Iffy cancer charity trolls anew in Las Vegas

Iffy cancer charityIt was Alice on the phone again at the New To Las Vegas world headquarters. She was shilling again for United Breast Cancer Foundation, imploring me to make a small pledge “for the ladies.” I kept saying I first wanted to review any literature she might care to mail me. On what likely was a recorded line, that was not a condition that pleased her, as it would not be possible for UBCF to follow up with a letter demanding I make good on my oral pledge. After going back and forth, she finally ended the call by beseeching me to tell three women to get mammograms.

Alice was not a real person but rather a voice generated by an interactive computer using artificial intelligence and monitored by a real human. This technology still has a way to go. In my opinion Alice wasn’t all that responsive to my remarks and actually came across as a little slow on the uptick.

Which I would say much the same about UBCF, which is based in Huntington, N.Y. After Alice called me a year ago, I researched the charity, saw how little of the cash donations went to items I considered meritorious, and wrote a withering post. Now I’m getting called again by UBCF and still being asked for money. So I’m nominating UBCF to my long-running list of “America’s Stupidest Charities.” It’s a roster of nonprofits that solicit me for a contribution after I already have strongly criticized them in a public post. Really, can it get any dumber than that? You can review the list elsewhere on this page.

Alice’s call gave me an excuse to dig up UBCF’s latest available financial filings and conduct a fresh analysis. I was able to find the audited financial statement and IRS Form 990 filing for a later period, the year ending December 31, 2017, on the website of the North Carolina Secretary of State. (Despite a state law, the Nevada Secretary of State’s Office doesn’t post online meaningful financial filings). It’s still not a pretty picture.

Nationally, UBCF, which sometimes also uses the name United Women’s Health Alliance, raised $12.2 million in cash gifts, mainly from telemarketing efforts like that of Alice and also net proceeds from a car donation program. But of that amount, less than $500,000–$467,054 to be precise–was spent in cash grants to individuals. That works out to just 4 cents of each cash dollar raised.

And the rest? A hefty $9.9 million–81% of all cash gifts raised–was spent on fundraising and what the IRS filing called “joint costs from a combined educational campaign and fundraising solicitation.” If you’re wondering what this means, the audited financial statement provides an explanation. Telemarketers like Alice provided “breast cancer awareness information dissemination, and calls to action, to persuade women to undergo annual mammography’s [sic] to help with the early detection of breast cancer. [UBCF] has allocated [to program expense and not to fundraising expense], based on the percentage of script words in the appeal that that is associated to the call to action or awareness message.”

So using aggressive but legal accounting tricks, UBCF managed to transform about half of the money paid to telemarketers into looking-good program expense. That undoubtedly is why Alice made sure on that recorded line to ask me to spread the word about mammograms.

But make no mistake about it, the fundraisers really raked it in. According to the tax filing, Associated Community Services of Southfield, Mich., and two other companies located at the same address received $8.6 million in compensation. Kars R Us, which handled vehicle donations, was paid $1.2 million. I know from writing about charities for a long time that Associated is associated with a number of dubious charities and its own background includes bankruptcy and disputes with regulators.

Most of the rest of the donated cash went for overhead, reserves, and executive compensation, including the $301,000 paid to executive director Audrey S. Mastrioanni. That’s not a lot less than the cash grants handed out. She is one of only 11 employees. Still, UBCF is a bit of a family operation. Besides Audrey, the other members of the three-person board are her father, Nicholas Mastroianni, and her brother, Nicholas Mastroianni II.

UBCF is not a favorite of charity watchdogs. A few years ago the Tampa Bay Times ranked it No. 38 on its one-off list of “America’s Worst Charities,” based on the large amount of money raised and the small amount of money spent on good deeds. Charity Navigator currently gives UBCF just two stars, out of a possible four.

The Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance says UBCF flunks seven of its 20 good-governance standards. It’s the most number of F’s I’ve ever seen the BBB hand out for a charity. Using data from 2016, the BBB said among other things that UBCF had an inadequate board and organizational structure on several points, didn’t spend enough on the mission (despite the receipt of donated goods, or gift-in-kind, which tends to favorably skew numbers), didn’t post the IRS Form 990 on its website or provide much in the way of financial information, and failed to address privacy concern of donors. The accounting machinations I described above apparently allowed it to squeak by the BBB standard that no more than 35% of the money raised be spent on fundraising.

Also, UBCF remains the only cancer charity I’ve come across that requires a payment from patients to apply for certain grants.

I sent a message requesting comment to the UBCF through its website. I’ll update this post if I get a response. I didn’t last year. So for me it’s Alice in wonderland–again.

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