Soundings: Charity navigating

Heather, one of our young patrons at the Edgartown library, approached me last week to say she was raising money for her school band’s trip, and could I help? When I said yes, she led me to a table and pulled a fat envelope from her backpack. “Sit down,” she said, “this is going to take a while.”

In the envelope were two glossy catalogues filled with high-markup goodies for sale. One contained ladies’ fragrances and creams, the other gourmet foods and kitchen tools. Clearly the school band had hooked up with an outfit that prints the catalogues, provides the goods, and gives a percentage of each dollar back to the organization whose kids made the sales.

But what percentage, exactly?

My transaction with Heather reminded me of the phone call we got at home a month ago from an unctuous young fellow who introduced himself as Will Thomas, calling for the Dukes County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. Will never exactly said he was a member of the association, although his script was clearly designed to convey that impression. We’d helped the deputy sheriffs before, he said, and could we be generous again this year? I told Will I’d have to consult the wife, and took down his number, and began doing my homework.

My first project was to learn about All-Pro Productions, the name that had flashed on my caller ID when Will Thomas called. All-Pro, it turns out, is a telemarketing firm based in Marlborough and owned by Fred Smerlas, who spent 14 years as a nose tackle with NFL teams, including the Patriots.

On its Facebook page, All-Pro Productions touts itself as “the #1 fund-raising company in New England.” From further browsing, I learned that when Boston’s WCVB-TV investigated the firm in 2007, the station found that All-Pro is, in fact, the leading telemarketer for law enforcement and firefighter organizations in Massachusetts. The news team also found that All-Pro was pocketing, on average, 63 cents of every dollar it raised, giving only 37 cents to the charities for which it solicits.

This net return is slightly worse than the average rate that the Massachusetts attorney general found in a recent survey of hired solicitors and their work across the Commonwealth. The attorney general reported that in 2009, professional solicitors raised more than $328 million for charities in Massachusetts, but returned only $142 million – about 43 percent – to the nonprofits themselves.

My next online destination was a site that everyone who gives to any charity should keep on their web browser’s list of shortcuts: www.charitynavigator.org. This rich site is filled with resources that help it live up to its tagline: “Your guide to intelligent giving.”

The Charity Navigator site has links to the federal 990 forms of most nonprofit organizations in the United States. Form 990 is how the government keeps track of charities, and the most recent form filed by the Dukes County Deputy Sheriff’s Association is a real stunner.

According to the association’s report, the group collected donations of $112,934 in calendar year 2010. The form lists professional fund-raising fees of $69,517 (think: payments to All-Pro Productions), and “other expenses” of $24,482. This means that out of every dollar the association collected in 2010 from the gullible and/or generous Vineyarders whom All-Pro reached on the phone, just 16 cents wound up in the association’s coffers. The lion’s share of the money went to Mr. Smerlas and his telemarketing team.

Sadly, there’s no law yet requiring the Will Thomases of this world to begin their telephone patter by saying, “Hi there! I’m calling from a room somewhere in Fall River, reading from a script. We’d like you to give a contribution, two thirds of which we’ll pocket and a small fraction of which will end up with the Dukes County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. Is that good for you?”

But in fact, there are some laws that apply here, and some rules you should remember the next time the telemarketers call.

First of all, ask if the person you’re speaking with is a paid professional or a volunteer involved with the charity. By law, they have to tell you. If the caller is a pro, ask how much of each donation goes to the charity and how much goes to the telemarketing firm. By law, they have to tell you.

If you don’t like subsidizing the telemarketers, but haven’t yet lost your warm feelings toward the charity, simply cut out the middleman. Hang up on the telemarketer. Get in touch with the charity and make your contribution directly, knowing that every dollar (not 17 cents of it) will go to the cause you want to support.

Back at the library, Heather, with her gourmet catalogues, had a ready answer when I asked her what portion of any purchase I made would go to the band, and what would go to the purveyors of perfumes and candies. Half-and-half, she said. (Heather is a newly-minted fifth-grader, and teaching percentages isn’t required by the Massachusetts math curriculum frameworks until seventh grade.) She seemed flustered at first when I proposed a simple contribution toward the band trip, without buying anything — her sales kit didn’t have an envelope for that sort of money. But we worked it out.