Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Do-Not-Ations and Con-Tributions

Having just gone through financial records while getting data ready for my accountant, I realized how much money we have donated over the years to non-profits, more than many people make in a year. In hindsight, much of it has gone to institutions unworthy of a dime. People often feel obligated to help, thinking their aid makes a difference in humanitarian or cultural causes. Only a few of us bother to check the percentage of our aid that actually goes to benefit the intended recipients, which is often minimal. Yet much of the information is available on the web, mandated by law, although finding it takes some digging.

Great tragedies, either global or national, usually create an immediate response from caring people who want to help. Interestingly, events such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, gave birth to a large number of new non-profits. In most cases the reason behind creating such organizations is hardly humanitarian, but an opportunity for shrewd people to make a big bundle of money for themselves. It is well known how even the help from the government and big national institutions has had trouble reaching the truly needy and suffering victims. People have lied about having had a relative or significant other perish in the World Trade Center, in order to collect money. After Katrina, once it got its help program started after an amazingly long wait, the government was handing out $2,000 debit cards to both the needy and those who used the cards to gamble, buy luxury items or take vacations. There was hardly any accountability. Nobody has really researched thoroughly, to my knowledge, how much of the privately collected money was distributed to the families of 9/11 victims. Of course, the more time it has taken to locate such people in need, the more the people running such a fund have had an excuse to collect salaries and other administrative fees. These can amount to a lot: although not through donations but mandatory taxes, car owners here in Seattle have paid many years for a Monorail that doesn't exist and probably never will. Yet all the money is gone and many have obviously benefited financially from the huge amount of money collected. And what about the cost of planning the new Ground Zero monument in New York? Contests were held, winners declared, yet plans were thrown out and the circus began again. It would be interesting to have a study that showed how much certain individuals have earned from that mess.

Back to charitable contributions: hardly a day goes by when the phone doesn't ring off the hook from calls for donations. By now, we no longer pick up calls from any toll-free numbers, or those from solicitors whose names we recognize. These days callers have become smarter and block their identities. If I pick up and it turns out to be a request for money, I usually ask why the caller is doing so anonymously. Often they just hang up then, rather than come up with a made-up excuse. At other times I have asked how much overhead expenses there are, in other words how much of the money actually reaches the target. Most of these telemarketers don't have a clue or are unwilling to give out such information. Then there are all the War Veteran organizations. As I know how miserably this country (the U.S. is hardly alone, though) has taken care of those who have served and come home wounded or an emotional mess, incapable of leading a normal life, I would like to help. Soon I came to realize how many groups there are with almost identical names, all claiming to represent the same people. I have checked the background of many such groups and been astonished at the high overhead percentage. Also, there are a number of groups that according to their name are linked to law enforcement or police when in fact they have nothing to do with it. Certainly I would like to keep kids out of trouble, but not fatten the pocketbook of someone who is running the scheme. Often solicitation requests come from national professional fund raising companies who siphon off easily a third of the money. They will never tell you their true identities unless you ask, or check the phone number on your Caller ID, and decipher the name with the help of Google.

Certainly there are worthwhile organizations doing important work. The Red Cross rushes to help victims of disasters and wars globally (although they weren't allowed to go into New Orleans when the need was its greatest, if I remember correctly). Doctors Without Borders is an incredible group and there are many others. We have supported an orphan in Rwanda, and give money to UNICEF monthly. Here in Seattle we have a wonderful library system which however is short on money, thanks to the increasingly tight budget of the city. I don't think contributions to the Seattle Public Library Foundation go to waste and since this family uses the system's resources practically every day, we feel more than happy to be of help. It is hard to picture the head librarian of the system driving a luxury import, although I could be mistaken, of course.

A good indication of a non-profit's moral health is the salary and lifestyle of its executives. Such an organization, by its very nature, should not be compared to the private sector, yet many executive directors and other figureheads seem to expect similar pay packages and perks. Big local arts organizations, such as opera companies and symphony orchestras, often have people on their payroll that earn salaries that we associate with professional athletes or successful movie and television stars. If an orchestra has 10,000 subscribers (a dream for most) and every one of them would donate a hundred dollars in addition to their expensive season tickets, that extra money wouldn't, in many cases, even pay for the Music or Executive Director's salary. Of course, a number of well-to-do donors give much more, but to some less affluent such an extra contribution is possible only after serious consideration. They must believe that this gift is really needed and will make a difference. How would they feel if they were told that this money would barely pay for a free meal or two for 'more important' donors at the director's house where such entertainment is frequent, often many times a week? Or that the sum would cover 0.02% or less of an overpaid soloist's fee for the week, or sometimes just one night? There are needs and then there are needs. If an arts organization, and for that matter a private company, is having a hard time making ends meet, wouldn't it make sense that those who earn the highest salaries would be the ones having to make the greatest financial sacrifices? But as we know, the opposite is more the norm than the exception.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been often criticized for not distributing its wealth to the arts community, as with such enormous capital it could keep a large number of organizations 'healthy' and their executives well fed. However, they seem to have a different focus, something I wholeheartedly agree with: improving health of the needy worldwide through research and direct funding, paying for schools (which even in our rich country have been neglected), and having an interest in libraries which are a key to education and a treasure chest for the average world citizen. Granted, we all have paid dearly for our Microsoft products, but it is good to know that at least some of the money is being used in a truly meaningful and humanitarian way.

Next time you are about to say 'yes' to a pledge drive or donation request, think about it for a while. By agreeing to pay for something without caring where the money ends up is foolish and wrong. Demanding to know details is not only your right but also a moral responsibility: accountability is something sorely lacking in our society (think Enron or Halliburton), and by firmly asking for facts
these organizations will actually be forced to become fiscally more responsible. Sharing is important and makes one rightfully feel good, but remember that there are a great number of crooks out there trying to con us and in essence wanting to sell us snake oil. That hundred dollars could save many children's lives in Africa, or provide help to a small local arts group. It could also pay for someone else's Filet Mignon and two glasses of fancy wine.