File Under: Don’t Do This

June 12, 2012

The Disabled Veterans National Foundation (DVNF) is currently being investigated by the Senate Finance Committee based on allegations of improper spending and charges that not much of the funding raised actually went to veteran aid. The investigation began after reports by Charity Watch and CNN that the charity received almost $56mil in donations from 2008 through 2010 but “little if any direct cash” went to veteran support.

For the record, the DVNF’s official defense is that $16.1mil of cash and donated goods went to veterans and that having only started in 2007, they need to focus on building their donor base. That’s defending that only 28% of contributions are actually going to their intended purposes. Some veteran groups reported receiving cough drops and 11,000 bags of coconut M&Ms. Others reported receiving chef’s coats, hats and aprons that the DVNF claimed as donated goods worth $800K.

Form 990s are publicly available as a way of forcing transparency in organizations that solicit funds from individuals. Individuals are encouraged to look but not that many may be able to interpret quickly what they are seeing. Taking a look at DVNFs 990 filing for 2010 shows over $24.7mil in contributions received and over $10.7mil spent on fundraising. That’s 43.5% of every dollar raised going to raise the next dollar.

Generally people want to give their money to charities they know will actually put that money towards the program mission. This is why groups like United Way and Combined Federal Campaign require that organizations registered and receiving funds through them met certain ratios of program to fundraising.

This is also why your auditor will look at your functional expense ratios and look for any signs of fundraising expenses that have been inappropriately allocated to program in an effort to make the organization look more effective. I have had clients that struggled with ways to efficiently fundraise and asked me how to keep their ratios better. Ways of reaching your target audience fall outside of the scope of my expertise, but I can tell you that the ratio won’t get better without spending less on fundraising and more on programs. If you are spending too much on fundraising – you need to assess how effective your organization really is.

Donors need to learn to look at ratios to decipher where their funding stands the best chance of being used for programs. It’s important, however, to recognize that all organizations require funding to operate and overhead is inevitable and necessary so make a distinction between management vs. fundraising when making this assessment.

All organizations that get involved with direct-mail campaigns should educated themselves about joint costs as making mistakes with those can put your fundraising ratios at risk.

Read more from CNN’s report on DVNF and check out Charity Watch’s Hot Topic on DVNF. Read DVNF’s response here.

Look at Guidestar for public access to Form 990s.