Thursday, June 26, 2008

Fake Charity

When we give money to charity we feel better. Likewise when we work to help others. In fact there's a song from a recent hit on Broadway exactly on point. None of this should be news to anyone.

What about scams? While the good feeling when we help out a fraud is real, it rapidly turns to hurt, anger and betrayal when the fraud is discovered. The problem with charitable frauds is that the people running them are dishonest. While that may also seem obvious, the point is that a large percentage of the adult population is reasonably skilled at spotting scammers and con artists, which means that the fake charity has a limited pool of targets.

There is another sort of charity out there though. If you give money to Lutheran World Relief or World Vision, a high percentage of your money gets to worthy recipients. There are a variety of charity ratings websites out there to help you sift the scammers from the well-intentioned.

There is a problem with the ratings system, however. All they do is check to see how much of the money raised is spent on the charity's purposes. To understand why this might be a problem, think about your position on abortion. It doesn't matter for purposes of this thought experiment whuich side you are on. If you look at the ratings lists you will see very highly rated charities that are pro-life or pro-choice. They all have low overhead and fund raising costs, which makes them worthy charities in terms of the ratings. But that doesn't change the fact that they may be spending your money on something with which you are opposed.

Which brings me to my point. I ran across a charitable organization in my internet wanderings earlier, Bread for the World. They are fairly highly rated by the various ratings organizations. Their volunteers are passionate and committed. Their main focus is on hunger. It's rather difficult to knock fighting hunger, so that sounds like a good cause.

How, though, do they fight hunger? The answer in one word is lobbying. As near as I can tell, none of the money donated to Bread for the World actually feeds anyone who is hungry, unless our elected officials count as being hungry when they get peckish after a long committee meeting.

They don't hide their focus on the website, but they don't call attention to it either. The graphics show very cute children smiling. What possible connection those children have to anything Bread for the World does is not clear. Perhaps they are the children of the staffers?

I have no doubt that the people involved with Bread for the World are sincere. Many of them probably donate time and money to actual efforts to feed the poor. But it's hard to see what actual good the organization accomplishes. The U S government has spent and continues to spend enormous sums on world aid, some of which goes for food. More to the point, there are some highly effective charities out there, Oxfam, Worldvision, and the Salvation Army all come to mind, that really and truly do help the poor worldwide. They also speak to politicians from time to time as well, but they do not consider that to be their main focus.

If you want to help the world, please do so. There are many, many people that deserve and need your help. But is the charity of your choice really and sincerely helping others directly or just really sincere? There aren't any starving political operatives, printers, mass mailing specialists, lecturers, fundraisers and lobbyists in these parts, and at the risk of appearing cold blooded, maybe there ought to be.


Perpetua said...

Interesting catch!
Do you see a similarity between this and how The Episcopal Church does the Millennium Development Goal's?
It seems like TEC considers its charitable contribution to be calling attention to these goals rather than focusing on actually achieving some small part of them.

Anonymous said...

As a recent former employee of Bread for the World, I thought I could take a moment to set the record straight on pretty much...everything.

One thing that you're completely correct about is that no money given to Bread for the World will go directly into the mouths of hungry people - not tomorrow, not next week, not even next month. Maybe it's the fault of our website in needing to be clearer or more easily navigable (I don't doubt it), but barring that, even a little digging will reveal that what Bread works towards is long-term, effective and substantive changes in the systems/policies/funding that impairs or empowers millions and millions of people (domestically and internationally) being able to put food on the table for their families. Complimenting charity, which is good and necessary, with the equally (if not more) important call to justice and advocacy on behalf of those caught in oppressive poverty and economic systems (even in the US).

Bread for the World members, while they are often involved in other hunger work like you mention, are also very active users of their citizenship to influence the decisions that our elected leaders make to effect positive change for poor and hungry people. We could have a separate discussion about whether politically you would agree that that is something (people of faith) should do, but given our bipartisan approach (and support - in members and in Congress) on all of the above, I wanted to make sure that what we DO do...and do very effectively, was corrected regarding your entire post.

A final addendum - groups like World Vision and LWR and Oxfam and so on, who all do great work - are all generous and enthusiastic supporters of Bread, often underwriting our educational materials and work...because they're also direct beneficiaries of the same poverty focused development assistance and so on we might be working on as citizen advocates to improve! (i.e. they receive federal funds and/or their programs are also directly effected by policies in funding, trade and debt relief...the 'systemic stuff' we work on...internationally at least.).

Domestically we might work to increase food stamp funding - or better yet - improve eligibility standards and rules that would allow people to actually work their way out of poverty while on food stamps (right now it's VERY hard given the restrictions on assets).

I hope this helps - for some more info on some of the 'critiques' you raise that I think answer them in full about our efficacy and mission:

this one even says how we use your gifts, pretty clearly I think:

And finally, the creme de la creme - the 'Who We Are' video --- I think it's great, we just launched it (requires windows media player).

