Vetting Veterans Charities: How to Make a Difference this Memorial Day

What is perhaps the most important take away from the recent breakup of the Reynolds family scam nonprofit ring?

Vetting organizations before donating.

The Tennessee-based ring of cancer nonprofits swindled donors of $187 million, spending as little as 3 percent on the cancer patients purportedly assisted through the groups’ services. With sizable executive salaries for friends and families and the steep cost of third-party fundraising contractors taking up to $0.85 for each fundraising dollar, the rings’ actual services were superficial at best.

The organizations in the network, however, had atrocious ratings long before they were shut down. The recent lawsuit alleging illegal and deceitful practices was simply the final straw that led to their dissolution. The use of high-fee solicitors is legal, and is practiced across the nonprofit world, essentially diluting charitable dollars.

This point may seem like 20-20 hindsight for the those whose generosity was abused by the Reynolds family and their associates, but being aware of nonprofit ratings in the future can be invaluable for making sure charitable gifts make the greatest possible impact.

There are multiple rating services that provide insight into how well nonprofits pursue their mission and how transparently they manage their finances.  Charity Navigator is easy to use and generates starred ratings for nonprofits that provide a sense of security for the giving public.

This memorial day, as the nation prepares to honor veterans, taking some time to look up and index several legitimate nonprofits will go a long way toward making sure that your charitable gift will make a real difference in veterans’ lives

Be sure to avoid groups mentioned on the worst charities list – a jointly compiled rundown by the Tampa Bay Times and Center for Investigative Reporting. A number of veterans groups are featured, including some that employ third-party solicitors that take up to 90 percent of a funds raised.

The following organizations are highly rated, and promise a positive return on your gift this Memorial Day:

DAV (Disabled American Veterans) Charitable Service Trust

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America

Operation Support Our Troops – America

Thanks USA

Wounded Warriors Family Support

Lawsuit: Network of Cancer Nonprofits Swindled Donors

On May 19, the Federal Trade Commission and the attorneys general of all U.S. states announced a lawsuit against four nonprofits. The lawsuit alleges that the organizations scammed donors of $187 million while ostensibly raising money for cancer patients. The groups include The Children’s Cancer Fund of America, The Breast Cancer Society, The Cancer Fund of America, and Cancer Support Services. The administrative staff of each organization consists of members from the same family or their close associates.

Following the announcement, phones for two of the organizations  – Cancer Support Services and The Breast Cancer Society – had been disconnected.

A handful of ranking administrative staff from the four charities have signed settlements that bar them from future fundraising activities. Children’s Cancer Fund of America President and Director Rose Perkins, Breast Cancer Society Executive Director James Reynolds II, and Cancer Fund of America Chief Financial Officer Kyle Effler are banned from managing charities or charitable assets, and are responsible for $137 million in payments that will go toward cancer patients. The settlements will also dissolve both the Children’s Cancer Fund of America and the Breast Cancer Society.

According to Jessica Rich from the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, the deceitful activities of the four organizations not only hoodwinked donors, but also negatively impacted genuine nonprofits:

The defendants’ egregious scheme effectively deprived legitimate cancer charities and cancer patients of much-needed funds and support. The defendants took in millions of dollars in donations meant to help cancer patients, but spent it on themselves and their fundraisers.

No one in the groups’ leadership has publicly admitted to the alleged offenses. The Breast Cancer Society’s website now consists exclusively of a letter from Executive Director James T. Reynolds II claiming innocence and blaming government regulation for the organization’s closure:

Charities – including some of the world’s best-known and reputable organizations – are increasingly facing the scrutiny of government regulators in the U.S. The Breast Cancer Society (TBCS) is no exception. Unfortunately, as our operations expanded – all with the goal of serving more patients – the threat of litigation from our government increased as well.

