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Is That Charitable Donation Going Where You Think It Is?

Even donations to prominent charities may not be spent on the things you think they are.

Is That Charitable Donation Going Where You Think It Is?

Americans are generous people, and each year donate billions of dollars to churches and charities. Have you ever thought about where the dollars you give go and what they are spent on? We all know there are a lot of scam charities out there. I'm sure at some point most of you have received a phone call from the scammers trying to squeeze a few bucks that are supposed to help some bogus firefighter or law enforcement organization. Almost all of the money raised goes into the pockets of the scammers and a few pennies might actually be spent on some charitable purpose, just so they can keep their nonprofit status.

However, there are also problems with some of the major charities. Bloated salaries, fancy offices and only a small percentage of funds raised actually being spent to help people or conduct research are some of the charges leveled against some prominent nonprofits. One example is the national United Way organization, which came under blistering criticism a few years ago for outrageous salaries being paid to its leadership. (This did not involve most local groups.)

A few weeks ago, there was an interesting conversation among local folks on Facebook about United Way. According to some of the posts, a few of the larger companies with locations in Bartow County take the United Way donations raised from their Bartow County employees and send them to the United Way of metropolitan Atlanta. That means none of those dollars end up helping charitable organizations here locally. A couple of individuals on Facebook mentioned that if asked, the employer could reroute those donations to the local United Way of Bartow County affiliate. That sounds like a plan to me.

Probably the largest charitable event held in Bartow County each year is the that solicits donations for the American Cancer Society. More than 40 percent of Americans will develop cancer during their lifetimes. I, like almost everyone else, have friends and family members who have been diagnosed with cancer. It can be a tough battle and those who die from the disease often go through sheer agony in their final days. One of the reasons is due to the raw emotions that are stirred in so many when talking of possible cancer cures.

The Relay For Life events draw on people's natural desire to be charitable and on our emotional involvement with cancer and package it with a fun social event. Most folks also enjoy a little good-natured competition and in the weeks building up to the event, local businesses and groups challenge and compete against other, trying to see who can garner the most donations. If there was ever a fund raising event deigned for maximum participation, Relay For Life is it, and thousands of local residents took part in some way in .

Now let's go back to my initial question. Have you ever investigated where your Relay For Life dollars go? Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised locally by this event each year. Unlike United Way of Bartow County, where the dollars donated to the group stay here to help local charities, the funds donated for Relay For Life go back to the national American Cancer Society offices. A small amount of these dollars may eventually come back to Bartow in some way, but nowhere near what is contributed.

I'm sure some of you will make the argument that it doesn't matter, because the money raised is being used for cancer research at prestigious hospitals and universities across the nation and around the world. If they can discover cures or new treatments for various types of cancer, then it is money well spent. Valid point, but did you know only about 16 cents of every dollar donated actually goes to research-related expenditures? So where does the other 84 percent contribution go?

The American Cancer Society raises well over $1 billion each year. Of that, 15 percent goes to pay for fund raising activities, and roughly 60 percent goes to pay salaries and benefits for the organization's employees. That's a chunk of change. I understand the concept of paying large salaries to attract and keep top talent, but according to an August 2011 report from CharityWatch.org, ACS CEO John Seffrin has an annual compensation package of salary and benefits worth $1,316,356. William Barram, an ACS Division VP, had a total annual compensation package last year of $2,428,592.00! They rank among the highest paid nonprofit employees in the nation.

Even if you're willing to overlook the high salaries and benefits, the lavish offices and the low percentage of dollars raised being spent for actual cancer research...there's something else about the American Cancer Society that really bugs me.

Much valid government and private research has proved that exposure to various chemicals and toxic substances like herbicides, pesticides and food additives can and does cause cancer. However, a look back at who has served on the board of directors at ACS over the past three decades is startling and may help explain why the organization is very hesitant to point fingers at toxic chemicals as being a cause of cancer. In many cases ACS has actually worked against those implicating the chemical industry and has even testified before Congress to that effect. Yes, executives from chemical-related businesses have served on the ACS board.

Even going back to the 1950s, ACS stonewalled research showing that cigarette smoke was a leading cause of lung cancer. It was several years later, despite authoritative government research proving it, before ACS reluctantly took a stand against smoking. Of note, one member of the ACS board at that time was W. B. Lewis, the vice president of Liggitt & Myers, one of the nation's largest tobacco companies at the time. To add a little more to the conspiracy, some of the largest financial supporters of ACS include a who's who of chemical manufacturers, pharmaceutical giants, junk food makers and industrial waste companies.

I'm usually not one to load up my columns with links to other places, however there is a 10-part series of articles exposing the American Cancer Society that I will link below, as it goes into much more depth than I can address in this space. If you attempt to use Google or Bing to do your own research, you'll have to dig deep into the search results. The ACS has spent some of the money you donated to pay people to employ "search engine optimization" techniques to cause pro-ACS websites to dominate the top search results. They also use reputation defender tactics to swamp anti-ACS blogs with pro-ACS comments.

There's no doubt charity is big business and a lot of executives are getting rich in the process. If a cure for cancer appeared tomorrow, ACS would disappear. The research I have looked at leads me to believe ACS is more interested in cancer detection and treatments utilizing expensive chemotherapy cocktails produced by their pharmaceutical friends, than in using funds donated to help people avoid getting cancer in the first place.

Personally, I would love to see our community move away from Relay For Life and possibly establish a local cancer charity where the funds raised would all be used here locally, with little overhead. There are many local families that not only are facing a cancer fight, but that have the added stress of lost wages and high medical bills to deal with. That's my opinion...I welcome yours.  

Ten-part series on American Cancer Society: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10

(While I may not agree with every point raised in these articles, there is some very good documentation.)

Follow me on Twitter @chuckshiflett and also check out my statewide columns at: The Backroom Report.

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