Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Donors pay solicitors’ tab

By Todd Cohen

North Carolinians are generous – but may be uninformed about where their money goes.

Donors gave $132 million to charitable fund drives in the state in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2002.

But professional solicitors working for charities kept $72 million, or 56 cents of every dollar contributed.

Helping donors better understand how their contributions are divided among charities and professional solicitors is a job given by state law to the Secretary of State’s Office.

Sadly, an annual charitable-solicitation report that office publishes is only marginally useful to donors.

Available in a hard-to-use format on the Web site of the Secretary of State’s Office, the report includes contact information and minimal data on how much charities and solicitors raise and divvy up.

But the report offers no analysis, perspective or historical trends to help donors better track the fundraising performance and efficiency of charities and professional solicitors.

Sadder still, in releasing the report this week, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall soft-pedaled the role of telemarketers — particularly automated call centers from which people wearing headsets read scripted fundraising pitches to prospective donors dialed by computer.

Ignoring the role such “boiler-room” operations may play, Marshall instead touted the “integral” work of educating donors for which some charities hire solicitation firms.

Marshall also skirted the fact that telemarketers may find it easy to coax small charities such as volunteer fire departments to give them a big share of what they raise because they generate dollars the charities otherwise would not get.

Donors have a right to know –- and a responsibility to find out – how their dollars are being spent.

Marshall needs to improve the data her office publishes and make it easier for donors to find a charity and find both current and historical data about out how much it raised, whether it used a solicitation firm, how much money and what share of donations the firm kept, and whether the state has cited the charity or the firm for violating the state’s charitable-solicitation law.

Charities also need to disclose all that information.

And donors owe it to themselves to be tougher when the phone rings and they’re asked to support a charity.

On receiving a fundraising call, donors should ask:

* Whether the caller is an employee of the charity or of a telemarketing firm working for the charity.

* What share of the contribution will go to the telemarketing firm.

* The telemarketing firm’s name and phone number.

Donors also can tell the caller they want time to think about whether to make a donation, and then should check out the charity and the telemarketing firm.

Donors can look for information about a charity at its Web site and at GuideStar, a database on U.S. nonprofits.

Philanthropy is based on trust. To strengthen philanthropy, better information and scrutiny are needed from regulators, charities and donors.

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