While the organization, its officers and directors have not been found guilty of any allegations of wrong doing, and the government has not proven otherwise, our Board of Directors has decided that it does not help those who we seek to serve, and those who remain in need, for us to engage in a highly publicized, expensive, and distracting legal battle around our fundraising practices.

According to the lawsuits, just three percent of donations raised collectively among the four organizations between 2008 and 2012 were used for charitable ends. Some funding was misused for personal ends, spent on fees for personal accounts on dating websites and trips to Disney World.

A joint report released by the Center for Investigative Journalism and the Tampa Bay Times details the Reynolds’ family and its extensive empire of nonprofits, delving into the network’s nefarious practices. According to the report, the family paid a dozen executive salaries to family and close associates.  In 2011, the interlocking network of nonprofits paid out $8 million in salaries, about 13 times more than the amount spent it on patients. The Cancer Fund of America purportedly spent less than 1 percent of the $34 million it raised over five years on patients.

The organizations in the Reynolds network routinely mischaracterized their operations. For instance, one of the group’s care packages labeled as “urgent pain medication” typically carried over-the-counter ibuprofen. Several programs the charities claimed to to have run in their fundraising efforts – including one to drive patients to chemotherapy – were completely fictional.

Taken together, the charities’ track record paints a damning picture. Over a decade, the biggest winners from the groups’ operations were contract fundraising companies – which made $0.80 on the dollar, totaling for $80.4 million – and the family members, who collectively raked in over $5 million.

Nonprofits Tackle Violence and Sexism in Latin America

Latin America possesses the highest murder rate in the world. While many of the social issues that incubate violent crime persist, a number of nonprofits are working to change course by leveraging tactics from development policy to feminist-inspired grassroots education initiatives.

The Igarapé Institute – a nonprofit research and policy organization based in Brazil – recently released interactive maps enumerating global murder statistics, breaking down homicide rates by region, gender of victim, and weapon used. The report points to some positive trends, but also details intractable violence in many marginalized communities.

Some of the most notorious murder capitals have actually seen dramatic decreases in violent crime – the report lists Bogotá, São Paulo, Medellín and Rio de Janeiro of having shrunk violent crime rates through a mix of improved living standards and education, along with policing reforms. Dishearteningly, high homicide rates in poor, often black or mixed-raced cities and neighborhoods across Latin America remain largely unchanged.

One-third of global homicides occur in Latin America – nearly 145,000 annually. The region’s share of the earth’s population is just one-tenth.

In an interview with the Guardian, founder of the Igarapé Institute Robert Muggah remarks that – much like the rest of the world – the violence is disproportionately concentrated in marginalized communities. “The perception in many cities that everyone is equally at risk is flat-out wrong. In many US cities, for example, less than 5% of street addresses account for 75% of violence. In Bogotá, just 2% of street addresses are where 98% of homicides occur,” he explains. 

This means that – while the likelihood for many people of being the victim of homicide is shrinking – the still-massive murder rates are taking a greater toll on underserved and marginalized communities. Contributing in part to this trend are the demands from growing middle-class and commercial districts for better and more intensive policing, subsequently promoting the neglect of poorer, less-influential neighborhoods.

While NGOs and governments digest the information presented in the report, and the Igarapé Institute produces supplementary analysis on how to approach policy considering the highly localized occurrence of murder in poor communities, other groups are taking aim at the problem with unique frameworks and strategies.

The Center of Migrant Social Rights (CENDEROS) – a group that receives funding from the Irish development agency Trócaire – works with boys and men to overcome entrenched notions of masculinity, teaching them that a violence-prone identity that celebrates murder is dangerous and – ultimately – a dead end. As Michael Solid writes for Huffington Post:

[CENDEROS] works directly with boys and men on reconceiving “masculinity” in hyper-machista societies. This involves deconstructing their upbringings, personal traumas, and how their surroundings have shaped their behavior. They come to learn that it is in everyone’s interests to allow women to do basic things like come and go from the home when they choose, share control of economic resources, engage in training and income generating activities, and make decisions.

