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Have You Been Wondering About WonderWork?

   Dec 01, 2013

Many CharityWatch members have recently been receiving a deluge of similar-looking direct mail solicitations from several charities with different, unfamiliar names: BurnRescue, FirstStep, and 20/20/20. The solicitations of these charities look similar to one another because all three are actually programs of a single charity, WonderWork, Inc., which was created to provide free surgeries for "children in the world who are suffering and dying from medical problems that can be solved through miracle surgeries," according to its website. Such medical problems include severe burns, clubfoot, and blindness, corresponding to the charitable program names BurnRescue, FirstStep, and 20/20/20, respectively. Originally incorporated as Surgery for the Poor in March 2011, the charity changed its name to WonderWork in April 2012, and amended its registration for the use of the assumed names of BurnRescue and FirstStep in August 2012 and 20/20/20 in January 2013.

CharityWatch's observant members also have commented on the recognizable fundraising pitches and familiar-looking graphic pictures being used in the solicitations of the WonderWork programs. Do promises such as "Send us a donation… and we'll never ask you for another one!" and "100% of your donation will go towards programs—0% goes to overhead or fundraising" remind you of another charity that relies heavily on direct mail solicitations that include heart-wrenching pictures of children with cleft lips? That charity is Smile Train, and it is no coincidence that WonderWork and Smile Train have similar-looking and -sounding direct mail solicitations. The co-founder of WonderWork, Brian Mullaney, also co-founded Smile Train and served as its Chief Executive Officer for 10 years. After internal discord at Smile Train, Mullaney parted ways with the charity in 2011 and now appears to be using fundraising strategies similar to Smile Train's to raise funds for the newly-founded WonderWork. Additionally, several former Smile Train employees have joined Mullaney at WonderWork, including former senior managers who now hold the respective positions of Chief Financial Officer, Global Programs Senior Advisor, Director of Strategic Projects, Director of Donor Engagement, and Creative Director. Mullaney has not been secretive or reserved about his founding of WonderWork or his past with Smile Train, as both are mentioned in BurnRescue, FirstStep, and 20/20/20 direct mail solicitations. Mullaney's name and title as "Co-Founder" are printed under the charities' names on the solicitation envelopes, and his signature is on the enclosed letters.

Another charity, HelpMeSee, has caught the attention of CharityWatch members who are wondering why direct mail from this organization so closely resembles that of the WonderWork programs. Wonder no more—Brian Mullaney, again, is the connection! Mullaney, in his capacity as president of Surgery for the Poor at the time, entered into an agreement with HelpMeSee effective September 1, 2011 to assist it with programmatic, fundraising, and administrative efforts (although the agreement has since been terminated). HelpMeSee was incorporated in August 2010 with a mission to eliminate cataract blindness. CharityWatch is unable to perform a meaningful analysis and rate the charity until it publishes the audited results of three full years of operations. However, based on HelpMeSee's fiscal 2012 financial information, the charity raised approximately $9.0 million in contributions with a $7.0 million budget that consisted of $1.8 million in program services and $5.0 million in fundraising (after adjusting for joint solicitation costs). If HelpMeSee continues to operate at this rate of program spending and fundraising costs, it will earn a poor grade from CharityWatch.

Of particular concern to CharityWatch is the similar solicitation language being used by both WonderWork and HelpMeSee: "Send us a donation… and we'll never ask you for another one!" and "100% of your donation will go towards programs—0% goes to overhead or fundraising." CharityWatch advises donors to avoid being persuaded or misled by the fundraising pitches of these charities, just as we warned donors in the past to not be confused by Smile Train's use of such language. First, no donor should ever feel obligated to make a contribution in order not to be solicited again. The donation reply slips of the WonderWork programs and HelpMeSee each state that they will respect the wishes of those who contact them with a request to be removed from their mailing lists. Such a request does not need to be accompanied by a donation. Second, CharityWatch believes that claims like "100% of your donation will go towards programs…" are meaningless. Similar to the past claims of Smile Train, WonderWork claims that its overhead and administrative costs are paid by its "Major Founding Donors," thereby allowing 100% of donations to go towards programs. The problem with this reasoning is that any charity could ask a portion of its loyal supporters for donations to cover overhead, but overhead expenses will not disappear! Money is fungible, regardless of its source; what is spent on one function is not available for another function. The bottom line is that charities must strive to operate as efficiently as possible, regardless of whether or not some donations are earmarked for overhead, so that more donations will be available for, in this case, treating children with severe burns, clubfoot, and blindness.

The direct mail brochures of the WonderWork programs tout extremely low overhead and administrative costs and high efficiency / impact. However, WonderWork has not been operating long enough for CharityWatch to conduct a meaningful assessment of WonderWork's high efficiency claims.

Although WonderWork is too new for CharityWatch to grade, we can provide some of the charity's initial financial information. WonderWork reported approximately $7.9 million in contributions and $2.7 million in expenses for its fiscal year end June 30, 2012. Approximately $2.3 million of WonderWork's expenses were allocated to program services and $321,738 to fundraising. Of the $2.3 million in program expenses, $789,800 was related to grants, but over 99.9% of the grant money was distributed to HelpMeSee, the charity for which WonderWork was providing consulting services. About six months after its fiscal year end, a December 2012 press release by WonderWork announced that the charity had raised "over $12 million from more than 25,000 donors" and includes a description of the charity that notes it "has programs and partners in 50 countries and currently helps provide more than 26,000 surgeries a year." Does this announcement of "impressive growth" for WonderWork mean that Brian Mullaney is truly working wonders with his newly-formed charity? Only time will tell, but there's no need to wonder on this—CharityWatch will be keeping an eye on WonderWork.

UPDATE:  CharityWatch added WonderWork and HelpMeSee to its charity ratings in February 2015. As of December 2016, WonderWork receives an "F" grade based on its poor financial performance in its fiscal year ending June 30, 2015; HelpMeSee receives a "B-" grade based on its financial performance in the year ending December 31, 2015. (CharityWatch members can find the detailed rating information for WonderWork and HelpMeSee by clicking on their bolded-names in the article.)

SEE ALSO:  WonderWork Co-Founder is No Mr. Wonderful (Posted 03/08/2018)

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