABC) which filed for not-for-profit status in 1995.

The New York State Attorney General’s Office is a virtual treasure chest of information online about the practices of various charities that employ telemarketers. In the 2008 filing of the Federal 990 form which is posted on the AG’s website, the Coalition Against Breast Cancer, Inc. reported a total revenue of $1,492,549 for 2008. They report that they began the year with $325,567 in reserve funds. They employed four professional fundraising groups, the Outreach Center, Berlin, N. J.; the Campaign Center, Lindenhurst, NY; Kaiser Direct, York, PA.; and the Resource Center, also known as the Resource Hub, Hicksville, NY. They paid a total of $1,179,102 to those four telemarketing firms.

So, what happened to the $313,447 that CABC had left over to help women with breast cancer? They paid out $194,381 in salaries and benefits to a president, Patricia Scott of Greenwich, CT. and Palisades, NY; a part-time treasurer Andrew Smith, St. James, NY; and a program director and vice president, Debra Koppleman, St. James, NY.

In addition, according to their own 990 filing, they loaned out $105,000 to their treasurer, Mr. Smith. They claimed $55,243 in other expenses. That left them $63,823 to spend for their mission as stated on their 990 tax form: “to increase public awareness and knowledge of breast cancer in the hopes of finding a cure.”

They report that they have a $17,000 mammography fund to serve underinsured women in obtaining mammograms; however, none of the many local organizations, with whom the Record spoke, ever reported that they have been able to refer women to this group for such help. CABC also reports that they have a $62,000 scholarship fund “to assist students whose families have struggled with a breast cancer diagnosis.”

In the supplemental information for the tax filing for 2008, Coalition, Inc. states an additional mission to “provide a hot line number available for information on where to turn for help and assistance.” Their website, two years later, makes no mention of a hotline service.

Coalition, Inc. has a phone number and a post office box listing for St. James, NY, but none of our phone calls were returned and none of the local grassroots presidents, with whom we spoke, have gotten return phone calls either.

Is it any surprise that Charity Navigator, a national charity watchdog that evaluates the fiscal stewardship of over 5400 charities in the U.S. gives the Coalition Against Breast Cancer, Inc. a zero-star rating?

The American Institute of Philanthropy in an article entitled, Cancer Charities Need Dose of Organizational Chemotherapy, addresses the proliferation of groups that have sprung up ostensibly to give aid to the breast cancer cause. The Institute decries the sound-alike names of bogus charities to legitimate charities. The National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund receives an A rating from the Institute while the Coalition Against Breast Cancer, Inc. receives a grade of F.

Karen Miller, president of the Huntington Breast Cancer Action Coalition, says that the group appears to get very active with phone solicitations for a few months and then disappears for a while. We learned from our Internet searches that this may be attributed to the fact that Coalition, Inc. solicits for funds as far away as Washington State and as nearby as Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Currently, they are not registered to solicit in Washington State according to a spokesperson from the Department of State although they have re-applied.

Although local groups have filed complaints with the New York State Attorney General’s office and have been recently buoyed by the lawsuit filed by that office against 4 telemarketing firms, they have not had the time and resources to mount a sustained campaign against Coalition, Inc.

Over the years, some states have attempted to protect the public from charitable telemarketing campaigns that result in a low percentage of the money raised actually going to a charitable cause. Time and again, the Supreme Court has overruled the suits and decreed that such limitations would violate the First Amendment, “freedom of speech” rights of the telemarketers and charities.

The New York State Attorney General’s office went after the telemarketing companies by using investigators to get jobs as telemarketers in the firms so that they could gather firsthand, solid evidence of deceptive and illegal practices. The actual lawsuits are online and make for fascinating reading.

There are laws on the books in New York State that are supposed to protect the public from unscrupulous practices. First, a solicitor must clearly state the actual name of the charity. To call and say, “I’m calling on behalf of your local breast cancer coalition” is a clear-cut violation. Since most Long Island grassroots breast cancer groups have “coalition” in their names and have good, hard-earned reputations for actually providing services and support, this ploy is especially egregious.

According to the AG’s lawsuit, solicitors must “clearly and unambiguously disclose” the name of the professional fundraiser, that the solicitation is being conducted by a professional fundraiser, the name of the person doing the calling, and that the individual calling is receiving compensation for making the call. A phone solicitor is supposed to answer questions about the work of the charity being represented.

We placed numerous calls to the Attorney General’s press office for more information, but never received a callback.

Are there reputable charities that use telemarketers? Yes. There are telemarketing companies that do not charge exorbitant rates and do not use deceptive practices. There are reputable charities that would rather not deal with the hard and unpredictable work required for successful fundraising and are pleased to get even a 20 percent rate of return for their causes. There are also not-for-profit groups like Channels 13 and 21, of the Public Broadcasting Service, that call lapsed donors to ask them to contribute and renew their memberships.

Editor Fred Scaglione from New York Nonprofit Press has been reporting on the big business aspect of telemarketing for years. In a 2006 “Dialing for Dollars” article, it was reported that in 10 years of telemarketing in New York State from 1995 to 2004, a total of $1.8 billion was raised. The percentage going to charities from that haul was 32.2 percent. Mr. Scaglione reports reaching Ms. Koppleman to ask her how many mammography tests were funded by CABC, but she was unable to answer the question.

Why do people make contributions on the phone to perhaps unknown charities on the spur of the moment?

We asked this question to Melodye Kleinman of the National Telemarketing Victim Call Center based in Los Angeles. She said that many people targeted in these cold calls are over 50 and some feel pressured to give, embarrassed to say “No” and think it’s rude to just hang up. She supported the concept of having a rote response to such calls such as saying, “I never take phone solicitations. Thank you for not calling again.” This is polite, concise and clear. Further, she added that from her experience, the sheer volume of telemarketing ploys that also include investment and sweepstake scams, overwhelm law enforcement people in this field.

Meanwhile, local charitable organizations are feeling the brunt of the recession and are struggling to maintain their services and support for numerous worthwhile causes. State budget cuts, if enacted, will be devastating for groups like the Adelphi Breast Cancer Hotline and Support Services which services women and families dealing with breast cancer statewide.

It is trite, but true. People want their charitable dollars to do the most good. Be a savvy donor. Sometimes that means saying, “No” and redirecting your contribution to a well-vetted, known charity that spends its dollars wisely.

If you would like to research a charity at no cost you may visit: www. charitynavigator.org or www.charitywatch.org. or the Attorney General’s website site: www.ag.ny.gov.

You may file a complaint with Attorney General’s office online or by calling the regional offices: Nassau County, 248-3302; Suffolk County, 631-231-2424.

Another informative site is the New York Nonprofit Press at: www.nynp.biz