A warning to charitable donors and a case for tougher disclosure laws on nonprofits

June 19, 2005|By Jay Hancock

RIIIING. IT'S the National Federation of the Blind of Oregon, calling across that state. They want money "to help the blind of the area," according to a fund-raising script from 2003.

"This year we are working to make more reading materials accessible to the blind and to provide more help to blind seniors and blind children," says the telemarketer. "We were hoping you could help us with a donation of, say, $25 or so?"

Helping blind children. What a great cause. You write the check. ("That would be wonderful!" the telemarketer is supposed to say.) Too bad the script left out several pertinent details, the main one being that most of your $25 would get nowhere near blind children or any other blind people in Oregon.

Beware, philanthropists. Despite progress in recent years, information on where charity donations go is still obscure and often disturbing when it emerges, even when the practices appear completely legal.

An examination of the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind and its affiliates offers another case for better disclosure laws and, in their absence, more openness by nonprofits.

Of a $25, phone-solicited gift to the National Federation of the Blind of Oregon, $15 - 60 percent - would be taken off the top by a for-profit fund-raising company called CMS Inc., according to a contract on file with Oregon's Department of Justice, one of the few state regulators to police nonprofits. The contract is dated 2002, but other documents furnished by the regulator indicate that CMS continues to work for NFB Oregon.

The president of CMS for many years has been Ramona Walhof, a longtime director of one nonprofit, American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults, which shares NFB's Baltimore headquarters and has NFB president Marc Maurer as its top-paid employee, and another, the Jacobus tenBroek Memorial Fund, which owns the NFB headquarters building.

Taking that $15 cut leaves $10. Half of that would be sent to NFB headquarters in a big building in South Baltimore that NFB and affiliates recently expanded at a cost of $19.5 million.

The other $5 would arrive at NFB Oregon, which provides scholarships for blind students, lobbies on issues important to the blind and does other good work. But $5 is only a fifth of the $25 donation.

In January, NFB Oregon agreed with the state Department of Justice to correct alleged violations that included failure to tell donors that some funds were sent to Baltimore and misrepresenting big fund-raising commissions as "community outreach" expenses benefiting the blind. In correcting the deficiencies, NFB Oregon denied "liability of any wrongful acts," according to the settlement.

Back in Baltimore, legal records and NFB documents show, a house owned by Mary Ellen Jernigan, NFB's executive director of operations and the widow of late NFB President Kenneth Jernigan, was bought in 2003 for $490,000 by the Action Fund. . For 2005 the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation assessed the house, in Baltimore's Irvington section, at $154,040.

Despite the fact that charity business with insiders often raises questions about whether the nonprofit is getting the best deal with donor money, the house's purchase was not disclosed in IRS filings by either the Action Fund or NFB.

Nor was the fact that Walhof, a director of both the Action Fund and the tenBroek Fund, has been doing big business as a fund-raiser with an NFB state affiliate. NFB of Oregon paid $176,836 to CMS in 2002.

Still glad you wrote the check? NFB says you should be.

NFB of Oregon President Carla McQuillan did not return my phone call.

But in its battle with the Oregon Department of Justice, the nonprofit contended that the phone solicitations were "community outreach" programs worth the 60 percent commission because the script had the telemarketer say, "Do you know anyone who is losing vision or blind and may need our help?" NFB Oregon contended the calls helped it identify frequently isolated blind people.

"There are many number of people going blind who simply don't know about the National Federation of the Blind or the National Federation of the Blind of Oregon," said Andrew Freeman, a Baltimore attorney who represented NFB Oregon in its dealings with regulators. The calls did identify blind people, he said, although he didn't know how many. "From our point of view it is outreach, but it is also fund-raising."

Many calls, however, were directed to people who had a history of giving to NFB Oregon, a 2004 letter from CMS to the nonprofit shows. And according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, fund-raiser compensation hinging on percentages of contributions must be reported by nonprofits as a fund-raising expense, no matter what other service the fund-raiser may perform.

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