Pink Edition: Make your donation with care

That pink ribbon might be lying; find the truth about breast cancer giving.

adutton@idahostatesman.comOctober 2, 2013 

komen, breast cancer, survivor, cure

About 12,200 people ran, walked or rolled in wheelchairs in the 15th annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Boise, Idaho, on Saturday, May 11, 2013.

KATHERINE JONES — kjones@idahostatesman.com Buy Photo

  • QUICK TIPS

    1. "Pink" promotion seems sketchy? Ask questions.

    2. Do your homework. Go online to research nonprofits.

    3. Follow up. Did your money go where it was supposed to?

    4. Know your goals. Do you want to support research? Free screenings? Financial aid for patients?

The four Human Bean drive-through coffee shops in the Treasure Valley will devote one day this month to raising money for a breast cancer charity. Owner Alex Furioso plans to sell $6,000 in drinks on Oct. 18, and hand over every penny to the local Susan G. Komen for the Cure affiliate.

It will be the third year in a row that Furioso and his wife have dedicated a day to "pink" fundraising. They raised $4,496 in the first two years, according to Komen.

"Susan G. Komen is close to our heart, because we have several friends who have gone through (the nonprofit for help) with breast cancer," Furioso said.

This also will be the third year that Furioso's business loses money for a day in October. That's because "100 percent of sales" means just that, he said — not "100 percent of sales after expenses" and certainly not "100 percent of sales, if you define '100 percent' and 'sales' in a unique and interesting way."

As the Valley becomes awash in pink this month, well-meaning consumers could be vulnerable to those less straightforward pitches and to scammers hitching a ride on the pink wagon.

"Pink does a lot for breast cancer awareness, but at the same time people (or) companies may be taking advantage of the community's generosity," said Hilarie Engle, executive director of Susan G. Komen's Idaho affiliate.

There is little oversight of Idaho charities. The local Better Business Bureau sometimes acts as a watchdog. A Garden City resident last year alerted the BBB to a fundraising plea she received from the National Breast Cancer Research Center, which she later discovered spent only a fraction of its money on research and more than half on fundraising, the BBB said.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden investigates complaints — a spokesman said Wasden's staff could find no record of complaints specifically about false pink advertising — and publishes a charitable-solicitation guidebook for consumers. But if you go looking for a state agency dedicated to regulating nonprofits, you'll come up empty.

Nonetheless, there are many simple — and in some cases, instant — ways for consumers and donors to investigate whether a pink effort is legitimate.

"Being a donor is a huge responsibility," said Lynn Hoffmann, executive director of the Idaho Nonprofit Center. "I think it's too often that donors do just give because they want to do something, but if they don't do their homework, those dollars may not go where they want them to go."

Using online sources and asking some questions, donors can learn whether their dollars will go to breast cancer research, prevention or support, to a legitimate charitable use that might not be what donors expected — medical supplies for women with breast cancer in developing countries, for example — or into a black hole.

NOT SURE? ASK

Engle, Hoffman, Wasden and other experts say it's crucial to avoid being hoodwinked by asking basic questions:

• "Where is my donation going?"

• "How much of what I'm giving you will go toward the charitable purpose?"

• "How much does the nonprofit pay for administration and fundraising. How much on its core mission?"

Picking up the phone and being nosy goes a long way, Hoffmann said.

"If you're going to give a $10 donation, maybe not," she said. "But if you're going to give a $10,000 donation, maybe call them."

The Idaho Statesman has committed to donating a portion of the proceeds from advertisements in today's pink edition of the newspaper to breast cancer programs. In 2012, the Statesman raised $15,000 and split it between St. Luke's and Saint Alphonsus health systems.

"Last year's 'pink' paper was a huge success with readers and advertisers," said Mike Jung, Statesman publisher and president. "The Statesman was filled with stories related to breast cancer, and advertisers provided tremendous support."

BEWARE SOLICITORS

A knock on the door from someone gathering donations for Breast Cancer Is Really Bad Inc. should stop you in your tracks. But what about telephone calls that sound sincere?

Wasden recommends quizzing the caller.

