Florida AG Seeking Shut Down of Charity Exploiting Causes for Breast Cancer, Fallen Firefighters and Fire Victims
“It is absolutely abhorrent to exploit families of fallen firefighters and breast cancer patients to steal from generous Floridians. …[E]very dollar given to a deceptive charity is a dollar that does not go to those in need. This is an outrageous ploy and those responsible will be held accountable,” said Florida’s Attorney General in a December 18th, 2017 news release announcing a complaint filed against Community Charity Advancement, Inc. (CCAI).
CCAI purports to support breast cancer research and patients, as well as victims of fires and the families of fallen firefighters. The charity raises funds under the names: Breast Cancer Research & Support Fund, U.S. Firefighters Association, and U.S. Volunteer Firefighter Association. CCAI reports raising about $22.8 million in cash donations over the 2013-2016 period. Of that almost $23 million in funds raised, 86% went into the pockets of CCAI’s for-profit professional fundraisers, with one particular fundraising company, Courtesy Call , Inc., collecting over $19.5 million. Furthermore, CCAI has spent only about 9% of its cash budget on program services during that time, according to CharityWatch’s analysis. CCAI has consistently received “F” grades from CharityWatch ever since our initial rating of the charity, which was based on CCAI’s financial activities for 2012.
The complaint filed by the Florida AG alleges that CCAI’s deceptive acts and practices misled donors into believing their contributions were funding programs, projects, trust funds, and grants that would be used to support breast cancer research entities, aid breast cancer patients, and provide aid or financial assistance to fire victims and firefighters. The allegations against CCAI include: failing, in some instances, to spend its funds consistent with what is described in its solicitations; misrepresenting itself as being “program partners” with reputable, bona fide charities for breast cancer research and support; and filing documents with the IRS and the State of Florida that contain false, misleading, or inaccurate information.
For example, CCAI represents to donors that the funds it solicits in support of its “firefighter” charities will be used to support victims of fire loss and to establish a trust fund to assist families of fallen firefighters. The complaint, however, describes that during the past three years, “CCAI did not make a single cash donation to any charitable organization that provided aid to the families of firefighters who have died or to fire departments;” CCAI also has not funded a “trust fund” to assist families of firefighters who died in the line of duty. Furthermore, the complaint notes that CCAI has actually used at least $2 million in donations that were solicited on behalf of its Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund (BCRSF) project to “offset” expense deficits incurred by CCAI’s “Fire Aid Projects” (i.e., U.S. Firefighters Association & U.S. Volunteer Firefighter Association), a cause completely unrelated to breast cancer.
Also concerning its fundraising for BCRSF, the complaint asserts that CCAI “deceptively creates an impression of legitimacy by falsely representing that it is ‘program partners’ with bona fide and reputable charities.” These bona fide organizations do not actually partner with CCAI and have never given CCAI written permission to represent them as CCAI’s “program partners,” according to the complaint. Some of the “Program Partners” listed on the BCRSF website include: Auburn University Research Institute in Cancer, University of Florida Health Cancer Center, Lerner Research Institute, and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. The complaint also contends that CCAI “does not operate a grant program,” but rather uses “information obtained from the Forbes Magazine website,” or the direction given by “at least one of its for-profit vendors,” to select the beneficiaries of the “de minimis funds” it has provided to other organizations. Moreover, the complaint notes that on the 2015 IRS Form 990 that CCAI submitted to the State of Florida, CCAI reported that it provided almost $400,000 in cash donations to universities and hospitals “to benefit cancer research and treatment,” but “CCAI’s bank records reflect the real number was approximately a quarter of that amount.”
The complaint also describes how CCAI has used the collection and distribution of donated non-cash (or “in-kind”) goods to make itself appear “larger and more charitable than it is in reality.” Almost 48% of CCAI’s total reported contributions collected during 2013-2016 were in the form of in-kind goods. Moreover, the bulk of the in-kind goods CCAI has collected consist of expired medicines, according to the complaint, which CCAI reports distributing to organizations in Central America and the Caribbean (where expired medication can be used, unlike in the U.S.). CCAI placed a total value of over $19.8 million on the in-kind medicine that it received and distributed in 2013-2016. According to the complaint, however, the almost $20 million value reported by CCAI is based on the amount the medicines would be sold for in the U.S. if not expired, rather than the value indicated by shipping documents and customs claims forms, which is less than $1,000 for the same medicines. Furthermore, with such a considerable portion of CCAI’s reported program expenses taking the form of in-kind goods each year, CCAI’s is able to give the illusion of having a much higher program percentage than is actually the case when only its cash expenditures are considered. For example, based on CCAI’s 2016 reported program and total expenses, CCAI’s program percentage would calculate to 45%, but when the $5.6 million of in-kind goods that it collected and distributed are excluded, its program percentage on a cash basis falls to a measly 8%.
The Florida AG’s complaint seeks to shut down Community Charity Advancement, Inc. for its alleged use of false claims and deceptive acts and practices. Unfortunately for the donating public, CCAI is not the only charity that has exploited sympathetic causes such as breast cancer and fallen first-responders to try to take advantage of generous donors. Therefore, when being solicited to contribute to such causes, donors should be especially cautious and should always research the charity before giving. The Cancer and Crime & Fire Prevention charities that are Top-Rated by CharityWatch can be found here.