December 8, 2014; BuzzFeed News
Shield of Hope, the charity that raised more than $400,000 for the legal defense of Officer Darren Wilson, has refused requests from media outlets and others to release details of its financial condition. The charity set up a page on GoFundMe to raise money for Wilson’s defense, but Shield of Hope has discontinued fundraising on the page. A note indicates that funds raised will be used to pay “potential legal fees, relocation and living expenses of both Officer Darren Wilson and his immediate family.”
Wilson, the police officer who resigned from the Ferguson Police Department after a grand jury found insufficient evidence to indict him in the shooting death of Michael Brown, still faces a federal investigation and the possibility of a wrongful death lawsuit from Brown’s family.
Shield of Hope, originally founded in late 2011 as the Fraternal Order Of Police Lodge 15 Charitable Foundation, changed its name to Shield of Hope in 2012. The mission of Shield of Hope includes “providing emergency relief to distressed law enforcement officers and their families, all only to the extent as allowed within section 501(c)(3) of the Code.” The Missouri Secretary of State identifies Shield of Hope as being “in good standing” and GuideStar states that the organization is required to file Form 990-N, the annual “postcard return” for small nonprofit organizations.
It appears that Shield of Hope has a history of following relevant state and federal reporting requirements. The challenge is that the activities of Shield of Hope apparently underwent a major change in August 2014 after the events in Ferguson, at least in scale (revenue in excess of the Form 990-N threshold) if not in focus (public support of a single identified beneficiary). Shield of Hope is not required to file a 2014 Form 990 for many months. Shield of Hope’s current fiscal year doesn’t end until Spring 2015 (its “fiscal month” is May, according to the Missouri Secretary of State’s website). The organization’s attorney, Brian Beck, was quoted saying “Shield of Hope will make information available to the public at the appropriate time, and declines to comment at this time.”
There is uncertainty as to whether Shield of Hope’s fundraising on behalf of Officer Wilson qualifies as charitable contributions or for tax deductibility. One board member, state representative Jeff Roorda, has expressed questions and has been quoted as saying gifts will be returned to donors if it turns out they cannot be put to the use for which they were intended, paying for Wilson’s defense, or would otherwise no longer be tax deductible. Shield of Hope’s fund development activities over the past few months may raise complex legal and tax issues, depending on what the IRS calls the “facts and circumstances” surrounding the specifics of the case. The single board member may be correct, or he may have spoken in error to the media.
BuzzFeed’s article portrays Shield of Hope as hiding information and being unresponsive to media requests. Should a charity publicly disclose financial information in the middle of its current fiscal year, or should it rely on current law and regulation to govern its disclosures? Would early disclosure help or harm Shield of Hope, its donors, and beneficiaries? What would your charity do if it found itself in the eyes of the national media during a contentious debate, apparently taking sides while pursuing its mission?—Michael Wyland