The Federal Trade Commission crackdown this week on four cancer charities affiliated with the Cancer Fund of America has upset many people.
“It’s like a relationship. When you build a relationship with someone and find out they are lying to you the whole time, it’s heartbreaking,” said Mark Ricks, a longtime resident of Maryland.
Cancer hit home for 47-year-old Ricks in 2004 when his father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “The only option was to fight back,” he said.
He used his bike to raise awareness for the disease, which rattled his family and ultimately took his father’s life in 2005. Devastated by the loss, Ricks was trying to channel his pain in a proactive way, so he joined a grassroots cancer organization focused on raising money through cycling.
“Many of my close family and friends have battled cancer and I loved biking so I thought if I was going to ride my bike, I might as well do it for a good cause,” said Ricks. His most recent accomplishment came last month, cycling with a team from Baltimore to Key West, Florida, for the Ulman Cancer Fund, which is not affiliated with Cancer Fund of America.
Over the last decade Ricks has biked thousands of miles to raise thousands of dollars, but as a contractor working for the anti-trust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, he is no stranger to the sort of corruption the federal government cracks down on, especially when it comes to nonprofit organizations.
“The whole point of a nonprofit organization is to help someone who is in need, not to help someone get rich. But sometimes the whole ‘not for profit’ side seems to get cast aside,” said Ricks.
He’s not alone in the opinion. “It doesn’t do justice for all those people and organizations out there doing a good job in trying to help,” said Melanie Young, breast cancer survivor and author of the book “Getting Things Off My Chest.”
“People really need to do their homework. Don’t be a bleeding heart, you have to use your head,” said Young, drawing from her experience working with various charities.
Navigating the nonprofit space can be an overwhelming task in and of itself. Donors say there are many watchdog groups patrons can reference before blindly giving their money away.
“There is a difference between what is legal and what is ethical. Unfortunately some of what these poorly preforming charities are doing is technically still within the law,” said Daniel Borochoff, president of CharityWatch, a nonprofit charity watchdog that helps donors make informed giving decisions. “We’ve been giving the Cancer Fund of American an ‘F’ grade since 1993,” said Borochoff.
When it comes to vetting charity groups, watchdog organizations say follow the money.
The average annual American household contributed $2,974 to charities, and Americans donated $335.17 billion to charities in 2013 overall, according to recent statistics by the National Philanthropic Trust.
“Good charities give roughly 70% of their income towards the actual program and fulfilling their mission statement, while less than 30% of the cost should be allocated towards solicitations and operations costs,” added Borochoff.
In the case of the Cancer Fund of America, Jessica Rich, of the Federal Trade Commission’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said the charities spent about 97% of donations they received either on private fundraisers or on themselves. Three percent, she said, went to help cancer patients.
“Unfortunately, rare cases like this tend to draw a negative light to all charities and make people a bit more withdrawn to donate. But fortunately there are a lot of watchdog groups out there,” said Ricks.
The nonprofit American Cancer Society, though not commenting on the recent ongoing criminal case, suggested people be vigilant about the charities they support and contact the Better Business Bureau for information on consumer protection.
Other cancer charity organizations said change starts from within. “It is good practice to see if your charity partners with highly accredited organizations — this is an additional indicator that they have implemented proper internal auditing and external controls,” said Elana Silber, director of operations at Sharsheret, a not-for-profit breast cancer support organization.
“If I were to find out that one of the charities I was volunteering my time and money to was doing something shady, of course I would be devastated. I don’t know if I could trust another organization for many years,” said Ricks. “I would go out on Saturday and ride my bike but it wouldn’t be to raise money for anyone, it would just be for me.”