“Police officers put their lives on the line every day for their communities. It is wrong for any organization to try to take advantage of public sympathy for the losses of the families of fallen heroes,” said Minnesota’s Attorney General in an October 10, 2018 press release announcing a complaint filed against the American Federation of Police & Concerned Citizens (AFPCC). The AG of Minnesota (OAG) is accusing AFPCC of using deceptive practices when soliciting contributions from prospective donors in Minnesota. AFPCC’s practices allegedly include: misrepresenting its primary charitable program in solicitations; using high-pressure tactics to create a false sense of urgency to elicit immediate donations; and intentionally targeting deceptive solicitations at senior citizens. In addition to requesting that AFPCC be banned from fundraising in Minnesota, the complaint asks for AFPCC to be required to pay monetary relief and civil penalties.
Solicitations Falsely Portray How Donations Are Used
AFPCC raised approximately $19.2 million from donors in 2013-2017 (fiscal year ending June 30th), and over two-thirds of that $19.2 million came from for-profit, professional fundraising activity in the form of direct mail/email solicitations, according to AFPCC’s Form 990 tax filings. In the complaint, one of the main accusations against AFPCC is that the charity has misled Minnesota donors by deceptively representing in its direct mail solicitations that donations would exclusively or primarily be used for AFPCC’s “Police Family Survivors Fund” program. The Police Family Survivors Fund (the Fund) is one of AFPCC’s two main charitable programs. AFPCC describes the Fund as “a program to offer assistance to the families of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty;” the assistance primarily includes “Police Family Scholarships,” “Family Emergency Assistance,” and “Awards & Gifts,” based on AFPCC’s tax filings.
The Police Family Survivors Fund, however, is not the program on which AFPCC spends the majority of its funds. Instead, most of AFPCC’s program spending goes towards its other purported program, providing “education” to the “general public and members.” For example, out of AFPCC’s reported total program spending in fiscal 2017, only about 17% went to the Fund. The remaining 83% was spent on “education,” mostly consisting of “joint costs” from a combined educational campaign and fundraising solicitation, such as “inserting notes into its fundraising solicitations reminding people to have their neighbor get their newspaper when they’re away from home, water their Christmas trees, wash their hands, and the like,” according to the OAG. In prior years, AFPCC’s tax filings report that it has spent even less on the Fund, with the relative proportion at about 14% to 15% annually in fiscal 2013-2016.
The complaint alleges a number of ways in which AFPCC’s solicitations have “deceptively indicated that donations would be used solely or primarily for [Police Family Survivors] Fund programs,” rather than for public education which actually comprises the majority of its program spending. Some of the allegedly “deceptive” practices described in the complaint include: AFPCC solicitation envelopes and letterhead prominently featuring the Fund, in many instances, more so than AFPCC’s name; the Fund being the sole program mentioned in the body of numerous AFPCC solicitation appeals; mailers claiming a “funding goal” of a set amount of money for the Fund; and solicitations with enclosed contribution remittance slips that reiterated that donations were for the Fund and return envelopes that were specifically marked for the Fund. Some AFPCC mailers to potential donors in Minnesota even “falsely stated,” according to the complaint, that “100% of your gift – every penny – will immediately be used to provide Emergency Financial Assistance,” a program of the Fund. Given these and other examples in the complaint, it states: “Thus, from before a potential donor opened the envelope containing AFPCC’s solicitation, until she filled out the remittance slip to send in her donation, AFPCC fostered a deceptive and misleading overall net impression that donations would exclusively or primarily be used for the Fund.”
Misrepresenting the GuideStar “Seal of Transparency”
“AFPCC compounded its [Police Family Survivors] Fund-specific deception in some of its mailers by further deceptively stating that GuideStar, a prominent public disseminator of information about charities, ‘certified’ that donations to AFPCC would be used for Fund programs,” according to the complaint. The complaint describes that after receiving a “Platinum Seal of Transparency” from GuideStar, AFPCC started using the seal, along with misleading statements in its direct mail solicitations. Included among the “false and deceptive” statements used by AFPCC, per the complaint, are the following: the “Platinum Seal of Transparency certifies that we use your contributions the way you intend – to comfort and assist police family survivors;” contributions can be made “with confidence knowing that GuideStar, a trusted, independent service has verified” AFPCC’s programs; and a donor’s “gift will be used wisely” because AFPCC has been “awarded” a Platinum Seal of Transparency from GuideStar.
