June 13, 2010; Center for Investigative Reporting

The “America’s Worst Charities” project of the Tampa Bay Times and the Center for Investigative Reporting is yielding a goldmine of excruciating stories for the writers of the two sponsors. Kris Hundley of the Times and Kendall Taggart of CIR take apart the Cancer Fund of America and its spinoffs, like Center Support Services, the Children’s Cancer Fund of America, the Breast Cancer Society, and the American Association for Cancer Support, all run by James T. Reynolds and members of his family. According to the reporters, less than two cents of every dollar given to the Cancer Fund has gone to the aid of patients or families with cancer (the organization gives cancer patients care packages with shampoo and toothbrushes). A somewhat larger amount of pennies on the dollar has gone toward paying salaries to Reynolds and his relatives and to fundraising solicitors. During the past three years, the Cancer Fund and its affiliates raised $110 million, of which $75 million went to its fundraisers. It paid as salaries $8 million in 2011 alone—thirteen times more than patients received in support from the organization, according to the Times and CIR, of which $1 million went to Reynolds family members.

The paterfamilias of this ensemble of charities is Jim Reynolds, Sr. Here is what the Times and CIR say about him and his credentials for creating the Cancer Fund: “Jim Reynolds, Sr. is a former Army medic with no college degree who worked his way up to lead the Knox County, Tenn., chapter of the prestigious American Cancer Society. In 1984, after eight years with the charity, his boss told him to resign or be fired. The organization accused Reynolds of sloppy bookkeeping, irregular hours and taking title to a 1968 Mustang meant to be auctioned for the charity. After resigning, Reynolds started his own charity. He eventually settled on the name Cancer Fund of America, mimicking American Cancer Society. He even rented a mail drop that shared a similar Atlanta address.”

Reynolds claims no links to or control over the cancer charities run by his relatives, though at least three were given seed money from the Cancer Fund itself. The story is full of eye-popping details of dubious, to say the least, behavior of the Fund and its blood- and marriage-related spinoffs.

At least three things strike us: First, the Cancer Fund and the other charities have had numerous “run-ins” with state regulators and consumer watchdogs, generally about their fundraising tactics. The Cancer Fund seems to have been able to get by though paying fines—sometimes hefty ones—or finding various excuses and tricks to use to escape significant problems. How is it possible that this organization, the charity ranked second-“worst” on the Times/CIR list, still operates and pays the incomes of the Reynolds family members, even including an estranged wife?

Second, for the proponents of paying yourself as much as you can from charitable activities and spending freely on fundraising, is there a limit where the self-inurement and the telemarketer-enrichment is simply beyond the pale? Somehow, it feels like the proponents of maximum salaries for charity executives (note: the executives, not the underpaid subordinates, in most cases) seem to shy away from limits, presuming that a market dynamic will intercede and take control. It doesn’t seem that happens in situations like the proliferation of cancer charities that get donations from people who want to help people in need and get flummoxed and scammed by nice-sounding but really problematic charities, like those of the extended Reynolds clan.

Finally, shouldn’t nonprofit sector leadership organizations—yes, them—be speaking out vigorously against the kinds of groups that so richly earned their places in the Worst Charities hierarchy? Without strong denunciations by charities committed to standards and ethics, don’t we run the risk that the public will think that these few examples of sketchy charities are the norm, rather than a minuscule exception?—Rick Cohen