Local nonprofit disputes 'worst charity' designation

A screen capture of findthekids.com.

A screen capture of findthekids.com.

LAWRENCEVILLE -- The fact is, the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting recently released a list of "America's Worst Charities," the product of a year's work analyzing tax forms and counting money raised that went directly back to solicitors.

The fact is, the Lawrenceville-based Committee for Missing Children made that list. At No. 13, no less.

The fact is, CMC founder and president David Thelen admits his group's fundraising methods aren't the best, but defends his charity's good work and resents the semantics in "America's Worst Charities."

The fact is, things are complicated.


The formula the Tampa Bay Times and its partners used to create its list of "worst" charities -- 50 of them, among them Kids Wish Network and Cancer Fund of America -- is relatively simple.

After digging through a decade's worth of federal tax filings, those working on the project weeded out the nonprofits that spent the most on professional fundraisers (read: telemarketers). As a group, the 50 charities included kept only $380.3 million cash; that compared to the $970.6 million "blown on soliciting costs."

Tampa Bay Times reporter Kris Hundley told the Daily Post that was unacceptable.

"Only 4 percent of all 1.6 million charities in the nation use these types of professional fundraisers," Hundley said. "Ninety-six percent find other, more efficient ways to raise money."

Percentage-based fundraising by solicitors is "considered unethical by the Association of Fundraising Professionals and most of the charitable sector," according to a statement from the group.

According to the report, the Committee for Missing Children raised nearly $27 million in donations across the last decade. Almost $24 million of that went to the telemarketing companies that did the fundraising.

Thus the berth on a dubious list.

"We just feel that when a lady with Alzheimer's in Minnesota is called, she believes she's giving money to the Committee for Missing Children," Hundley said, "not that she's giving 90 cents on the dollar to the person making the call."


The Committee for Missing Children was founded 23 years ago by David Thelen and his wife Karen. The Gwinnett-based nonprofit specializes in counseling services for parents "left behind" following child abductions, typically by an estranged spouse. Thelen said he's spoken with as many as 10,000 parents over the years, guiding them through complicated international laws, consoling them or simply letting them bend an ear.

CMC also pays for families to be reunited. It's the only American charity that will fund such a trip to foreign countries (and back).

"We're a very good, successful charity," Thelen said.

Since the "worst charities" report came out, Thelen has gotten emails calling him a scumbag and asking him, politely, to rot in hell.

Those are quite different from the letters written by several parents who have been helped by the Committee for Missing Children.

Wrote Lyle Beauchamp, whose daughters were abducted and taken to Germany: "The Committee of Missing Children ... played a crucial role in the successful recovery of my daughters and if I relied on the U.S. Department of State I would of never had my girls returned ... This Committee is dedicated to the recovery of missing children and is not any type of scam."

Wrote Jody Himebaugh, whose 11-year-old son disappeared in New Jersey in 1991: "David Thelen, in his relentless concern for missing kids, will not let my son's situation fade. And for this, I am eternally grateful to him, regardless of how he generates his funding or how he spends those funds. For decades David has been immersed in his passion to reunite families. He must be doing something right."


David Thelen is a reasonable man. He knows telemarketing isn't the most efficient way to get donations for his charity.

But, the 69-year-old contends, it's sometimes the only way; the Committee for Missing Children probably wouldn't have gotten that $3 million, the albeit small percentage of total funds raised by solicitors, any other way, he said.

"For two years I have worked with a company called Meta Soft," Thelen wrote in a letter to one of the "worst charities" authors. "This company helped write a letter of introduction and a grant proposal. 218 letters and $41,000.00 later, not one grant. I am on the eBay-giving list, average per month $1.75. I have signed up for all kinds of programs such as 'Shop for Charity,' not one penny."

The vast majority of charities get by without paying percentage-based, outside telemarketing companies. CMC hasn't been able to.

"It's a very expensive way to raise money," Thelen said. "It's not the telemarketer keeping the money. They have to pay to raise our 12 to 15 percent."

He takes issue with the portrayal of his organization as "bad" -- and points out that 100 percent of donations made directly to the Committee for Missing Children (not to telemarketers) stay within the organization.

"It wasn't the 50 worst charities," Thelen said. "It was the 50 worst methods of raising money."

The presidents of the Better Business Bureau's Wise Giving Alliance, nonprofit reporting agency Guidestar and nonprofit evaluator Charity Navigator recently issued a joint letter dubbed "The Overhead Myth." They said that the data gathered by the Tampa Bay Times and CIR teams does have a role in establishing credibility -- but it isn't the end-all, be-all for determining a nonprofit's worthiness.

"The percent of charity expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs ... is a poor measure of a charity's performance," the letter said. "We ask (potential donors) to pay attention to other factors of nonprofit performance: transparency, governance, leadership, and results."


Don_Coyote 2 years, 1 month ago

"The percent of charity expenses that go to administrative and fundraising costs ... is a poor measure of a charity's performance."

I strongly disagree. The percentage of money used directly for the stated mission of the charity is the best measure of their performance.


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