Ask for the name of the charity, and get the address and telephone number. If the solicitor gets pushy, be extra skeptical. Find out whether the caller is an employee, a volunteer or a telemarketer whose company is banking most of the donations.

"It is shocking to most people when they learn that, in a significant number of solicitations, the fundraiser, not the charity, ends up with the largest share of the contribution," Wasden said in a consumer guide.

His office reports seeing campaigns that devote 85 percent of donations to fundraising instead of to charitable work.

DON'T ASSUME

Komen has rules and requires contracts for Komen-specific fundraising events.

But not everyone follows those rules or honors those contracts. There have been times when a business uses the Komen name and dons its signature pink ribbon but never gives a dime to the nonprofit, Engle said.

Though it is a charity, Komen is "a business just like anybody else," she said. "You're advertising that you're making a donation? You need to make a donation."

She also worries that disingenuous ploys could sour people on trusting future fundraisers.

"The last thing we want is somebody feeling like, you know, they went out to dinner — we've had a restaurant do this a couple times — and (were told) the proceeds go to Komen, and it doesn't actually come to us," Engle said.

She asks businesses to stop and hopes they comply, she said.

What about the money Furioso and others raise for Komen? Where does it go?

Komen Idaho gets about 82 percent of its revenue from the Race for the Cure. About 17 percent comes from individual contributions, and the rest comes from various sources, including businesses. Komen Idaho then spends 75 percent of donations on services — breast cancer screenings have historically been the largest expense — and passes on the rest to the national Komen research grant program.

The national Komen nonprofit reported $178 million in revenues in fiscal 2012. It spent $32.7 million on research, $56 million on public health education and about $49 million on screening.

GO ONLINE

Plenty of websites exist solely to collect and publish information on nonprofits — whether a nonprofit is truly tax-exempt to lengthy financial documents that disclose executive salaries.

• Does the nonprofit have a website? Many organizations post annual reports and other information online. The Komen website — www.komenidaho.org — lists current grant recipients in Idaho and basic spending data, while ww5.komen.org provides considerably more in-depth information.

• The site GuideStar.org gathers tax documents on federally registered nonprofits. The website requires registration, which is free. Users can view IRS Form 990 tax returns of local and national charities at no cost.

The returns show what the nonprofit pays its CEO, how it spends donations and who sits on its board. GuideStar also offers tips for donors and nonprofits, but it is not a charity watchdog or rating organization.

• ProPublica, an investigative journalism nonprofit group, runs an easy-to search database at projects.propublica.org/nonprofits.

• The site www.CharityNavigator.org rates some nonprofits, though few are Idaho-based. For national cancer-related charities, there are ratings, rankings and other information.

• An IRS website — apps.irs.gov/app/eos — is a search engine where you can verify that an organization is a tax-exempt nonprofit.

• The Idaho Secretary of State — www.sos.idaho.gov — provides annual reports and articles of incorporation for Idaho nonprofits and all other businesses through its Business Entity Search.

GROUPS TAKE HEAT

Engle's organization is among the most active in breast cancer fundraising. At the national level, it has been criticized for helping companies use pink to sell products — something Engle says she screens for when choosing partners.

Komen also is criticized for how it spends its money, including how much it pays management. The national organization's founder and CEO is paid more than $680,000 per year, according to its tax returns.

Komen has company: Many nonprofits take heat for high administrative overhead and fundraising costs. Hoffmann, who leads an organization of nonprofits, says this is part of the "overhead myth." Some nonprofits have more labor-intensive programs than others, she said.

The general rule of thumb is that efficient nonprofits will spend at least 70 percent on the core mission, such as research or services.

Three nonprofits — GuideStar, Charity Navigator and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance — recently launched a campaign to "correct a misconception about what matters when deciding which charity to support," the nonprofits' CEOs wrote in a joint letter in June. "At the extremes the overhead ratio can offer insight: It can be a valid data point for rooting out fraud and poor financial management.

"In most cases, however, focusing on overhead without considering other critical dimensions of a charity's financial and organizational performance does more damage than good."

Audrey Dutton: 377-6448, Twitter: @IDS_Audrey

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