Sunday, September 17, 2006

NOTHING WRONG WITH CHECKING A CHARITY

When a son or daughter dies, it's a tragedy for the parents. Some parents channel their grief into doing good works in memory of their child.

A reader from Ohio e-mailed me to let me know of a couple who had started a charitable golf tournament after their 17-year-old son died several years ago. Their son was a promising athlete, so the couple solicits donations from various sports teams, vacation destinations and athletic facilities. These items are auctioned off after the golf outing, with the proceeds to be used to help underprivileged kids in the community get the expensive sports equipment they need to participate in organized sports.

In theory, it's a terrific tribute to the memory of a young athlete. In practice, well, that's another story.

My Ohio reader writes that in the past two or three years she has witnessed some disturbing incidents involving the parents who lost their son.

"On one occasion," she writes, "a donated item that was not sold during the auction was given to a family member as a Christmas present. The following year a trip that was not sold was given as a gift to the parents of this couple."

She also suspects that gift certificates for dinners and rounds of golf have been personally used by the couple instead of being auctioned off.

If she's right, my reader says, "this couple has found a way to earn a living from the death of their son on the backs of generous donors."

She is "appalled by this couple's lack of good judgment with respect to the donated items," she writes. "Am I being too hard on this couple?"

She isn't. However sad the parents' loss of their child undoubtedly is, there's no ethical justification for any charitable organization, large or small, to solicit donations for a particular purpose and then turn around and let organizers take goods or proceeds for personal use. If the accusations are true, the couple is probably also violating the law by committing fraud.

The accusations may not be true, of course. It's quite possible that the parents have compensated their organization for any goods or services that they may personally have taken advantage of, with the proceeds going to the designated cause. If so, the parents are guilty of nothing more than insensitivity to the appearance of wrongdoing.

The right thing for my reader to do is to ask the parents for an accounting of how they have used the donations they have received. This is a reasonable question to ask of any charity before you donate to it.

If they balk at providing this information, or if my reader still suspects fraudulent activity after she hears back from them, she should report them to the charitable-law section of the state attorney general's office. The Web site for the National Association of State Charity Officials, at www.nasconet.org, lists the offices responsible for charitable organizations and solicitations in each state, while Canadians can find information about registered charities at www.cra-arc.gc.ca.

It's abhorrent to think that anyone would prey on the kindness of others by using a child's death to solicit funds for a worthy cause in his memory and then put those funds to other uses. It would be wrong for my reader or others to turn a blind eye to such practices if they have proof of wrongdoing.

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