How to Spot Bogus AIDS Organizations

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday July 14, 2009

A recent series of reports by ProPublica (http://www.propublica.org) has questioned how charitable is an organization that purports to "confront and alleviate the effects of HIV/AIDS disease in America." According to ProPublica, it instead provides "a window into the fractured and often ineffective oversight of nonprofits."

Based in Beverly Hills, Calif., the Center for AIDS Prevention describes itself as having a record of accomplishments "coordinating local HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and advocacy projects" while looking ahead to partnering "with communities most affected by the epidemic to expand and improve HIV/AIDS prevention and care services, and advocate for sound HIV/AIDS policy and law."

Their website identifies them as "a public 501 (c) 3 non-profit health" providing "aggressive HIV/AIDS education and prevention programs" and "comprehensive services for people affected by HIV/AIDS disease." TheyThis text will be the link further assert that "all monies raised from our marketing efforts" are used to promote "awareness through our different programs, to promote special events and to cover office rent and general expenses."

A June 24, 2009 ProPublica report () called into question why state authorities have yet to investigate the organization-which its own investigation revealed to be conducting "high-profile fundraising campaigns" while spreading "inaccurate health information" and dodging "questions about how it spends donations."

Chief among ProPublica's concerns is the funds the Center has spent on a number of expensive advertisements on the Web sites of the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times as well as in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, all "urging viewers to donate now; the most recent series of ads appeared between May 28 and June 9," according to ProPublica.

An ad which appeared in mid-June promoted a "Help Stop AIDS Golf Classic" scheduled for June 20, which touted "Special Invited Guest Golf Legend Tiger Woods." Unfortunately, as an email sent to ProPulica by the golf division at Wood' public relations firm (IMG) noted noted, "[T]heir event is being held on the Saturday of the U.S. Open, on opposite sides of the country, so he obviously won't be participating."

The golf event ad, and others, caught the attention-and raised the suspicions of-Peter Taback, VP of communication and marketing for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Taback says that upon seeing the donor ad on the New York Time's website, he was "immediately struck at the presence of any HIV organization that could afford the enormous resources required to advertise on the NYT web page. I'd love for us to have the ability to reach people at that level."

Wanting to learn more about this supposed major player in the AIDS charity game, Taback jumped to the Center for AIDS Prevention site. There, he said, he "saw so many things that raised my eyebrows; inaccurate, misleading information about how HIV is transmitted" as well as strange, inarticulate syntax-but "no mention of programs supported by donor contributions, and no mention of ways I could get involved other than to donate."

A recent visit back to the site reconfirmed his initial observation that "There are so many scientific errors, it's just shocking." Just as shocking, says Taback, is knowing there are organizations out there "making a play" for money with a message "steeped in deceit and dishonesty. There's no excuse for an ethical violation like that."

No Explanation, No Comment
When EDGE called the Center for comment, they weren't offering excuses, explanations or comments of any kind.

Referring specifically to the recent ProPublica coverage, the purported volunteer who answered the phone said the executive director was not commenting to the media "because the posture of the press that was done months ago was so negative. It was really backwards regarding how it was presented. As a result of that, there's no conversation with any pres. This conversation has just ended."

With that, they hung up the phone. A follow-up call placed immediately afterward elicited a final comment from the volunteer: "I'm not going to give you my name, because you're press. You have no idea" how difficult it is for "a new non profit."

But the difficulties of navigating skeptical inquiries from the press often pale in comparison to prospective donors who are making an earnest attempt to evaluate the worth of a charity.

"Generally, when people are giving to smaller charities, they're being asked to do so by somebody they know." observes Sean Strub, founder of POZ. That's why Strub recommends doing a bit of your own research before cutting a check or handing over your credit card number-even if you discover the charity through a close and trusted friend.

Unfortunately, when trying to access trusted evaluations of questionable organizations, "There's not a lot of great indent pent, objective rating services that look at organizations in the (LGBT) community," bemoans Strub. He notes that although there are charity rating organizations (such as Charity Navigator), "they tend not to encompass smaller grassroots groups addressing emerging issues" or those organizations which intentionally exist below the radar so as to not call attention to their own questionable activities. That makes it all the more difficult to discern between "organizations that are just clumsy and not very sophisticated in how they go about raising funds with the public" versus those who are intentionally perpetrating a scam."

Maryland Nonprofits offers a program called the Standards for Excellence Institute-a national clearing house which gives a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval to certified nonprofits which meet 55 tenets covering a range of areas.

The code and the program were developed to outline how a nonprofit should operate if they want to be ethical, accountable, well managed and responsibly governed. That is accomplished in part, says Amy Coates Madsen, program director for the Institute, by "having a well-defined mission statement and a high functioning Board of Directors" as well as the ability to "handle and address conflicts of interest."

Organizations which lack any of these characte3ristics, she says, are putting up red flags which indicate they may not be worthy of your financial support.

Trudy Jacobson, managing director of development, marketing and communications for Marlyand Nonprofits, notes that the IRS has recently incorporated several elements of the Institute's code into the annual 990 tax form which charitable nonprofits must file. Annual reports, financial statements and tax forms are the types of things that any individual making an informed decision should think about and think about asking for.

"Whether you're making a $100 contribution or a $100,000 one, you have every right to look at the organization and challenge it," Jacobson says. "If that organization is not being forthcoming, you have a right to questions why. The more the public realizes they have responsiblity in requesting accountability and transparency, the more organizations will be willing to comply."

For Strub, "The best advice is not to give money to groups you don't know very well. The groups out there doing good things tend to be covered in community media, have volunteers, and a record of some accomplishment they can point to."

Note: EDGE makes no determination of any organization's status mentioned in the article. We do recommend that any potential donors follow the guidelines in this article or as advocated by similar watchdog groups before donating to a charity.

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.

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