Southern Poverty Law Center founder Morris Dees claims on his company’s website that he is a sound financial steward of the millions of tax-free dollars his donors send him each year in the sincere belief that they are somehow “fighting hate” by doing so.
Unbeknownst to tens of thousands of donors a year, however, is the fact that millions of their donation dollars never reach the SPLC’s coffers. Let’s look at the numbers:
First, the Good News: According to the SPLC’s tax returns, (shown below), over the past three fiscal years, third-party telemarketers raised $5,156,337 toward the SPLC’s worthy goal of “fighting hate” in America.
The Bad News: The SPLC actually paid $5,750,295 to the telemarketers over those three years, for a net loss of $593,958 donor-dollars!
One telemarketing firm, Grassroots Campaigns, of Boston, charged Mr. Dees an incredible $3,883,469 to raise $1,644,804, for an astonishing loss of $2,238,665.
Not only did Grassroots keep every dime they raised from well-meaning donors, they completely wiped out the $1,644,804 turned over to the SPLC by all of the other telemarketers combined AND scooped an additional $593,958 out of the existing SPLC donor pot!
The Other Good News: “Sound Steward” Morris Dees could not be happier with the results.
How can Mr. Dees condone this rampant hemorrhaging of desperately needed donor-dollars? To recycle the old vaudeville punchline: “He’ll make it up in volume.”
It’s simple. Dees isn’t hiring these telemarketers to “raise money” for the SPLC, regardless of what they say in their scripted telephone pitch. He’s paying them to identify new donors to feed into his own uber-efficient, in-house fundraising machine.
Think about it. As the SPLC’s IRS Schedule G returns indicate below, the measly $427,000 the SPLC received from the external telemarketers after expenses in 2010 represents a mere 1.3% of the $32 million Mr. Dees’ in-house fundraisers raked in that year.
That’s chump change, like a five-dollar bill you find in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn in a while.
The real money will come from future donations from these people over the coming years, of which the SPLC gets to keep 100%.
It’s a beautiful system when you think about it because it not only makes millions for the SPLC down the road, but it’s paid for entirely by the gullible donors themselves!
“Sound stewardship” doesn’t get any better than this.
The downside is that the tens of thousands of well-meaning donors who ponied up the $5.7 million donor-dollars to pay the telemarketers genuinely believed that their money was actually going toward “fighting hate,” rather than padding out Mr. Dees’ donor list.
To be fair, the SPLC isn’t the only one playing fast and loose with the donor-dollars. A 2012 news report in the Pittsburgh Tribune explains that even the best third party fundraisers only turn over about 45 cents on every dollar they raise but many others keep as much as 97% of the take.
Obviously, the donors have no idea how little of their money actually gets to the non-profits they support.
For smaller charities and non-profits even a paltry 3% return is better than nothing.
The Tribune article even interviews Grassroots’ own National Canvass Director, Wes Jones, who claims the donor-dollars paid to his company are justified because organizations like the SPLC are actually buying “a huge amount of visibility“ and new supporters “and their contributions over the next few years will substantially exceed the cost of the effort.”
Non-profits such as the ASPCA and Amnesty International are cited in the article as saying they were pleased with Grassroots’ work, even when it cost them millions out-of-pocket. They too are far more interested in the donor information Grassroots collects.
When you think about it, Morris Dees paid less than $600,000 for $5.1 million dollars worth of proven donor information. That’s less than 9 cents on the dollar. Not a bad return on investment, especially when it is the unwitting donors who are footing the bill and will continue to contribute for years or decades to come.
So how many trusting donors got absolutely nothing for their donations? At $100 apiece, which seems like an unusually high number for first-time donors, that “only” comes to 57,000 suckers. At $50 dollars a head, 114,000 donors were duped, and the more modest the donation the larger the number of people who were deceived.
In exchange for nothing more than your name, street and e-mail addresses, you too can “stand strong against hate.” In 2009, that personal information would earn you a digital pinhead on his map with your first name and last initial.
Mr. Dees doesn’t explain exactly how your personal information “fights hate,” but no doubt his formidable fundraising team makes very good use of the data and there’s nothing stopping them from selling it to other non-profits.
According to the map, thousands of Progressive pinheads have signed up for the cause.
It all sounds rather cynical to us.
So what do we make of Mr. Dees’ sketchy telemarketing deals? They’re not illegal, and apparently “everybody” in Non-Profit Land is doing it.
The donors are still getting a warm-and-fuzzy tingle and the fantasy that they are somehow “fighting hate,” which, after all, is pretty much all they would get if they delivered the money directly into Mr. Dees’ hands.
Maybe it’s a win-win-win situation after all.
Below are the SPLC’s telemarketing records from the past three available fiscal years. Look at the numbers for yourselves, do the math and come to your own conclusions as to whether the donors are getting a fair deal.
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