CharityWatch has seen some of the “false and deceptive” statements related to GuideStar’s information services and “Seal of Transparency” allegedly used by AFPCC being used in a similar manner by other charities, as well. Consequently, we have been cautioning donors not to read too much into a GuideStar seal displayed on a charity’s solicitation materials or website. The GuideStar seal indicates nothing more than the amount of particular information a charity provides to GuideStar. The information is not vetted or analyzed by GuideStar after being collected; it simply becomes available as part of the charity’s GuideStar profile. As a result, poorly-run charities with low program spending ratios, like AFPCC, can still qualify for a Platinum or Gold Seal of Transparency from GuideStar, and worse yet, those charities may try to use that seal to mislead or confuse donors into thinking it means more than it actually does. AFPCC seems to have taken this tactic to the extreme by falsely claiming that the platinum seal means that GuideStar has actually “verified” its programs and “certified” its program spending.
A Track Record of Misleading Donors & Poor Ratings
This is not the first time the OAG has sued AFPCC. In 1995, the OAG sued AFPCC for, among other things, allegedly deceiving Minnesota donors and filing inaccurate and noncompliant documents with the OAG. The claims in the 1995 lawsuit were settled the following year in exchange for AFPCC agreeing to adhere to the terms of a Consent Decree. The 2018 lawsuit, however, also alleges that since at least the start of 2013, AFPCC has breached the terms of that Consent Decree “numerous times” by: misrepresenting its primary charitable program and that donations would be restricted to that program; misleading donors by claiming it had a local area “funding goal;” and failing to comply with the OAG’s “requirements for using the joint-cost allocation practice” on its financial reporting. AFPCC’s allegedly deceptive fundraising practices have raised red flags in other states, as well. In particular, the 2018 complaint notes that police departments in California, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Nebraska, and North Dakota have issued public alerts warning donors that AFPCC is not affiliated with their departments, and that any donations made to AFPCC would not be set aside to aid local police families.
AFPCC has a 20-year track record of receiving poor grades from CharityWatch. This includes receiving an “F” for its fiscal year 2017 when AFPCC spent only 27% of its total cash budget on charitable programs and had a $65 cost to raise each $100 in funds, according to our analysis. In addition, CharityWatch alerted donors to AFPCC’s misleading solicitations regarding its Police Family Survivors Fund in our article, Solicitation Fails to Mention Government’s Huge Role in Helping Fallen Police, published in January 2015. That same CharityWatch article also reminded donors that there are numerous federal, state, and local government programs that already provide assistance to eligible families of law enforcement officials killed in the line of duty. For example, at the federal level, the U.S. Department of Justice Public Safety Officers’ Benefits Program provides a death benefit of $350,079 (as of January 2018) to the eligible survivors of each fallen law enforcement official.
Additionally, CharityWatch gives an “F” grade to the National Association of Chiefs of Police (NACOP), a charity related to AFPCC. NACOP and AFPCC share an office address and are operated and managed by some of the same individuals, including Barry and Brent Shepherd, the CEO and CFO, respectively, of both charities. In March 2018, NACOP and the Shepherds (who are brothers) were banned in Iowa for five years from soliciting donations on behalf of NACOP or any other law enforcement charity. Similar to the allegations by the OAG against AFPCC, the State of Iowa alleged, among other things, that NACOP’s direct mail solicitations were giving “the false impression” that funds raised would be used to provide “vital support” to disabled officers locally in Iowa counties. In addition to the five-year fundraising ban, under the terms of the agreed upon Assurance of Voluntary Compliance, NACOP was required to pay $5,000 to the office of the Iowa Attorney General and to provide refunds to Iowans who requested one within a six-month time frame. Neither NACOP nor the Shepherds admitted to any wrongdoing in the Iowa case.
Make Your Donation to Police Families Count
In general, donors should be particularly cautious when it comes to giving in response to direct mail or telemarketing solicitations from charities claiming to support police officers, firefighters, state troopers, or other first responder related causes. Most of the Crime & Fire Prevention charities rated by CharityWatch receive “D” or “F” grades, and, unfortunately, there are some bad actors who will try to exploit the public’s sympathy for fallen or injured first responders for their own personal gain. If you are solicited to donate to a charity claiming to support the first responders in your community, contact your local police, fire, or sheriff’s department before you give to ask if they are familiar with that charity’s program services. Reputable charities will not pressure you to give on the spot, and taking the time to first do an independent check on the legitimacy of the charity will help ensure your donation gets used efficiently on the charitable programs you intended to support.