FoodPolitik: Arm yourself against charity scams

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Food and beverage activists love to ride their high horses as they berate Americans who make different choices. Neo-prohibitionist groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) wag their fingers at moderate alcohol consumers, while animal rights groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) believe eating meat is the mark of a cruel diet.

But these “white hats” are earning a black eye among respected charity evaluators.

The American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP), which runs the “Charity Watch” website, publishes a report on select charities three times a year, assigning each a letter grade. And too many times, activist groups posing as legitimate charities barely avoid flunking.

Take the HSUS. AIP gives this group a “D” rating, finding that as little as 49 percent of HSUS’s budget is actually spent on charitable programs, while it spends up to 49 cents to raise every dollar.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving also gets a “D” grade. AIP finds that MADD spends as little as 61 percent of its budget on programs while taking as much as 60 cents to raise every dollar.

Not much better are Greenpeace (see my last column), which gets a “C,” and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which gets a C-plus.

Oddly, some of these same groups might get a good score from other charity evaluators. That’s because some rating services don’t look past accounting tricks that count much of an organization’s fundraising expenses toward “educational” program costs.

But financial responsibility is only one measure of a charity’s worth — or worthlessness. Another important one is whether a charity is spending money in ways people think it is.

If you give money to PETA (and I hope you don’t), you’re probably aware that it’s an animal rights group. PETA makes no bones about that. But you’re probably not aware that PETA kills thousands of adoptable dogs and cats every year at its Norfolk headquarters, according to documents on file with the Commonwealth of Virginia. (You can see them for yourself at PetaKillsAnimals.com.)

Seventy-one percent of Americans (according to public polling) mistakenly think that HSUS is a pet shelter umbrella group. It actually isn’t affiliated with any humane pet shelters and doesn’t run a pet shelter — anywhere. Less than one percent of its budget is pet-shelter grants, but it invests far more than that in animal-rights lobbying campaigns and its executive pension plans. (See HumaneWatch.org for more.)

A lot of donations to HSUS, in fact, go to a vegan PETA-like agenda — not that you’d be able to tell from HSUS’s commercials, of course, in which 90 percent or more of the animals on your TV screen are cats and dogs.

As for MADD, this is a group that has truly swerved off a cliff. MADD’s own founder, Candy Lightner, left the group and subsequently noted it had “become far more neo-prohibitionist than I ever wanted or envisioned.”

In fact, MADD’s agenda has changed from simply being against drunk driving (which is laudable) to being against any drinking before driving. And to that end, it’s now pushing for technology that will put intrusive alcohol-sensing devices in all new cars. This would marginalize almost all social drinking. It’s hard to see how this is justified, since MADD itself has confirmed that drunk drivers “are now down to a hard core of alcoholics who do not respond to public appeals.”

More and more Americans are catching on to the fact that some charities like these aren’t what they seem. (And I may be too kind in calling these ideological fundraising machines “charities.”) But these groups’ marketing plans are powerful, and it’s hard to dispel myths about their reputations, however unfairly earned.

Rick Berman is President of the public affairs firm Berman and Company. He has worked extensively in the food and beverage industries for the past 30 years. To learn more, visit http://www.BermanCo.com.

Richard Berman