Firefighters charity cleared to solicit in Las Vegas is more smoke than fire

From the website of Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske, you can determine if a specific charity is registered to solicit for donations in the Silver State. But that website won’t tell you at all if that charity has spent almost none of the money raised on good works and/or is poorly rated by charity watchdogs.

Indeed, the bland, bare-bones summary financial listing available–revenues, expenses, assets and liabilities–might even provide false comfort to an unwary donor. The display seems to be in keeping with Nevada’s failing grade regarding public access to information.

For such important charity data, you have to go to sources outside Nevada. Having written for decades about nonprofits big and small before becoming New To Las Vegas, I know a little bit about how to find, interpret and explain this material. So from time to time in this space, I’ll offer an overview of specific charities allowed to ask for money in Nevada, along with my opinion. Since most of them operate nationally, my musings might be of interest to viewers elsewhere.

Today’s subject is the Firefighters Charitable Foundation, of far-away Farmingdale, N.Y. It filed its current registration to solicit in Nevada less than a month ago on July 7.

According to its latest public IRS Form 990 tax filing (which I found outside Nevada), the FFCF spent less than 4% of the money raised on what I would call good works. Equally outrageously, nearly 90% of the donations went to paid fundraisers. And from the filing, it’s appears there was no iron-clad requirement that the few dollars remaining for good works all went to firefighters or even victims of fires. Reputable charity monitors have nothing good to say about the FFCF.

Want to know some more? Read on.

Many charities are notoriously slow in reporting their financial results, but one saving grace is that financial efficiency ratios usually don’t change much from year to year. For the calendar year ending December 31, 2015, FFCF reported collecting $6.3 million from fundraising efforts. But $5.6 million immediately went out the door to paid telemarketers and for other fundraising costs. That produced a fundraising efficiency–the percent of donations left after subtracting the cost of generating them–of just 11%. The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance frowns at anything under 65%.

(As an aside, filings and state websites in other states suggest two paid fundraisers used at some point by FFCF were located in Nevada, Courtesy Call Inc. of Las Vegas and Charity Appeal LLC of Carson City.)

So only about $700,000 was left. From that, the total amount spent in “grants and other assistance” to individuals and organization–the real good works stuff–was just $218,791. That amounted to only 3.5% of the donations received. The rest spent was largely for management and overhead. Even including some of that expense as good works, by the charity’s own accounting, its charitable commitment ratio–the cut of expenses in furtherance of the mission as a percent of all expenses–was a mere 7%. Again, the BBB says charitable commitment should be no less than 65%.

According to filings, that $218,791 was divided up among 79 individuals and 595 organizations, for a total of 674 recipients. That means the average grant was a relatively modest $324.62.

With the word firefighters in its name, a would-be donor might think the charity is run by firefighters. But the roster of FFCS’s board of directors on its website lists no one as a current firefighter.

Still, with the word firefighters in its name, a would-be donor might also think all recipients of largess are those who fight fires or, perhaps, who were injured by them. That indeed may be the case, although the tax return did not include a list of specific recipients (which also made it impossible to determine if any of the donations, solicited in all 50 states and D.C., came back to Las Vegas or Nevada). But the return, which is filed under penalty of perjury, carefully stated assistance could go to those affected by “a fire or disaster,” as well as to volunteer fire companies, burn centers, fire prevention related organizations “and other charities.”

So I detect a certain amount of wiggle room here. But I imagine Firefighters Charitable Foundation is a name that draws more money than Fundraisers Charitable Foundation.

As you might image from these numbers, the FFCF hasn’t received a lot of love from charity watchdogs. On a scale where four stars is tops, Charity Navigator gives FFCF no stars. The FFCF has no rating at all from the BBB because the charity failed to provide requested information, itself a big red flag. A few years ago, FFCF ranked No. 4 of 50 on the Tampa Bay Times list of America’s Worst Charities, making the nonprofit by that metric the worst firefighters charity in the country.

The audited financial statement (again, found publicly not in Nevada but on the website of the New York State Attorney General) for that year said “a number of individuals volunteer their time.” But the IRS tax filing (as I noted earlier, under oath) said flatly on its front page that the number of volunteers was: zero. Go figure. Meanwhile, a Google Map search of the Long Island address listed as FFCF’s world headquarters suggests it is a house.

FFCF’s long-time president is Frank Tepedino, a former major league baseball player and retired New York City Fire Department employee. He and his wife, who is the secretary/treasurer, were paid a combined $101,000–nearly half the $218,791 given out in grants and assistance.

Earlier this week, I sent a note to the FFCF through its website making many of the points above and asking for comment. I haven’t heard back, but will update this post if I do. Three years ago, asked about the wisdom of donating to his charity, Tepedino admitted to a New York City TV station, “You know, it’s not a good way of people giving their money.”

But it seems good enough for the website of Nevada Secretary of State Cegavske, which apparently is not too picky about what it greenlights.

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