At the New to Las Vegas world headquarters recently, Mary Newton was on the line, cold-calling me and soliciting a cash donation for the American Breast Cancer Support Association. It was the usual pitch: Commit to a specific-dollar pledge before seeing any paperwork.
I asked where the charity is located. The voice on the other end said she was with a fundraiser named Innovative Teleservices in Port Huron, Mich. That’s fine, I said, but repeated, where is the charity located?
Mary–who wasn’t a real person but a computer-generated voice using artificial intelligence–eventually said she would get someone else on the line. That someone–a real person–said the charity was headquartered in Knoxville, Tenn. I pressed for the formal name of the charity rather than the trade name used in soliciting funds. United Cancer Support Foundation. I was told.
Now–especially if you’ve been writing about charities like I have for a long time–being asked for money by a cancer charity based in Knoxville sets off more alarms than the Great Chicago Fire, or an email plea from Nigeria. Especially this one. For as it turns out, I was personally solicited before by this very organization–a long time ago and under one of its previous names.
But what hasn’t changed very much is the m.o. By my reading of UCSF’s latest tax filing, maybe 4 cents of each donated dollar went to something I might call good works, like grants to individuals and organizations. The other 96 cents of each dollar was gobbled up by fundraising costs and overhead. These are truly dreadful financial efficiencies.
This data is not volunteered to would-be donors. Nor is the charity’s recent banning from soliciting in two states. But it all sort of makes a mockery of UCSF’s printed motto, “United we care, united we share.”
United Cancer Support Foundation d/b/a American Breast Cancer Support Association was founded in the Knoxville area in 2011 as the American Association for Cancer Support. The CEO/president who signed the application for IRS tax-exemption was a woman named Jula Connatser.
She had married into the family of James T. Reynolds Sr. He became notorious for running since the 1980s a set of affiliated cancer charities under the Knoxville umbrella of Cancer Fund of America that became known as shams because so little of the nearly $200 million raised collected benefited cancer victims. In 2015 lawsuits by the Federal Trade Commission and the attorneys general of a number of states succeeded in shutting down Cancer Fund and barring Reynolds and some of his relatives from the fundraising industry forever.
Connatser had worked at Cancer Fund before striking out on her own with her own cancer charity. She had left before the regulatory lawsuits were filed against Cancer Fund and avoided personal legal liability.
Still, she apparently learned her fundraising lessons well. In 2013, while living in Seattle, I was solicited on the phone by a telemarketer for American Association for Cancer Support under yet another trade name: Cancer Support Fund. The caller–a real person–falsely claimed Cancer Support Fund was based in Seattle.
As I determined at the time in a post for a previous blog of mine, NewToSeattle.com, Connatser’s organization spent a mere 14 cents of every $100 raised in cash on what I would call good works. Not even $14 per $100, 14 cents per $100. Put another way, that was 1/7th of 1%. Nevertheless, the charity used as a motto something pretty close to what it uses now: “Because we care, we share.”
At the time the charity accepted gift-in-kind–donated goods given in bulk and often over-valued–to make its financial efficiency numbers look a little better. Connatser told me back then one of her donors was Cancer Fund–another dubious tie for her charity.
As the negative publicity intensified about Cancer Fund–in 2013 the charity was No. 2 on the now-celebrated Tampa Bay Times list of “America’s Worst Charities”–American Association for Cancer Support, while keeping the same federal tax ID number, changed its name in 2015 to United Cancer Support Foundation. Connatser’s name disappeared from its filings. At some point, UCSF stopped accepting gift-in-kind from Cancer Fund or anyone else and started soliciting cash using the name American Breast Cancer Support Association.
Which brings me to the organization’s latest tax filing.
As I read the document, for the calendar year 2018, UCSF received $2.5 million in cash donations. Of that amount, UCSF gave out exactly $99,998 in grants and assistance to individuals and other organizations (that’s the 4 cents of each dollar I mentioned earlier). Another $291,000 was spent in management, general and overhead expenses. A whopping $2.27 million was spent in funding expense. Total expenses were $2.66 million; UCSF actually ran a small loss.
Under accounting rules, $231,000 of that overhead was classified as in direct furtherance of the cancer-fighting mission. Still, the way things are calculated in the world of charity, UCSF had a charitable commitment ratio–percent of total expenses spent directly on the mission–of just 12.4%. Charity watchdogs like the the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance say anything under 65% is unacceptable. UCSF’s fundraising efficiency–the cut of donations left after paying for fundraising–was a mere 9.4%. Again, the BBB says a fundraising efficiency below 65% is out-of-bounds.
UCSF has no formal evaluation from the BBB because the charity declined to cooperate, which is generally an indication of trouble. And word is getting around. In Minnesota, UCSF in 2018 agreed to a permanent ban from soliciting in the state at the behest of the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
In adjoining Michigan, UCSF is in the second year of a five-year ban on asking for money in the state that the charity agreed to after the state’s Attorney General’s office alleged UCSF “engaged in deceptive solicitations, diverted assets from their intended purpose, and materially misrepresented or omitted information on its renewal solicitation registration.” Apparently, though, it’s okay in the state capital of Lansing for UCSF to use a Michigan fundraiser in Port Huron providing jobs for locals to hit up non-Michigan residents like me with deceptive solicitations so long as they don’t prey upon Michiganers.
Last week, I emailed UCSF recounting many of these points, including the Cancer Fund and Connatser provenance–and asking for comment. I haven’t heard back but will update this post if I do.
Perhaps it was thought that all these morphing name changes would it more difficult for would-be donors to figure out the bigger picture. That certainly could be one reason why Mary Newton told me the fundraiser was in Port Huron when the charity was 575 miles south in Knoxville. In the world of cancer charity fundraising, there’s less baggage in Port Huron.