Charity Watchdog Wants Equal Time

The head of a charity watchdog group says he's being blacklisted by charities who refuse to share the stage with him because he publicizes their questionable accounting practices.

As one of the top watchdog groups in Washington, the American Institute for Philanthropy is not very popular with non-profit charities these days — especially in the wake of Sept. 11, when fund-raising organizations more than ever are coming under public scrutiny.

The group's president said the media too often gives charities a pass on the tough questions and news organizations have even kept him from appearing on talk shows where major fund-raising organizations are also featured.

"If anything, they should be praising me for bringing in some very important points," said Daniel Borochoff, president of AIP. "The role of our organization is to clue people in so that they know more about where their money is going."

But in a number of situations, he said, media organizations have cancelled his appearances on radio or television programs because charity representatives insist they not be put into the position of debating him on the air.

This included a scheduled appearance on National Public Radio's Diane Rehm Show, where he was supposed to be part of a panel discussion on the issue of charitable giving following the Sept. 11 attacks.

"The charities say, 'No, we're not going to be on if he's going to be on,'" said Borochoff, who has tangled with the American Red Cross on Diane Rehm before. He claimed her producers cancelled a second appearance because another charity said it wouldn't share the airtime.

"I had a choice of several people to have on the panel," explained Anne Adams, a producer for the show. She said she didn't recall that he was dropped because of another charity's wishes.

"I do know we work to put together shows that we think will put forth the most constructive conversation and work to publicize all points of view," she said.

Borochoff said his experience signals a broader problem with charities — namely their unwillingness to sit on the proverbial hotseat. Sometimes the media is the only key to getting them there, he said.

After much criticism, for example, Congress dragged the Red Cross before a hearing in December to ask whether the charity was earmarking money raised after the attacks for non-Sept. 11 expenditures.

After being "raked over the coals," pointed out John Carlisle, an editor for the Capital Research Center in Washington, D.C., the Red Cross is hard-pressed to improve the way it communicates with the public.

"The Red Cross didn't like the black eye," said Carlisle, who described the organization, which raised more than $560 million as of December, as "practical."

"If you're going to siphon money off for other projects, explain it," he said. "By and large I think the Red Cross has done an excellent job at disaster relief, but a bad job at public relations."

Representatives of the Red Cross, which has since made its Liberty Fund separate from its other fund-raising, agree.

"We've always made a point of reporting financial information to the public on an annual basis. We make it available on our Web site," he added. "We do have to improve on our communication. We have said that."

Borochoff said most charities' financial disclosures are inherently ambiguous. This has often led to very superficial reporting from the news media, which are the primary conduit to the public.

"The reporting system for non-profits … the rules are sometimes written more for the organization rather than for the users of the documents," said Jack Campbell, chief financial officer of the American Red Cross. "There's all this money going for different things."

In December, the celebrity-driven September 11th Fund, created by the United Way of New York and the New York Community Trust, got its own black eye when it was discovered that funds were going to legal aid for some of the detainees in the ensuing terrorist investigation.

In addition, tens of thousands of dollars went to organizations to combat hate crimes, AIDS awareness groups, dance troupes, and the Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra, according to Carlisle.

While the fund's CEO Joshua Gotbaum has since explained there are two Sept. 11 funds, with one going only to direct disaster relief, critics say the distinction is without relevance and merely underscores some charities' arrogance when it comes to public awareness.

"No one, not donors or philanthropic observers, was aware that these two funds had two different goals," said Carlisle. "It was widely advertised to be only one fund with one purpose."

Perhaps findings like these will help set a new tone of open communication, with the media and the public, said Borochoff.

"Most of the groups are acting reasonable, it's just they're not scrutinized, they're not used to answering questions. I can't see why they don't want to, but they should feel compelled to. Maybe next time there is a crisis they'll feel more compelled."