Seth Wispelwey
former Central Southern Regional Organizer
Bread for the World

P.S. We've never fed a politician...we're not those kind of lobbyists...we (our members) do it for free...and for the love. If you'd like to talk to someone at Bread about more of how/why/what we do (and do effectively and powerfully), call 202.639.9400 and ask for Kathy P. Thanks!

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel said...

As someone fairly familiar with Bread for the World, allow me to politely contest some of the points made in your post.

First, Bread for the World does not claim to be a charity. It's a non-profit political lobbying organization trying to affect the way our government spends the billions upon billions of dollars that make up the federal budget. Anyone who believes that lobbying is unnecessary or ineffective in our political system should talk to those who have a working knowledge of the American political system. Even reading politics section of a national newspaper will provide ample evidence that lobbyists and their efforts have dramatic impact upon the way our government apportions its budget. While it is true that the U.S. government does spend a large amount of money on programs to fight national and global hunger, it is plain the proportion of our budget spent on these issues pales in comparison to the overall budget. As a taxpayer, I personally would like to see our government do more to address these issues.

There are many ways to use one's personal resources to fight hunger and poverty. I would not suggest that donations to reputable organizations directly feeding hungry people are not worthwhile. However, good-intentioned people acknowledge that hunger and poverty have profound socio-political causes that can't be adequately addressed through private charity alone. I am proud to support Bread for the World, an organization that rallies U.S. voters and politicians to direct the enormous economic power and political influence of the U.S. government towards finding systemic solutions to these truly systemic problems.

Finally, as a Bread for the World supporter, I am a bit disappointed by the "gotcha" tone of your post and its title. Even if you disagree with the need for political advocacy work, please acknowledge that Bread for the World is not being "fake" or even vaguely disingenuous. The organization's representatives and publications are crystal clear in presenting its purpose and its methods - both of which I find necessary and admirable. Bread for the World is not attempting to deceive anyone; in fact, raising public awareness and clear thinking on the issues of charity and justice is central to their institutional mandate.

I commend your efforts to bring attention to important issues on your blog. I hope you and your readers will do more to investigate Bread for the World. I believe such an investigation would produce many more enthusiastic supporters than critics. Thanks!

Perpetua said...

I like your first point very much:
"First, Bread for the World does not claim to be a charity. It's a non-profit political lobbying organization trying to affect the way our government spends the billions upon billions of dollars that make up the federal budget."

Is there any distinction in the tax code between a "charity" and a "non-profit political lobbying organization"?

It would seem that this is comparable to the difference between donating to Natural Resources Defense Council versus a local land trust. Or between donating to a Right to Life lobbying group versus a local group that provides services to pregnant women.

Holly said...

Hey Perpetua - Yes, there is a distinction in the tax code for a lobbying group vs. a non-profit. Most non-profits are considered 501c3 organizations. They can use only a small percentage of their budget for lobbying efforts. All donations to a 501c3 are tax deductible. 501c4 organizations can lobby. All donations to a 501c4 are NOT tax deductible, since the purpose of the funding is often to influence public policy. Bread for the World is a 501c4 organization. Bread for the World Institute is a 501c3. The Institute produces a yearly report on the status of hunger around the nation and our world.

Zana said...

Hmmm, Holly... if you're correct shouldn't BftW file to change its tax exemption status in light of what Joel posted?

I'm really not trying to be snarky, but if an organization has as its mission "political lobbying" then shouldn't it file under the status that allows for just such an endeavor? I'm not a lawyer, so I don't know the nitty gritty about filing for tax exempt status... but I always am up to lern new things! 8-)

Zana said...

Heh. Like spelling. (lern = learn) Sigh.

Life in a tiki hut said...


I'm confused as to why you're asking that Bread for the World needs to change its tax exempt status to one that allows lobbying. Bread for the World is a 501c4 organization which allows it to lobby to its hearts content.

A separate institution called the Bread for the World Institute which does only research and education on hunger issues is the 501c3 entity. They do not do any lobbying and therefore do not need the c4 designation.

I hope that clarifies.

Perpetua said...

Hmmm, I know Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) does lobbying for the environment, but on its website it says it is a "Not-for-profit, tax-exempt, membership organization".

However, on the National Right to Life website they say "Because National Right to Life Committee, Inc. lobbies to save unborn babies, donations to the National Right to Life Committee, Inc. are not deductible for income tax purposes."

I see on Bread for the World's website, on the donation page, it says: "Gifts to Bread for the World are not tax deductible since our members lobby Congress on behalf of poor and hungry people. If you prefer to make a tax-deductible contribution to support research and education efforts on hunger, please designate your gift to Bread for the World Institute."

bluesky said...

A great supporter of World Vision is is a dual-purpose site for building an English
vocabulary and raising money for under privileged children in the most
impoverished places around the world.

Check it out at

Zana said...

Life in a tiki hut (I love your screen name, BTW): Doh. Because not only can I not spell, I cannot read closely either. I must've got my threes and fours confused! I offer my most humble, abject apologies! ::sheepish grin::

Matthew said...

Of course, one might ask why Bread for the World is being rated as a chairty by charity rating organizations if they do not wish to be seen as a charity.

Interesting question, isn't it?