While the majority of homicide victims in the region are male – around 85 percent – women are nonetheless subjected to endemic physical, sexual, and psychological violence. Victims of rape receive little support. Paraguay attracted worldwide condemnation this May after denying a 10-year rape victim access to an abortion. The suspect involved in the rape was the girl’s step-father.

Violence toward women is fundamentally tied to gender issues that influence other forms of violence, including the region’s high murder rate. By addressing the identity issues that are at the root of both, NGOs are deploying creative and empowering programs to ameliorate the overall health of Latin American societies.

Different manifestations of violence share common roots and patterns, and represent a larger patchwork of interrelated issues that call for considered and multifaceted approaches. With improved statistical understanding from NGOs like the Igarapé Institute providing the framework for new and inventive policy-making, front-line justice nonprofits like CENDEROS make up the-rank-and-file of potential pilot groups for rolling out new strategies to bring down the region’s high murder rates.

Tech Companies Team with Nonprofits against ISIS, Hate Groups

The social media prowess of ISIS is well documented. The radical Islamic group routinely deploys its vast online presence to recruit from across the globe. Scores of disaffected youth – influenced by the terror group’s omnipresence on virtually all online platforms – have trickled toward the conflict in Syria. In nations ranging from the United Stated to Germany, authorities have prevented citizens from traveling broad or have entertained measures to expedite the legal process by which a government can restrict the passport usage of citizens attempting to join ISIS.

Commentators argue that an effective counter policy has been sorely missing from current tactics for dismantling the terrorist organization and mitigating the damage it causes. A small state agency formed in 2011 called the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) was established to combat the online communications of ISIS. The agency was bogged down for several years due to minimal government investment. Other government digital communications strategies have backfired, including the “Think Again Look Away” campaign, which provided a means for ISIS supporters and affiliates to tussle online with U.S. officials over infamous events like the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison.

Recently, government officials, tech companies, and nonprofits have taken steps to improve the online fight against ISIS. In February, the Obama Administration hosted representatives from the private sector and professionals from prominent NGOs to collaborate on solutions. Top-level staff from Twitter and other social media platforms were present. Nonprofits represented at the meeting included the Anti-Defamation League – an organization that works toward abolishing hate-inspired violence – and the the Global Survivors Network – a group that provides support to victims of violent terror.

The strategic solutions discussed involve private tech businesses working with relevant NGOs to identify sources of hate speech, construct efficacious avenues for reporting these abuses, and collate data to better understand patterns of extremist behavior. There are recent precedents, such as one partnership that began late last year to combat sexism. Following the GamerGate controversy of 2014 – in which female game developers and cultural critics were subjected to prolonged misogynistic attacks – Twitter entered a partnership with an organization named Women, Action, & the Media in order to pursue meaningful responses.

Tech giants have rolled out other initiatives for social justice and peace issues. Google launched Against Violent Extremism in 2011 – a hub for former adherents to extremist ideologies and victims of terror from around the globe to collaborate on projects, such as Exit White Power Australia – a group working to discourage recruitment by white supremacist groups.

After the February meeting in Washington, D.C., Twitter announced that it will pursue similiar partnerships with groups working against violent extremism – including the United States’ Anti-Defamation League and France’s International League against and Racism and Anti-Semitism. In addition to these collaborative efforts, Twitter has promoted anti-hate tweets from nonprofits to counteract messages of hate and has trained activists and volunteers on reporting methods.

These partnerships illuminate the potential of tech and nonprofit collaboration. With such powerful and widely used tools at their disposal, private technology firms can harness the expertise and mission-oriented commitment of nonprofit professionals to develop an effective digital infrastructure for counteracting the hate speech and toxic propaganda of terror groups like ISIS.

