Cashing in on charities

The indomitable capitalistic spirit can find a buck to be made almost anywhere.
    A new cottage industry has sprouted from the parched soil of other people's misfortune.  There are myriad individuals and companies among us whose business it is to profit from charitable organizations.   Livelihoods are being earned by a new breed of charity workers making a career of doing good.....for themselves.
    Most of us have been dunned by dinner-hour telemarketers who call "on behalf of a worthy cause" and keep for themselves as much as ninety cents of every dollar.  Lately,  I have been introduced to a number of well-coiffed designer-suits types who run essentially the same scam:  cashing in on a charity's needs for professional services for which there are no longer available donors.
    I give some of my free time to a non-profit in Hartford.   We administer Hartford's AmeriCorps program, hire high school kids and handymen to help the elderly stay in their own homes, train city youths in entrepreneurship, provide job training and placement for welfare recipients, and operate an affordable day-care center.
    Our funding comes from the federal, state and local government, the United Way and public corporations and private foundations.  Many of these sources require program evaluations before renewing their contributions.  The fees for these professional evaluators run into  thousands of dollars.   In spite of an aggressive effort on our part to get our outside services donated, the only professionals to volunteer their time -- go figure -- are lawyers.
    Our accounting firm charges a fee equivalent to what a business with similar revenues would pay.  The accountants strongly recommended hiring a financial consulting group with expertise in non-profit operating procedures.  The drain on our agency's resources for these two services alone is comparable to the sticker on a decent mid-sized sedan.
    Computer professionals and software companies aggressively market their designs to shepherd our non-profit into the technology age.  An accounting software package, necessary to keep track of multiple grants and different reporting requirements,  runs about $3000.  Experts to set up the hardware bid in at about $75 an hour.  Once in a while a company will donate an old 386 computer -- the electronic equivalent of an abacus -- which requires our paid consultant to set it up in a usable fashion.  Training seminars to teach our employees how to use all these high-tech marvels are available from a plethora of providers for three or four hundred dollars a day.
    America Online has a special area to connect charities with fee-for-service providers.  Enter this cyber-shopping mall for non-profits and you can order a thirty-eight minute videotape on volunteer relationships for $149.  A paperback instructional on improving your donated time can be had for the bargain price of $15.95.  VCR tapes on various fund-raising techniques are tagged at $79.95 or two for $150.   There is a separate area for vendors entitled: "How to sell more of your stuff to nonprofits."
    Education and training for the social service provider is available from a slew of specialists in the field.   The mailbox is filled with brochures detailing three and four-day seminars.  Spend a couple of thousand dollars and four days in Orlando or Hawaii and they promise to teach you how to budget more wisely.
    Trencherman appetites for charity dollars often extend to the non-profit's own employees.  It is not uncommon to read of a charity executive who flies first-class and has a lavish expense account. Our own executive director, to whose credit realizes he did not enter a lucrative career field, often slips me a document purloined from the social service underground which lists those of his peers earning six-figure salaries.
    Urban life being what it is, we face obstacles recruiting new volunteers with needed skills to serve the agency.  Last month, a consultant met with our committee to detail the ways she could help  improve the operations and membership of our Board.  Her fee for this expertise was to be $10,000.  I suppose any board coughing up that much certainly needs her services.
    Like any other operation, our agency still has to buy pens and paper, pay the phone bill and the rent, provide health insurance and put out payroll.   Every dollar that is spent reduces the services than can be provided to the needy.  While we have been able to maintain a fairly decent administration-to-service cost ratio,  each check going to a professional for time that might be volunteered is Robin Hood in reverse.
    Some years we scrounge enough money to give staff a Christmas bonus.  Last year we modestly handed out supermarket gift certificates.  I had irrational visions of Tiny Tim opening up a carton of eggs and a stick of butter on Yule morning while our consultants sipped cognac dressed in silk smoking jackets.
    These are tough times for charities.  In addition to their particular missions, they must vie against one another and an apathetic public for a foothold in the Lebensraum of government and private funding.    People who will not find the time to volunteer should realize they create an expensive void in not doing so.  Nature may abhor a vacuum,  but capitalism loves one.
    Charity work isn't dead -- it just costs more.

April 12, 1998