AP Report Finds Many 9/11 Charities Failed—Miserably

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August 25, 2011; Source: Associated Press | This AP story is a good example of why the NPQ Newswire adds a bit of commentary to media stories, rather than just ripping-and-posting summaries of newspaper articles. The AP reported last week on an investigation of 325 charities that were created as responses to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. AP’s own reporting was that some of the 9/11 charities “failed miserably,” concluding, “There are those that spent huge sums on themselves, those that cannot account for the money they received, those that have few results to show for their spending and those that have yet to file required income tax returns. Yet many of the charities continue to raise money in the name of Sept. 11.”

That’s devastating stuff. But the Sacramento Bee summary of the AP findings ran under the headline, “Most 9/11 charities fulfilled mission to give aid.” The Huffington Post ran a similar summary as the Sacbee with the headline, “Most 9/11 Charities Still Operating, But Have Shifted Focus.” Each story used the same AP information, the same data, but there were three different headlines.

So what did the AP find? The AP team uncovered lots of pretty shameful stories including the American Quilt Memorial, whose founder raised $713,000 in donations, took $270,000 for himself and relatives and never delivered the quilt, and Urban Life Ministries, which raised $4 million to help victims and first responders and could only account for $670,000 of its expenditures before its tax exemption was pulled by the IRS. One of the slimiest, the Flag of Honor Fund, which generated little for 9/11 charities but plenty for the for-profit business run by the charity’s founder, was promoted on the Today Show by host Hoda Kotb and endorsed by other known and reasonably respected 9/11 charities. 

Obviously, some of these charities were really 9/11 predators, run by some pretty scummy people raising money out of the tragedies suffered by thousands of people. Others were well-meaning but unable to function because they were created by people with no experience in or understanding of nonprofit fundraising or nonprofit management. In some cases, they were nonprofits established by the families of victims, but being a relative of a victim doesn’t mean that the person knows how to operate a charity. And as the contradictory headlines reveal, our nation is a little skittish at drawing some lessons from the 9/11 experience.—Rick Cohen

  • Andrew Marietta

    Rick, I think that this is another example of the unfortunate growing criticism and negativity associated with the nonprofit sector. Of course there were bad apples, but what about the majority that were successful and carried out their missions? I would encourage the AP to look at the other story that is being missed. Many for profit companies rolled out all kinds of consumer goods and products for sale that promised a donation of the proceeds or sales to 9/11 charities or victims. Where is the accountability for these funds? I have been collecting such examples ever since 9/11 and have been documenting them on my blog at http://collectingseptember11th.blogspot.com.

  • rick cohen

    Andrew: Thank you for your comment and for introducing NPQ Newswire readers to your very interesting blog site. I totally agree that the for-profits that sold products promising some portion would go to 9/11 charities or victims should be examined, not just that they might have been capitalizing on the horror of the terrorist attacks for their own profits, but for the fact that they marketed themselves as benefiting 9/11 charities, and if they did so, they are guilty of intentionally misleading advertising and marketing. Remember that the AP investigation itself included at least one of these, the flag manufacturer that was selling 9/11 flags at retailers like WalMart. That being said, it doesn’t mean that the nonprofit sector doesn’t need to be scrutinized, not just for the fraudulent types that popped up as they always do during crises and emergencies, but for what the sector should learn about what works and what doesn’t work so well in response to disasters natural and man-made. It’s not just the frauds and scams that slithered into the 9/11 charitable picture, but the well-intentioned new charities that were not particularly well run and may well have been better off devoting their energies through existing charities that were on the ground and ready to function for communities and people adversely impacted by 9/11. We should go after the for-profit profiteers that rode 9/11 to their bottom lines, but we should also examine our own sector to see what we can do and ought to do better.