Migrants in Greece Face Inhumane Detention, Organized Hate

[This is part 2 in a 2 part series on migrants in Europe]

In our previous installment on Europe’s migrant crisis, we explored the April 9 disaster that claimed hundreds of lives. A boat carrying an estimated 900 people capsized, drowning hundreds. The catastrophe occurred following the discontinuation of Italy’s operation Mare Nostrum, which balanced border enforcement with humanitarian aid, and was responsible for saving thousands of migrant lives. A new European Union-led operation – fronted by the union’s border control agency Frontex – has since taken over, with a significantly smaller budget, fewer personnel and boats, and a singular focus of enforcing border security over humanitarian aid.

EU foreign and interior ministers met in an emergency session following the April 9 incident – termed a “massacre” by the UNHCR – to hash out new guidelines for the union’s policy in the Mediterranean. Critics have called several of the measures – including plans to sink smugglers’ boats – a militarization of policy, ill-suited for dealing with the growing number of desperate refugees planning to enter Europe. The plan additionally calls for an increased budget, as well as a resettlement plan that would offer asylum to some refugees across the EU’s 28 member nations.

Yet another European nation that has been in the news – albeit for different reasons – is coping with a spike of migrants: Greece. 

While Italy and Spain – two other top destinations for migrants trying to enter Europe – are struggling economically, Greece is in particularly dire straits. The nation’s sovereign debt crisis is an ongoing source of consternation for EU and IMF officials. The media is rife with talks of default and of a potential “Grexit” from the European Union – which would imperil the very premise of the union’s mission and identity.

With Greece’s cash-strapped government and its population disaffected with bailout-mandated austerity and ridicule from the international media, the nation’s economic and social environment is not equipped to adequately and humanely deal with the influx of migrants.

Mainstream politicians across the European continent have kept a weary eye on populist, anti-immigrant groups popping up throughout the union. Among the most virulent and hateful of these groups is Greece’s Golden Dawn – a neo-nazi group with its own paramilitary that has been implicated in a number of assaults and murders. Benefitting from the economic downturn and the heterogenization of European society, Golden Dawn and other extreme right-wing parties are providing a frightening, hateful, and ultimately very dangerous outlet for people who feel helpless.

While its leadership has since been charged with operating a criminal organization (the trial was recently postponed) and its electoral popularity has shrunk, the relative success of Golden Dawn in attracting a base of support nonetheless reflects the disastrous consequences of underfunded, non-holistic, and piecemeal approaches to the continent’s inter-related migrant and domestic social crises.

Detained migrants live in squalid, dehumanizing environments that fuel the demeaning and racist perceptions propagated by groups like Golden Dawn. From exacerbated health to diminished life prospects and social standing, migrants’ living conditions – generated through government neglect, inhumane policy, and underfunding –  ultimately make the process of otherization easier for hate groups.

As Doctors without Borders/Medicines Sans Frontieres (MSF) has noted, many migrants face indefinite detention with little to no medical care, often kept in unsanitary and confined environments. The organization has provided care for some migrants who have been detained for over six years, evidence of a policy that permits Greek authorities to let migrants languish until they volunteer to head back to their nation of origin. Many of these migrants, of course, are refugees, and simply do not have the option to self-deport. Invisible Suffering – an MSF report six years in the making – details a number of disorders plaguing detainees, including upper respiratory tract infections, gastrointestinal diseases, anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic disorders.

Solving the migrant crisis while improving migrants’ living condition will not be easy, especially in a county whose citizens are reeling from economic insecurity and many of whom are dependent on charitable social services such as soup kitchens (indeed, one of the ways that Golden Dawn appealed for support was by offering food and other forms of social assistance to struggling Greeks). Nonetheless, it is often necessary to step back and see the interconnectedness of seemingly disparate social issues. By exploring the ways in which the plight of migrants, struggling Greeks, and hateful political ideologies are part of the same puzzle, NGOs, government officials, and aid works can begin to construct new and nuanced strategies for ameliorating these issues.

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