By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger
The flyer came in the mail the other day. Tucked between the Lowes ad and the light bill ( I love that anachronism for the electric bill) were photographs of three emaciated children of color living in obvious squalor in an undisclosed Third World hell hole. The bold caption read” A CHILD DIES EVERY 15 SECONDS FROM HUNGER,” and beneath it was a furtive plea for help, capping off with the comment that last year 3 million children died from hunger. You could check off your donation and pay with that status symbol of Western life, your Visa or MasterCard. Millions of middle class selfish, egotistical, uncaring Americans do and hence the appeals keep pouring in.
It is undoubtedly true that some children suffer this sad fate and that the conditions described might exist somewhere, say, Somalia during the recent famine. These kids need help and every compassionate person on the planet would agree. But is this the whole truth? According to the BBC, the “One Child every 15 seconds …” stat is true but misleading. Sort of the marketing of misery to get an emotional response just like the desired reaction when watching a dishwater detergent ad.
The implicit message of my postcard appeal is that millions of children are going to bed hungry every night and ultimately dying from starvation every year and that pennies a day will provide them salvation. The truth is that three million children do die from poor nutrition but in most cases it is education that will save them not cash.
The three million number is an estimate from the respected British medical journal, The Lancet. The marketers of charity have reduced that number to the “One child dies every 15 seconds …” schtick, but the science says something very different. For example, according to Jane Howard of the U.N. World Food Programme, a significant number of these children die from measles whose deleterious effects are exacerbated by poor nutrition and compromised immune systems. Also, the statistic is complicated by double counting. When a child dies from contaminated water, the figure goes under the nutrition stat and also the bad water stat. And the tragedy of it all is that providing that child more food would do nothing to ease his fate.
Most of the countries where kids die from malnutrition are not poor or war ravaged. In fact many like India and Nigeria are not considered poor at all and have plenty of resources to feed kids. The problem is the quality of the diet. For religious and cultural reasons, some women simply do not eat the variety of diet needed for proper prenatal nutrition which then carries over to their offspring. In turn, the kids eat the same diet the parents eat and, while getting plenty of calories that would satisfy the nutritional needs of adults, these kids do not achieve adequate nutritional needs for developing bodies. Thus, the problem is far more complicated (and thus less susceptible to a monied response) than my flyer explains and that’s just fine with Jack Lundie of the If Campaign, one of the charities pulling on your heart-strings for cash. “It may be true that … from our top line messaging you don’t get all the information about the entire problem, but I don’t think it would be realistic to expect that to happen,” he says. Well, how about putting some of that info somewhere on the appeal? Nope, the flyer is too short.
You see it’s not about getting money, but according to Mr. Lundie, it’s more about “establishing the right engagement to allow us to have a more meaningful conversation.” Should I call or just email, Mr. Lundie? And when asked if his appeal might lead people to believe that children are starving from lack of food, Mr. Lundie allows that “some members of the public could make that inference,” but counters that the If Campaign never uses the word “starving.” BEEP, BEEP, BEEP–B.S. Detector Alert!!
Well, maybe these charities have their heart in the right place even if they can’t quite get us the whole truth about the problems they combat. Seems that’s problematic, too. According to CNN, the charity business, and that’s what it is, is fraught with charlatans just waiting to pocket your cash and throw pennies at the victims. One, The Kids Wish Network, that operates out of a warehouse in Florida, solicited millions in donations from hapless Americans over the past decade ostensibly to pay for last wishes of dying kids. How much of that donated dollar made it to the kids? 3 cents! Yep, three very small. The rest went to the charities founder, a cool $4.8 mil, and to corporate solicitation companies who took over $110 million.
Is that unusual? According to the Tampa Bay Times, not at all. In the investigative report, reporter Kendall Taggart noted that 6,000 charities have chosen to pay for-profit companies to raise their donations and some of them mimic the names of more well-known charity names to fool the public into giving.
CNN and the Tampa Times have named their 50 worst American charities and the findings about these groups are startling. Here they are verbatim:
“- The 50 worst charities in America devote less than 4% of donations raised to direct cash aid. Some charities gave even less. Over a decade, one diabetes charity raised nearly $14 million and gave about $10,000 to patients. Six spent no cash at all on their cause.
— Even as they plead for financial support, operators at many of the 50 worst charities have lied to donors about where their money goes, taken multiple salaries, secretly paid themselves consulting fees or arranged fund-raising contracts with friends. One cancer charity paid a company owned by the president’s son nearly $18 million over eight years to solicit funds. A medical charity paid its biggest research grant to its president’s own for-profit company.
— Some nonprofits are little more than fronts for fund-raising companies, which bankroll their startup costs, lock them into exclusive contracts at exorbitant rates and even drive the charities into debt. Florida-based Project Cure has raised more than $65 million since 1998, but every year has wound up owing its fundraiser more than what was raised. According to its latest financial filing, the nonprofit is $3 million in debt.
— To disguise the meager amount of money that reaches those in need, charities use accounting tricks and inflate the value of donated dollar-store cast-offs – snack cakes and air fresheners – that they give to dying cancer patients and homeless veterans.”
This is not to paint all charities as crooks or cads as some do fine work for less than 20 cents on the dollar for administrative and fundraising costs like Child Fund, International, but the truth is that charity is big business. Thus it attracts the ethical bargain basement of people who see not kids in need, but only dollar signs among the prevailing misery.
For those people interested in how their charity is doing to promote the good or to those people trying to find to whom to donate, I suggest you explore http://www.charitynavigator.org , an organization that independently evaluates charities from a financial and efficiency standpoint.
~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger