Columbia foundation selling computers Groups say nonprofit should be donating used machines

November 29, 1996|By Dan Morse | Dan Morse,SUN STAFF

Clarification

An article Nov. 29 about the Lazarus Foundation, which said that the group charges for old computers that it receives free from donors, omitted that the charity has given away more than 200 computers this year. Lazarus leaders also say that they intend to change the group's literature to make clear that they often charge for the recycled computers to recover the cost of upgrading them.

The Lazarus Foundation, a Columbia charity that says it donates old computers to needy organizations, is actually selling most of them at or near market value.

The practice has prompted a strong reaction from charity oversight groups, a similar nonprofit that distributes computers and at least one organization that has given its old computers to Lazarus for distribution to the needy.

"It's very misleading, because they're not donating them, they're selling them," said Dan Langan, spokesman for the National Charities Information Bureau in New York City.

"It's crazy," said Bill Lloyd, a board member of a similar charity, Computer Reclamation in Silver Spring, which distributes used computers for $25 apiece in the Washington area.

Lazarus has been selling similar old computers for as much as $325 apiece, even though its most recent brochures tout its donations of computers and one of its Internal Revenue Service filings says its charitable purpose is to "give computers to the needy."

That's what officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs thought when they recently donated key components of 44 computers to Lazarus, said Pam Gates, a department spokeswoman.

Told of the market-rate fees that Lazarus charged the recipients of the computers, Gates said: "We certainly wouldn't do the donation again."

Lazarus' president, Donald Bard of Columbia, said the small, 4-year-old nonprofit group must charge fees to recover the costs of refurbishing the computers it receives free from donors. It buys extra memory chips, hard drives and monitors to upgrade many of the computers.

He said Lazarus had placed approximately 1,200 computers with groups and schools in the Baltimore-Washington area. He said it now donated 3 percent to 4 percent of its computers and sold another 20 percent for less than it costs to build them.

"We're not making big money," Bard said, "but we want to make ends meet."

Reason for being

But when asked to state its primary purpose on its 1995 IRS filing, Lazarus reported: "Give computers to the needy."

And its most recent brochure states: "The Lazarus Foundation responds to requests for refurbished computers and donates them to recipients who maximize the benefits to the community." Another part of the brochure states Lazarus will "give" computers to needy groups.

Bard acknowledged that Lazarus' brochure should be corrected. for the IRS, he said that when the group applied for its tax-exempt status, it said it would charge fees.

Regional IRS spokesman Domenic J. LaPonzina said this week that he could not comment on a specific charity. Charities' descriptions on tax forms can be "a gray area," he said.

Issue is clarity

But Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy in St. Louis, said that the core issue was that Lazarus "is not being clear. The donor has a right to know whether the computer is donated or sold at a reduced cost."

The federal Veterans Affairs agency, Gates said, didn't know that fees would be charged for the 44 "386" central processing units, or CPUs, that it recently gave Lazarus.

Two of those CPUs ended up as part of a package sold Nov. 14 to the Marian House, a women's homeless shelter in Baltimore, according to Lazarus officials.

For $325 each, Marian House received two 386-DX, 33-megahertz computers -- with monitors, keyboards, 8 megabytes of RAM and hard drives of 100 megabytes or more, according to Marian House and Lazarus officials.

The same week, Practical Computer, a large used computer store in Springfield, Va., was selling a 386-DX, 33-megahertz computer -- with a monitor, keyboard, 8 megabytes of RAM and a 135-megabyte hard drive -- for $329, said Fred Tax, a Practical Computer salesman.

At Marian House, counselor Rita Martin said she was not disturbed that the Virginia price was so close to Lazarus' fees. She said Marian expected good follow-up service from Lazarus because it was committed to helping charities.

Bard said Marian House has income that can fund his group's fees so "I don't feel uncomfortable charging them for a machine."

When Bard started Lazarus four years ago, it regularly gave away computers. But as Lazarus grew, its officials said, they needed more funds and feared not all their donated computers were being used well.

"We learned in the first couple of years that you just don't give them away," said Thomas Hare of Columbia, Lazarus treasurer.

Added Bard: "I don't believe in a free lunch."

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