It’s the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 Tragedy … Who Cares?

On September 11, 2001, the United States of America was attacked. In New York City, at the Pentagon, and outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania, thousands were killed. The events of that day changed not just America but the world. And, unfortunately, the tragedy has even led to serious, negative fallout that may impact the entire nonprofit sector.

Now, we mark the 10th anniversary of that dreadful day. But, who really cares?

Photo by Doug Kanter/AFP/Getty Images via Flickr (Beacon Radio)

I, for one, care. And, I’m convinced that hundreds of millions of people around the globe care. I visited Ground Zero just weeks after the attack. Dust and broken glass were still everywhere. Tens of thousands of people ringed the entire site. Folks of every race and age from around the world stood in complete silence. I’ve never witnessed such a massive crowd being so thoroughly silent. I’ve never heard New York being so quiet at mid-day. The silence was only broken by an occasional sob or a child’s question. We were there to witness. We were there to mourn.

Ten years later, we still mourn. So many of us knew someone who died that day, or we know someone who knew someone. We recognize that families are still dealing with the pain. We know it has changed our country and the world in ways that we still cannot fully comprehend. We know that first-responders, construction workers, and others are still suffering as the cancers and other diseases triggered 10 years ago begin to develop. This sad anniversary is a time for us all to reflect.

As I reflect on 9/11 and the intervening 10 years, I do so with the eyes of a development professional. And, I’m sickened by what I see. The Associated Press did an investigative report published on August 25, 2011. The AP findings are disturbing. While most of the 325 charities reviewed “followed the rules, accounted fully for their expenditures and closed after fulfilling identified goals,” the investigation found many did not file the necessary reports, performed unethically, or simply operated for the benefit of their founders. Americans donated over $1.5 billion to these charities to help the families of victims and to establish memorials. This is in addition to the billions of dollars spent by federal and state governments as well as established, reputable charities like the American Red Cross.

Here are just a few of the stories identified by reporter Brett Blackledge in his August 25, 2011 AP story:

The Arizona-based charity, [Stage 1 Productions], that raised $713,000 for a 9/11 memorial quilt promised it would be big enough to cover 25 football fields, but there are only several hundred decorated sheets packed in boxes at a storage unit. One-third of the money raised went to the charity’s founder and relatives, according to tax records and interviews.”

There’s a charity for a 9/11 Garden of Forgiveness at the World Trade Center site — only there’s no Garden of Forgiveness. Tax records show the charity has raised $200,000, and that the Episcopal priest [who established the charity] paid himself $126,530 in salary and used another $3,562 for dining expenses between 2005 and 2007.”

Another Manhattan 9/11 charity, Urban Life Ministries, raised more than $4 million to help victims and first responders. But the group only accounted for about $670,000 on its tax forms. Along with almost four dozen other 9/11 charities, Urban Life lost its IRS tax-exempt status this year because it failed to show how money was collected and spent.”

The Flag of Honor Fund, a Connecticut charity, raised nearly $140,000 to promote a memorial flag honoring 9/11 victims. The flag, which contains the name of every person killed on Sept. 11, 2001, is on sale today at Wal-Mart and other retail stores. But only a tiny fraction of the money from those sales goes to 9/11 charities, with most going to retail stores, the flag maker and a for-profit business — run by the man who created the flag charity.”

I encourage you to read the full AP report for more details.

While the unethical and illegal acts of some unscrupulous people are shameful, the negative impact is not limited to the charities in question. Whenever one charity misbehaves, it casts a shadow over all nonprofit organizations. To be successful, the nonprofit sector requires the trust of the public. Sadly, this 9/11 scandal is eroding public trust. In case you think I’m exaggerating, consider just two comments from readers of the report summary on the blog site Gawker:

It is exactly stories like these that has always prevented me from giving one red cent of my money to any organized charity.” — Snafu

…I just don’t trust charities anymore.” — BrookGlen

Unfortunately, charity scams are not limited to 9/11-related nonprofits. The website TopTenz published a list of the Top 10 Charity Scams in recent years. Charity scandal is also not limited to the United States. For example, in Scotland in 2003, a cancer charity was embroiled in a scandal uncovered by The Sunday Mail newspaper. Other cancer charities that had nothing to do with the scandal or the organization at the center of the scandal saw donations drop by as much 30 percent as public trust was eroded.

As a profession, we like to pay lip service to the idea of self-regulation. But, the sad reality is, as these scandals demonstrate, we do virtually no self-regulating. Yet, we know that the actions of the few bad operators do in fact taint the entire sector thereby making it more difficult for us to do our jobs.

So, on this important, tragic anniversary, reflect and mourn. But, just don’t wring your hands. Think about the big picture, but also think about what it means for the nonprofit sector. Think about what we have learned. Think about what responsibility we each have to the nonprofit sector and those we serve. Think about what you can do to behave even more ethically than you already do. Think about what we can do collectively to, at long last, truly self-regulate before the government gets more aggressive in this respect.

Finally, I also encourage you to take some time to read my article “Doing Well by Doing Right: A Fundraiser’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making,” published in the peer-reviewed International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing. The article reveals the value of maintaining the public trust. It also provides valuable information about how we can all consistently make the best, most ethical decisions thereby earning trust for ourselves and the sector.

That’s what Michael Rosen Says… What do you say?

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7 Responses to “It’s the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 Tragedy … Who Cares?”

  1. Thanks, Michael, for tying in the philanthropic impact of 9/11. A similar phenomenon of unethical practices has plagued the philanthropic response
    to the Haitian earthquake. It does underscore the elementary adage that honesty is the best policy.

    • Yvonne, thank you for your comment. You’re quite correct. Some of the charities surrounding Haitian earthquake relief also suffer from unethical practice. I wonder why it didn’t make the list at TopTenz. There will always be unscrupulous people who take advantage of a crisis. As a sector, we need to do a better job of preventing bad behavior and weeding it out when it does occur.

  2. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, there will always be evil folks who will take advantage of circumstances to fleece the public. This brings to mind two thoughts. First, donors beware. Give where you know the organization is reputable and be especially cautious when a high profile disaster occurs and unknown and unproven appeals pop up all over the place. Second, to us professionals in fundraising for nonprofits, be good stewards of the funds received and be accountable to our donors and the public in general for every penny received. Be proactive in opening your “books” for all to see. We will never eliminate the evil in the world, but we can counter-balance it by sharing the good we do as broadly as possible.

  3. Last year I wrote a paper on how organizations fund their overhead and fundraising costs, and it was amazing to me how certain organizations allocated their expenses to make their programmatic expenses look really substantial. Alot of times this happens deliberately, but it also happens because of the pressures that donors put on organizations for results. At the end of the day though, EDUCATE YOUR DONORS! It takes money to make money and that’s not a foreign concept! Better to be honest and true about where the money goes rather than have to explain why donors were lied to.
    It’s organizations like the ones listed here, and countless others that breed so much distrust towards the sector. I’m from Haiti and can tell you that too many organizations working there are operating for the benefit of their donors rather than the service recipients (the ones they exist to help). I know of many organizations that are not doing what they say they are doing; and the billions of dollars raised after the earthquake are not in Haiti. The reports I heard when I was last there were truly sobering.

    • Isabelle, thank you for sharing your thoughts on this issue. It truly disturbs me that so many charities are created to benefit their founders while people who are suffering continue to suffer. You’re right. Donors need to be more careful. And, the sector needs to do more as well. Evil will always be with us. Good folks just need to make it more difficult for bad folks.

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