As the number of veterans grows after 15 years of war, so do the number of veteran- and military-related charities. Today, there are an estimated 40,000 charities listed as serving vets and active duty military. But not all are legitimate.
Sandra Miniuitti, vice president of marketing for Charity Navigator, said there has been a 77 percent increase in these charities between 2000 and 2008, and a 41 percent increase in the past eight years.
Florida has seen its share of questionable non-profit organizations and outright fraud related to veterans, such as notorious con-man Bobby Thompson and his U.S. Navy Veterans Association, or the string of Florida internet gambling cafes run by Allied Veterans of the World.
“In Florida, there’s a population of people who have served the country and are willing and desire to give back to the military,” Miniutti said. And that makes Florida a target for charity scams.
It’s called emotional giving - a cause that pulls at your heartstrings by using injured veterans, deployed troops and their families, Miniutti said.
“Don’t react to the phone call or the person standing outside the supermarket,” Miniutti said. ”Make a plan, find a charity doing good work and give to them directly.”
She suggested donors check out a charity’s non-profit status at the Charity Navigator website and look for:
- See if the budget supports an organization’s stated mission and programs
- Be careful of charity names that sound or look like other ones
- Check transparency: Are all of the organizations records available to the public
- And do not give to charities that call on the phone
“Another thing we see with veterans and military charities is that sometimes there are groups that engage in pretty aggressive marketing,” Miniutti said. “Typically those calls are being done by outside for-profit telemarketing firms and not the charities. When you get those calls, we strongly recommend that donors hang up.”
She warned that non-profit status doesn’t really mean that anybody is monitoring the charity or that it had to “prove itself worthy.”
A similar caution comes from Daniel Borochoff, founder and president of Charity Watch, an online charity watchdog that analyses the efficiency and finances of non-profit organizations.
“Don’t make the false assumption that the military is protecting the charitable dollar given to veterans charities. They’re not,” Borochoff said.
Borochoff testified before congress about veteran charity scams in 2007, and he said little has changed.
Of the 53 veteran and military non-profits graded by Charity Watch, 26, or about half, have failing grades..
“Sometimes we don’t consider the programs to be legitimate,” Borochoff said. ”For instance, there’s a veterans charity in Florida that says they have job employment programs, basically they’re putting veterans out there to beg on the street.”
Borochoff has additional tips on how to be a savvy donor available at Charity Watch:
- To get a passing grade, Charity Watch requires a non-profit spend 70 percent or more of its budget on programs and services that directly benefit veterans and military
- Check what the charity pays top executives
- Be wary of celebrity or high-profile endorsements; it may be a paid endorsement
- Look for conflicts of interest among the people running the charity and board members
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs also has a website where you can check if a charity is registered with the state and examine the charity’s IRS 990 form. The Gift Givers Guide is available online or consumers can call 1-800-435-7352.
- Find Charities that Support Veterans and Active Duty Servicemembers rated from four stars to a “donor advisory” list by Charity Navigator.
- A Donor’s Guide to Serving the Needs of Veterans and the Military where Charity Watch evaluates and grades charities from A to F.
- Little Black Book of Scams Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs
- Directory of Charities and Non-Profits Guide Star.org
- Congressional Hearings on Veterans Charities December 2007
- Daniel Borochoff testimony before Congress