Friday, April 10, 2009

Organizations - Helping YOU or THEMSELVES?

Charity begins at home, for some CEOs of charity organizations.

A few years ago, there was a scandal at the United Way national office in Alexandria, Virginia. The head of the organization, which helps the various regional organizations, was spending company money on a young woman, trips on the Concorde, and also taking limousines to work every day. He was getting paid $390,000 on top of that.

If you lived or worked in Old Town, Alexandria, none of this was much of a surprise. I drove by their shiny new office building every day on the way to work, and saw the limousines parked out front. Charity begins at home, I guess.

The fellow was eventually tried and convicted. His defense was that he was suffering from "brain shrinkage". One day, on the way to work, I saw him and his lawyers walking outside the courthouse, tailed by news people. As I drove by, I shouted out the window at him, "Rot in Hell, you Mother@$#%$&*!".

It made me feel better anyway. Stealing from Charity. That has to be a new low.

I had spent many hours at GM, UTC, and other places, doing United Way fundraising and had contributed to many campaigns myself through payroll deduction. The idea that people were getting rich and living the high life off my charitable contributions was sickening.

And yet, most organizations tend to take on a life of their own, and oftentimes, their own survival and internal perks trump the stated goals of the organizations. Before you join or contribute to a "worthy cause", consider carefully how your money will be spent. Oftentimes, what you think the money is being spent on is not what you might want.

I am not talking about the fake charity groups out there, either. These are well known cons - the folks who pretend to be charities and come up with names that sound like other charities, but spend most of the contribution money on "overhead" (salaries for management). No, even "legitimate" organizations can be a total waste of your time and effort. Choose wisely.

It was not unusual that the United Way national headquarters was located in Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria is home to a number of political and other organizations, mostly for the convenience of access to Washington DC (lobbying). The Potato Chip and Snack Food Association is one of my favorites. The American Helicopter Association is headquartered there. The list goes on and on. There is even an Association of Associations, I kid you not.

Many of these are industry groups. But others are more grass-roots oriented. Membership-based groups, such as the NRA (located nearby in Virginia) for example, obtain dues from individual members (and the industry) and then lobbies Congress. Its has counterparts, Handgun Control, Inc. (and the Brady Center). Often there are multitudes of organizations to serve the same (or similar) political causes.

Should you join such organizations? Go door-to-door volunteering for them? It is your choice. One thing than dampens my enthusiasm for such organizations is seeing how they are run. Most have professional staffs, which are paid enormous sums of money. We're talking six-figure sums here. These highly paid staffers are often only interested in their own career advancement, or as we saw in the United Way example, getting all the perks they could get out of the job. For a "worthy cause" shouldn't people be working for less?

Worse yet, since many of these organizations are top heavy with management, they feel they need to "do things" - often to the detriment of the organization or cause. National Public Radio, for example, decided to fire Bob Edwards from its Morning Edition show. Highly paid program directors decided, without much thought, that getting rid of "the old guy" would somehow attract younger listeners. I decided right then and there that this was an organization that really didn't need my money anymore (Perhaps, in hindsight, Edwards came across as too conservative and even-handed, as an "old school" journalist. NPR has since abandoned any pretense of neutrality in delivering the news).

Your opinion, of course, may be different. However, I don't think that NPR or my local public radio station is really going to go off the air if I don't buy a tote bag during their fund drive. What it will mean, of course, is that they might not be able to pay as much for programming, and hence drop salaries for some of the folks running the place. But given the number of paid "sponsorships" (advertisements) on this "non-commercial" radio chain, I really doubt they are about to go under. So it is really necessary, or even desirable for me to send them $50 every year? I don't think so (and they never did send me that tote bag, either!).

The American Bar Association is another organization that I am ambivalent about. While they do provide some benefits for members (low-cost life insurance, for example) much of the money paid in dues goes to political lobbying or causes that you may or may not agree with. And the dues can be rather staggering as well.

United Way is another example. They collect money from individuals and then distribute it to everything from Catholic Charities to Boy Scouts, USA, to Planned Parenthood. Some on the Left are not happy that money is going to Catholic Charities (anti-abortion) or Boy Scouts (perceived as anti-Gay). Some on the Right are not happy that money is going to Planned Parenthood. In these polarizing times, even giving to charity is fraught with peril. The reason, however is clear: most charities do have a political agenda (even a soup kitchen) and thus giving to one charity is often an endorsement of one line of political thought.

