Soundings: Raising money the wrong way

Soundings: Raising money the wrong way

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Last month I devoted this column to the fundraising practices of the Dukes County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. I was ready to let the subject rest until Bob Ogden presented his defense of the deputy sheriff’s association’s fundraising practices in a letter to this newspaper. As a rhetorical effort, it’s one of those letters that throws everything against the wall in hopes that something might stick.

Mr. Ogden opens with a reference to the “thousands of children who have benefited” from the D.A.R.E. program, which his association supports. This is a nifty way of skating over the central controversy around D.A.R.E., namely the question of whether it actually does any good.

Started in 1983, D.A.R.E. is a school curriculum taught by law enforcement officers as part of the demand-side approach of the U.S. War on Drugs. Studies showing its ineffectiveness have been piling up in scientific journals since 1992. The American Psychological Association completed a 10-year study (PDF) in 1999, concluding that D.A.R.E. had no measurable effects. In 2009, a team of researchers completed a meta-analysis of the best 20 studies they could find, and concluded that the effects of the D.A.R.E. program are “less than small.” This is how scientists say that a program’s effects are consistent with the null hypothesis — that is, nonexistent.

So the first thing the man “fondly known as Officer Bob” wants to take credit for, with his organization’s stunningly inefficient fundraising, is an educational program that fails to accomplish what it sets out to do — reduce the illegal use of controlled substances. Worse still, D.A.R.E. occupies space, absorbs time and expends money that might be put toward a program that actually works. (One promising vessel for such time and money is the Martha’s Vineyard Youth Task Force, which works to reduce risky behaviors through a network that engages the whole community.)

Even if the D.A.R.E. program were effective, the inefficiency of the deputy sheriff’s association efforts to support it would still be hard to defend. Mr. Ogden protests that his small organization doesn’t have the time to commit to a proper fundraising campaign. In his letter, he pointedly avoids revealing the percentage the association’s paid telemarketer, All-Pro Productions Inc., retained from each dollar it solicited last year. In the absence of more candid disclosure, all we’ve got to go by is the federal form for 2010, declaring that the association took in $112,936 but netted only $17,835 — less than 16 percent — for contributions to the causes it supports.

Meanwhile, for an example of how to do fundraising more responsibly, we need look no further than the Edgartown Patrolman’s Association. The patrolmen, though presumably just as hardworking and busy as the deputies, find time to raise money each year through a direct appeal letter, bypassing the huge cost of mercenary telemarketers.

Mr. Ogden concludes his letter with a gratuitous slap at The Martha’s Vineyard Times as “a narrow-minded newspaper” — never mind that this column reflects my views and mine alone — and with a parting shot at charitynavigator.org, the website I recommended last month for readers interested in learning more about responsible giving: “I would be leery about going to the site Nis suggests, as they too ask for a donation for their services. Ironic, isn’t it?”

No, actually not. By nature, nonprofits are organizations doing work that is worthwhile, inherently unprofitable, and therefore dependent upon public support. Should we be “leery” of Community Services, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, Sail Martha’s Vineyard, the Preservation Trust or the Vineyard Nursing Association because they ask for donations on their websites? Of course not.

Charity Navigator has been singled out by Time Magazine as “One of America’s 50 Coolest Websites,” has been named twice by Forbes Magazine to its “Best of the Web” list, and has been inducted by Business Week into its “Philanthropy Hall of Fame.” Charity Navigator is devoted to making smarter philanthropists of us all; it richly deserves our support, and I’m not surprised that the president of the Dukes County Deputy Sheriff’s Association would like to steer you away from it.

The high school girls’ field hockey team is a great program, and so are the track team, the youth hockey league, and the other athletic programs supported by the Dukes County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. I hope these teams make good use of the money the deputies gave them, because for each dollar they got, the people of Martha’s Vineyard had to shell out more than six.

What I suggested last month — and repeat here — is that if you’d rather see every dollar of your gift go to these programs than just 16 cents of it, hang up your telephone the next time All-Pro Productions calls, and instead donate directly to the program you’d like to help. Let’s keep the money on the Vineyard.

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