NEW YORK -- On a milk carton or poster, or flashed across a television screen, few images are more haunting than the photograph of a missing child.
Dozens of nonprofit organizations, large and small, use such images to raise contributions, promising in return to help locate the vanished or solve their disappearance. Most perform valuable work.
But the realm of missing-children charities has another side, where the competition for funds is fierce and the fund-raising practices sometimes dubious.
How to be a savvy donor
Donors wishing to support a missing-children organization, or any other charity, can take steps to ensure their gift is well used. Some tips from charity watchdogs:
--If unfamiliar with the charity, request information on its finances and activities. Charities reluctant to provide copies of their annual report and their federal tax forms may have something to conceal.
--Check on how much of the charity's revenues go to its programs, as opposed to administrative and fund-raising costs.
--Find out about the charity's executive officers and board of directors. Who has oversight?
--Consult charity rankings put out by watchdog groups such as the American Institute of Philanthropy and the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
--Find out if information on a charity is available from state regulators, usually working under the secretary of state or attorney general.
--In the case of missing-children organizations, try to get verifiable details on the group's accomplishments. Does it primarily circulate photographs of missing children? Does it work closely with parents?
Source: Philanthropy Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
In the past year, three missing-children groups have been placed on "uncharitable charities" lists in South Carolina and Georgia because too little of their revenues went to their programs. A fourth group was ousted from a national coalition because of a dispute over its fund-raising methods. Some prominent groups complain that their data and photographs are used, without credit, by smaller groups seeking to impress potential donors.
Abuses occur in many charitable sectors, from cancer-related groups to law enforcement benevolent associations. But charity watchdogs say an emotional topic such as child abduction is particularly vulnerable to exploitation.
"If you are a dishonest fund-raiser or scammer, this is the kind of organization you're going to form," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "How can you not care about a missing child?"
The dominant organization in the field -- with a strong reputation for effectiveness and proper fund-raising -- is the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which operates under a congressional mandate.
The center's president, Ernie Allen, said unauthorized fund-raisers sometimes make improper use of his organization's name and data.
"Not to cast aspersions on groups doing good things," he said. "But it's relatively easy to declare yourself in the missing children's business. You circulate some photos of kids, you set up a table and do some fingerprinting in the mall."
Two missing-children groups were among 10 charities included recently on the annual "Scrooge" list issued by the South Carolina secretary of state's office.
One of the groups, the Committee for Missing Children Inc. of Lawrenceville, Ga., reported revenues of $2,988,779 in 1999, and spent $159,859 -- less than 6 percent -- on programs, according to South Carolina records.
David Thelen, who runs the Committee for Missing Children, said he was unable to get grants or government support, and was on the verge of closing down two years ago when he decided to sign up with a telemarketing firm that would keep 90 percent of the donations it raised.
"Anyone who says they like getting just 10 percent is a liar," Thelen said. "But I do so much with that 10 percent."
He said his organization works hard to distribute pictures of missing children and provide advice to parents involved in international abduction cases.
"We're not the enemy; we're not stealing people's money," Thelen said. "We're desperate to keep our doors open."
Also on the "Scrooge" list was Missing Kids International of McLean, Va. South Carolina officials said the organization in 1999 devoted 13 percent of its spending to programs, and paid chairman Don Iverson a $100,000 salary despite running a deficit.
"That's considered very little, if you're around Washington," Iverson said of his salary.
Iverson said he had put $1 million of his own money into his organization, which distributes missing-children profiles to television stations. He took credit for helping locate 406 children over the past four years.
Iverson's group gets contributions through an automobile-donation program; donors get a tax break for giving their car to a company that then pays his organization $200 per car.
A group that was on Georgia's 1999 "uncharitable charities" list -- Nation's Missing Children Organization of Phoenix -- also has shifted much of its fund-raising to automobile-donation after some bad experiences using commercial fund-raisers.
Kym Pasqualini, the organization's founder and president, said she is trying to get out of the last remaining contracts with outside fund-raisers. In 1999, according to Georgia records, two fund-raising companies kept 90 percent of the funds they collected for her group.
"Starting out, I didn't have all the knowledge of where and how to keep our doors open," she said.
Some outside fund-raisers do far better for their charity clients than others, sharing more than 50 percent of the revenue and providing advice on marketing strategies. But some solicitors, Pasqualini said, "are literally preying upon agencies that are having a hard time."
Pasqualini's efforts to overhaul her fund-raising practices have won praise from fellow members of a nationwide coalition known as AMECO -- the Association of Missing and Exploited Children's Organizations -- which is trying to enforce standards that will protect its members' reputations.
AMECO earlier this year ousted a group based in Portland, Ore., the National Missing Children's Locate Center, after a dispute over its fund-raising methods, which included a sweepstakes.
The center's vice president, Stephen A. Jenkevice Jr., contended that the dispute stemmed partly from resentment by other AMECO members when his group started to expand its own fund-raising efforts.
"Everyone's going around trying to get the same nickel," he said. "You can't find people to donate time anymore, so you have to pay people to raise money."
Most of the missing-children groups spend no more than a few hundred thousand dollars a year.
In contrast, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children spent almost $16 million in 1999, more than half of it from federal funding. It spends less than 10 percent of its budget on fund-raising, compared with some smaller groups -- in the missing-children field and other charitable sectors -- that often spend more than 80 percent.
AMECO's president, Jill LeMasurier, said some of the well-intentioned smaller groups feel their fund-raising ability is hampered by the National Center's dominance.
People considering donations to any missing-children organization should check out the financial records and try to verify claims regarding numbers of children found, advises Bennett Weiner, director of the Philanthropic Advisory Service of Council of Better Business Bureaus.
However, he said such verification can be difficult because photographs and information about the same missing child might be circulated by several groups. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says it is part of a network that has helped recover 50,000 children since 1984, though the actual investigations were handled by many law enforcement agencies.
Patty Wetterling, who started a missing-children foundation in Minnesota following the still-unsolved 1989 abduction of her son, said she finds any fund-raising abuses in the field inexcusable.
"When somebody else takes advantage of the sentiment and pays themselves a big salary, you can't feel any deeper fury," she said.
On the Net:
Better Business Bureau charity ratings: http://www.bbb.org/about/pas.asp
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: http://www.missingkids.com
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.