The ABA example illustrates, however that there are some organizations which provide benefits, such as life insurance, to your advantage. The Good Sam Club, which is the premiere RV (Recreational Vehicle) organization, provides a monthly magazine, a discount on park stays (at participating parks), and publishes a nationwide campground directory - in addition to representing the RV'ing public (and industry) to government. In return for your dues (or membership) you at least get something in return, even if it is marketing-linked. The American Automobile Association (AAA) is another good example. For $40 a year, you get maps, a magazine, free towing, and a lobbying group representing your interests.

Other organizations, however, may not be at first what they seem. Many folks used to give money to PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Why not? Who doesn't want animals treated better? But many controversies surrounding this group show that it is not what it first appears to be. PETA euthanizes the majority of the animals it takes in, and actually criticizes "no kill" shelters. The lobbying arm of the organization has taken increasingly bizarre stands on issues and is prone to stupid publicity stunts which do little to advance the cause of the group and arguably do more harm in making it appear to be silly and superficial. One has to wonder if an organization that asks the town of Fishkill, NY to rename itself or to call for fish to be renamed "Sea Kittens" has way too much time and money on its hands.

And in some instances, some organizations amount to little more than shakedown artists. They may accuse a corporation of bad practices and trying to create protests and bad publicity for certain companies. For example, some environmental group may get you all riled up (see my article "They're BAITING You!") that a fast-food chain is destroying the rainforest (not actually true, of course). You go out and wave your sign in a protest march, put a bumper sticker on your car, and get your friends to boycott the chain. Later on, you'll be chagrined to find out that in return for an "environmental pledge" from the company (and a nice donation to the environmental group), the protest has been dropped. Tony Soprano could not do a better version of the shakedown. Did you really "change the world" or were you merely a pawn in someone's financial game?

This is not, of course, to suggest that all these groups are corrupt and vile. However, most do take on a life of their own. And most do not need your money, your energy, or your time. If you are for gun control, VOTE for the candidate who supports it. If you are AGAINST, then vote for the candidate against. Trust me when I say this counts far more than your NRA or Handgun Control, Inc. dues.

The NRA, for example, has increasingly resorted to bizarre rhetoric and demands over the years, even after its initial demands were met. Since outlawing handguns didn't appear to be much of a threat anymore, they moved on to legalizing automatic weapons (and have largely succeeded), armor-piercing ammunition, and whatever else is on the horizon. For an organization originally devised as an hunting group, this seems like quite a tangent. But if there is no THREAT to the constituency, there can be no NEED for the organization. So anything and everything has to be characterized as a dire situation.

The Gay Rights movement has fallen into a similar trap. By and large, the U.S. is one of the most tolerant countries in the world today with regard to the rights of Gays. But Gay rights groups are pushing again and again for "Gay Marriage", in spite of opinion polls which show no support for such a change to our laws (even among Gays, the issue is hardly a burning one). Again, the organizations need issues, just as we need air to breath. No one raises money by saying "Gee, things are pretty swell!". Both the Left AND the Right raise tons of money over the "threat" for and against Gay marriage. One almost wonders if they are working in cahoots.

How can you tell if an Organization has gone off the deep end? Or the President of the Organization just needs to make another Mercedes payment? Here are some clues:
  • There is a power struggle at some time for control or consolidation of the organization.
  • The head of the organization takes home an obscene amount of money.
  • The organization takes "donations" from the corporations it criticizes.
  • The organization spends lavish amounts on advertising and publicity stunts.
  • The organization lobbies for further and further demands, after the initial demands are met.
  • There is a splinter organization of former members of the primary organization.
  • The organization uses dramatic propaganda techniques to try to convince you that you are "threatened" by some other organization, group, or government entity.
  • The organization has a huge management team of highly paid professionals.
  • The organization has a huge office complex and other infrastructure.
  • The organization has a private jet.
  • The head of the organization has a limousine and driver.
These are just some indicia to look at. Granted, you might not be able to evaluate all of them personally. But the next time some "worthy cause" approaches you and claims they "need" your money, think first about whether you might need it more. Charity does begin at home.