I recently found myself rediscovering the Johnny Cash song I Walk the Line. It was, in Cash’s own words, a “pledge of devotion” to his first wife, written soon after they were married. I thought of this song this morning when I read the just-released article on America’s Worst Charities. All of us who work in the nonprofit sector pledge our devotion to the causes we care about. We do it both through our choice of profession and through the actions we take each and every day in our personal lives. We do it every time we share our passion for a cause with others, be they friends, family, or complete strangers. We do it when it is easy, but more importantly, we do it when it is hard. Every day, untold numbers of people do what it takes to serve a mission, advance a cause, and serve others — and the vast majority do so while “walking the line.” It is disheartening to think that some have chosen to ignore that line and betray the trust of those who gave to the “causes” put forward.
Reading the details of the Tampa Bay Times / Center for Investigative Reporting investigation made me angry, but it also made me just a little bit afraid. Don’t get me wrong: I am very happy this story is getting wide traction — we need to understand the worst-case scenario in order to recognize it, stop it, and keep it from happening in the future, and I desperately hope that this story accomplishes that. At the same time, I hope the coverage and the resulting discussion will continue to emphasize that this kind of fraud is not the norm in the sector. There are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States, and most “walk the line” with integrity. How do we ensure that those nonprofits continue to attract the support they need while the others are prevented from siphoning off too-scarce resources?
Donors bear some responsibility for making sure that the organization seeking their contributions will be good stewards of those funds, but they need tools and resources to help them make such determinations. Charity Navigator and GuideStar are good examples, but even they are not perfect, and they aren’t always handy when the phone rings. We need to think of more and better ways to educate consumers about this issue, particularly those who are most vulnerable to this and other telemarketing scams. For scamming is, in effect, what these “charities” were doing, however noble their pitch.