Island veterans’ agent casts wary eye at donation requests

Island veterans’ agent casts wary eye at donation requests

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A Veterans Support Organization representative solicited funds outside of Stop and Shop Supermarket in Vineyard Haven last Saturday.

Dukes County director of veterans services Jo Ann Murphy said this week that representatives of Veterans Support Organization (VSO), which bills itself as a national veterans organization, do not have her support. VSO representatives dressed in combat fatigues have been soliciting donations outside the Stop and Shop Supermarket in Vineyard Haven for the past few weekends.

According to VSO’s website, the organization currently operates in Rhode Island, Texas, Tennessee, New York, Georgia, and Florida. It also does fundraising in other states across the country. The website says that donations go to veterans’ delinquent utility bills, rents or mortgages and also provide housing assistance for homeless veterans.

“My concern is that people think they are collecting money that will go to help support veterans here on Martha’s Vineyard,” Ms. Murphy said. “I have never received any funds from this organization.”

Ms. Murphy said a VSO representative phoned her last week and asked for her endorsement. “I told him I would consider it if he could show me what they do with the 86 percent of the money they collect that he said goes to vets,” Ms. Murphy said. “I haven’t received any response from them yet.”

The Times did not receive a reply to phone messages left at the VSO’s New England Chapter office and to chief executive officer Richard Van Houten. An email from The Times to Matt Desautel, listed as the chapter’s contact, was returned as undeliverable.

Tisbury Police Chief Dan Hanavan said the town does not require charitable organizations to have a permit to solicit donations. Ms. Murphy said Stop and Shop Supermarket manager Sam Koohy told her VSO asked him several months ago for permission to solicit funds outside the store for two weekends this month.

A copy of the tax-exempt nonprofit organization’s form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service shows a total revenue of $5,767,510, including contributions and grants, and program service revenue, from Oct. 1, 2009 to September 30, 2010. Annual reports about nonprofits and charities are available on the Massachusetts Attorney General office’s website.

Of that, VSO spent $1,424,069 on salaries, compensation, and other benefits, including a salary of $255,698 for Mr. Van Houten. VSO listed $331,311 in net assets or fund balances.

In January VSO was fined $20,000 under an agreement reached with the Tennessee Division of charitable solicitations and gaming, according to an online article posted January 26 on the website knoxnews.com.

“State officials said the group asked for donations while not registered as a charity in Tennessee and claimed it provided services — housing and addiction recovery, for example — not offered in Tennessee,” reporter Matt Lakin wrote.

VSO also was criticized for misleading the public by not revealing its solicitors worked on commission and by letting nonveterans wear military-style uniforms, the article said.

“I don’t mind people calling me and asking what I know about any organization collecting donations for veterans,” Ms. Murphy said. She may be reached at 508-693-6887.

Many organizations, including some police groups on Martha’s Vineyard, utilize professional solicitors. According to the office of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, there are no laws regulating the percentage professional fundraisers have to give back to the charity and often there is little oversight over professional solicitors.

“On average, less than half the money raised through paid solicitors is actually given to the charity. Of every dollar that a professional solicitor raised for a charity in 2009, only 43 cents went to the charity,” according to the Attorney General’s website.