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