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It may be better to give than to receive, but surely the best option is to do both.
That’s the idea behind “endorsed events,” an arrangement in which a store or club promotes an event as a benefit, with some portion of the proceeds going to a specific charity. If everything goes well, the business attracts customers and polishes its image, and the charity reaps some of the financial rewards. But some District organizations that rely on public benevolence say the events don’t always result in cold hard cash for their causes.
Take the House of Ruth, the battered-women’s organization in Northeast. Each year, individuals or businesses arrange between 15 and 20 fund-raising events in the group’s name, worth about $50,000 in donations, according to development director Joyce Grand. But some event organizers never follow up with funds.
“Someone calls and says, ‘We’re going to do a fashion show in the name of the House of Ruth, and we’ll give you the proceeds,’ ” says Grand. “But sometimes we just don’t hear anything.” For example, the House of Ruth never received a donation after a benefit dance at Club Zei in March. The club included the House of Ruth’s name in its ads, but the charity says it never saw a check. Grand says such cases occur about once every two months. “I think it’s pretty common in this business,” she says.
So are businesses like Club Zei merely pocketing the extra cash?
In a faxed statement, Club Zei office manager Paige Davis said she and the club’s owners weren’t responsible for the House of Ruth incident. She said the club had subcontracted its facilities to two party promoters who have since left the Washington area. She isn’t sure how to reach the promoters, Serge Popatakis and Dirk Van Stockholm. “In no way did [the promoters] seek Club Zei’s endorsement for arrangements with these charity or non-profit groups,” Davis wrote. “I had no knowledge of their payment (or lack thereof) to House of Ruth.”
The club hosted about 12 charity events last year, which she says produced thousands of dollars for worthy causes. “In almost every single situation, they’ve been very positive,” says Davis. She faxed half-a-dozen testimonials from charities grateful for Zei’s endorsed events.
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Grand and other local fund-raising directors think poor planning, rather than intentional fraud, is most often to blame for events that leave charities empty-handed.
“Event planning is an art, and often [the businesses] don’t realize that it’s going to cost so much to put on an event,” says Mickie Ballotta, development director for Food & Friends, an AIDS organization. “People think they’re going to make a lot more money than they do.”
But because the zero-yield events are rarely made public, patrons may not realize that none of their dollars actually ended up in a charity’s bank account. Ironically, that’s just how charities like it. Wary of alienating potential donorseven those who have promised them money and never deliveredgroups that depend on donations rarely complain.
“They may want to do something else for us,” says Jessieca Montgomery, assistant director of development at the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which has between 150 and 200 endorsed events held in its name each year. “One day, they’ll come around and they’ll say, ‘This organization did something for my uncle…and they’ll decide to be honest.’ “
Montgomery wouldn’t identify the organizers of a theater performance, a fashion show, and a dance held last year for Whitman-Walker, even though they donated nothing after the events were held.
Similarly, Tom McSorley, director of communications and development at Greenpeace, was tight-lipped about an organization that contributed money only after “half-a-dozen to a dozen” phone calls. “We had to contact them often to even get any response back from them. We ended up realizing about a thousand dollars in revenue,” says McSorley. “It seemed that their sales would be a lot more.” When asked for details, he would only say that the organization had helped produce a Greenpeace calendar.
This silence only hurts the charities, says Dan Langan, a spokesman for the National Charities Information Bureau. “That’s absurd. They’re being had. If they’re going to keep taking these offers while someone else gets the money, then more people will take advantage of them,” he says.
Fund-raising experts say the best way to avoid such misunderstandings is for the charity to coordinate the event with the business. “We have a staff person who works with those in the community who are having these events and gives them guidance,” says Ballotta of Food & Friends, which received money after all its endorsed events last year. Many other area charities, including the House of Ruth, now employ such coordinators.
Still, charities say the public should be careful, since they don’t always hear about events held for them. “Our major problem is knowing who’s raising money for us,” says Howard Silberstein, director of donor marketing for the Children’s Hospital Foundation. “A lot of times, we get surprise money in the mail.”
One way to avoid fraud is to ask whether the event organizer is working with a charity coordinator. If you don’t ask, you may end up donating to someone no more needy than a crafty entrepreneur.