When Firefighter (or Police) Charities Call, Hose Them Down

Have you ever received a call from someone that sounds roughly like this: “Hello, is this Mr. Farfegnoogle? Hi, my name is Nigel and I’m calling on behalf of the Firefighters Benevolent Association of Aardvark County. Each year we donate to (Toys for Tots, the Widows and Orphans Fund, a local hospital burn unit, you name it), and we are hoping we can count on your support for this very worthwhile cause.”

You may wonder, “How much should I donate?” Well, here is a handy donation calculator: Figure out how much money you have in your bank account and multiply it by 0. In other words, donate nothing, zip, nada, naught, bubkes. The odds are overwhelming that the “charitable” campaign is a scam; that the organization that endorses it—while likely a legitimate association—is in cahoots with the fundraising outfit that just called you; and that most of the money goes to the fundraiser.

“What,” you say, “Are you telling me that the Firefighters Association isn’t on the up and up?” To which I say, no, it’s the fundraising company that isn’t on the up and up, and the legit organization is willing to go along for the ride in order to get a small cut of the take.

In my days as a TV consumer reporter, I conducted several investigations into these operations, and here’s what I found. There are two basic types of schemes. In each case there is a legitimate organization—I’ll refer to it as the Association—and a fund-raising company, which I will call the Fund-raiser. In the first type of scheme, the Fund-raiser offers the Association a fixed fee, say $5,000. The Fund-raiser then uses the Association’s name to raise all the money it can in the Association’s name, but the Fund-raiser keeps all the proceeds.

With the second type of scheme, the Fund-raiser offers the Association a cut of the gross take, say 15 or 20 percent. In either case, a very small percentage of the proceeds goes to a good cause. Why do the Associations do it? They get a chunk of cash to donate to a worthy cause without having to do any work. Is it ethical? Not in my book.

The Better Business Bureau has developed a set of standards for charities. Included in these standards are three benchmarks that relate to the issues I am discussing. The charities must:


  • Have a board of directors that provides adequate oversight of the charity’s operations and its staff.
  • Spend no more than 35% of related contributions on fund raising. Related contributions include donations, legacies, and other gifts received as a result of fund-raising efforts.
  • Spend at least 65% of its total expenses on program activities.


These are minimum standards. Most legit charities should, and do, spend a much higher proportion of their expenses on legitimate program activities. No responsible organization should allow big-profit fund-raising companies to represent it.

If you are determined to donate to the nonprofit organization, try this: Ask the Fund-raiser how much of the proceeds go to the nonprofit. Let’s say the amount is 25 percent. Instead of giving the Fund-raiser a $20 payment, send the nonprofit five bucks directly. Your total contribution will equal the amount it would have collected from the Fund-raiser and you will save yourself three-fourths of what you would have “donated.”

But never contribute to an organization that gets a flat fee up front. In that situation the nonprofit has already received its payoff from the Fund-raiser. So whatever you contribute goes into the fund-raiser’s pocket.

Here’s one more twist on the Fund-raiser appeal. Sometimes the caller will tell you about a special event the Association is putting on for disadvantaged kids. It might be a circus or a rodeo (there’s nothing quite as entertaining as animal abuse to amuse children) or a holiday party. Don’t be fooled. The Fund-raiser still gets most of the money and the one such rodeo I witnessed was pitiful.