America’s 50 worst charities rake in nearly $1 billion for corporate fundraisers electricity manipulation

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• The 50 worst charities in America devote less than 4 percent of donations raised to direct cash aid. Some charities give even less. Over a decade, one diabetes charity raised nearly $14 million and gave about $10,000 to patients. Six spent nothing at all on direct cash aid.

• Even as they plead for financial support, operators at many of the 50 worst charities have lied to donors about where their money goes, taken multiple salaries, secretly paid themselves consulting fees or arranged fundraising contracts with friends. One cancer charity paid a company owned by the president’s son nearly $18 million over eight years to solicit funds. A medical charity paid its biggest research grant to its president’s own for-profit company.

• Some nonprofits are little more than fronts for fundraising companies, which bankroll their startup costs, lock them into exclusive contracts at exorbitant rates and even drive the charities into debt. Florida-based Project Cure has raised more than $65 million since 1998, but every year has wound up owing its fundraiser more than what was raised. According to its latest financial filing, the nonprofit is $3 million in debt.

• To disguise the meager amount of money that reaches those in need, charities use accounting tricks and inflate the value of donated dollar-store cast-offs — snack cakes and air fresheners — that they give to dying cancer patients and homeless veterans.

Schwartz said Kids Wish hires solicitors so its staff can focus on working with children, not on raising donations. According to its 2011 IRS filing, the charity has 51 employees. Schwartz also said donors who give directly to the charity instead of in response to solicitations ensure that 100 percent of their pledge will be spent granting wishes.

He said charities with high fundraising expenses often rationalize that such costs are inevitable in the early years. But White said the Times/CIR findings, based on a decade of data, show that the nation’s worst charities can’t use that excuse.

"When you start a charity, you have a sacred compact with society," said White, one of 30 charity experts interviewed for this series. "They are ripping off the public under the guise of an organization that’s supposed to do good for society."

To identify America’s 50 worst charities, the Times and CIR pieced together tens of thousands of pages of public records collected by the federal government and 36 states. Reporters started in California, Florida and New York, where regulators require charities to report results of individual fundraising campaigns.

The effort identified hundreds of charities that run donation drives across the country and regularly give their solicitors at least two-thirds of the take. Experts say good charities should spend about half that much — no more than 35 cents to raise a dollar.

Bowen’s charity pays his own for-profit production company about $200,000 a year to make the videos. Then the charity pays to air Rick Bowen Deep-Sea Diving on a local Knoxville station. The program makes no mention of Youth Development Fund.

Well-run charities rely on their own staff to raise money from a variety of sources. They spend most of their donations on easy-to-verify activities, whether it’s running soup kitchens, supporting cancer research, raising awareness about drunken driving or building homes for veterans.

The nation’s worst charities are large and small. Some are one-person outfits operating from run-down apartments. Others claim hundreds of employees and a half-dozen locations around the country. One lists a UPS mail box as its headquarters address.

They leave out the fact that most of the charity’s good deeds involve handing out gift cards to hospitalized children and donated coloring books and board games to healthy kids around the country. And they don’t mention the millions of dollars spent on salaries and fundraising every year.

Jacqueline Gray, herself a breast cancer survivor, said she is as shocked as anyone by how much money has been raised in her charity’s name and how little of it has reached patients. She said she is angry that phone solicitors take more than 90 percent of the revenue.

"In the tele-funding business sector, it is common for nonprofit organizations to renew PFR (professional fundraising) contracts under the same terms and provisions of the previous contract," Gelvan wrote in an email that Gray shared with Times/CIR reporters. "This is part of the ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it’ principle."

Breiner continued making money after he retired from Kids Wish in mid-2010 and left his mother-in-law on the seven-member charity board. In 2010 and 2011, the charity paid two of Breiner’s companies $2.1 million for licensing, consulting and brokerage fees.

His consulting business was paid nearly $1 million over two years by a charity founded by a former Kids Wish board member. And when Kids Wish’s longtime telemarketer started a charity so his son could have a job, he turned to Breiner for fundraising help.

Breiner’s consulting arrangements may be perfectly legal, but such relationships are bright red flags to charity experts. They create the appearance of a conflict of interest and make it easy to turn charitable donations into personal profit, experts say.

Kendall Taggart is a reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting. Times researcher Caryn Baird, computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg, and web developer Bill Higgins contributed to this report, along with CNN senior producer David Fitzpatrick. Times staff writer Kris Hundley can be reached at [email protected].