Reporter’s investigation exposes inefficient charity

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

In the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Jane Friedmann used simple tax documents and a local woman’s complaint to show that most of the money raised by the Austim Spectrum Disorder Foundation goes toward sustaining the foundation’s fundraising, not toward families living with autism. It’s a brief, effective piece of reporting of the sort that can and should be localized more often. For the record, here are the numbers Friedmann got from the return.

The charitable group pulled in $1.2 million in 2009, according to its IRS filing, but the charity listed a negative balance of $29,679 at the end of the year. It listed three employees and 89,128 “volunteers” …

The group hired two companies to raise funds for ASDF in 2009, but neither did much to help the cause. Ohio-based Infocision kept all $876,832 it raised, while Missouri-based Precision Performance Marketing kept all but $37,842 of the $203,227 it raised.

The tax form reveals the group held no “structured, formal meetings” in 2009. It spent $313,751 on “materials and fulfillment” and $120,241 on postage.

She also called local and national autism charities for their perspective on the dubious foundation, then included a few paragraphs which helped readers make more informed choices when doling out charitable contributions.

To investigate charitable organizations in your area, find out how to to understand an IRS 990 form, the tax return that nonprofit organizations file. It tells you the organization’s revenues and expenses, and its assets and liabilities. You can see whether or not it is making a profit, and how its fund balance, or net assets, has changed over the past year.

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