Non-Profits, Fundraising, and ‘Support Our Troops’
If you received a flyer that said “send money to support the troops,” for what would you expect the money to be used?
A quick web search reveals that the phrase is generally used by those who have a history of material military support (like the USO). When other groups use the phrase “support our troops” for fundraising, they generally give specifics as to how the funds will be used. For example, they may send care packages, provide services for wounded warriors, buy phone cards, or provide material support for deployed servicemembers’ families.
In one such example, Jolt makes a “caffeine-energy gum”–it is admittedly not a “normal” “support the troops”-type group. But it advertised with exactly that phrase, and Jolt was explicit about how the funds would be used, even listing the specific organizations that would receive their donations:
Obviously, Jolt is not a charity. When charities invoke the “support our troops” mantra, it draws an emotional response, particularly in today’s world. That’s part of the reason donors are cautioned, even by some government agencies, to research an organization before giving. For example, Charity Navigator, a respected reviewer of non-profit organizations, says
Many people wish to honor the brave men and women who serve our country in the armed forces…With so many charities engaged in these endeavors you may wonder how you can find one to trust to spend your money wisely…These organizations provide various services from lifting soldiers’ morale to financial assistance for food, rent, utilities and medical expenses.
We caution you to look carefully before choosing one of these charities to support as not all operate with equal efficiency. Those with the highest ratings have demonstrated their exceptional financial health. Donors can be confident that contributions made to the higher rated charities will be spent efficiently as these charities have low overhead and fundraising costs enabling them to use more of their resources in carrying out their mission.
On the other hand, the low rated charities do not operate efficiently. Much of the money donors give to those organizations ends up in the hands of for-profit fundraisers, not the brave women and men of the United States’ military and their families.
Of note, Charity Navigator does not list or review every possible non-profit organization.
While there does not appear to be a legal restriction on using “Support Our Troops” for fundraising, those who give should ensure their donations are used as they expect.
For example, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation recently advertised a “Bowling for the Troops”/”Support Our Troops Bowl-a-Thon” fundraiser with the explicit statement that
All proceeds go to MRFF for the express purpose of supporting the troops. (emphasis added)
Like Jolt, the MRFF is not an organization whose “express purpose” is to “support the troops” in the traditionally understood way. For example, nowhere on its website does the MRFF say that it provides support for the troops in any material or immaterial way. The advertisements for the fundraiser also failed to specify for what “express purpose” the donations would used to “support the troops.”
There’s nothing wrong with raising funds for the troops, of course. Any organization of any purpose is free to raise funds to provide support for American servicemembers. However, as noted above, it is reasonable to expect that they will say how they are going to support the troops—so that it is clear the funds are for the troops, and not merely padding the organization’s coffers.
Since the MRFF failed to publicly say for what purpose they would use donations, they were asked what they were going to do to “support the troops.” They sent a defensive and somewhat unclear reply:
MRFF’s mission of protecting the troops from coercive evangelizing and proselytizing is as much an effort to “support the troops” as the Evangelicals and proselytizers say their mission is.
It would seem, then, that the MRFF isn’t planning to do anything unique to “support the troops,” such as send care packages or buy phone cards, etc., as other organizations that raise funds to “support the troops” do. Instead, the funds will simply be used to further the MRFF’s day-to-day efforts. The most public face of the MRFF is its lawsuits against the military. Thus, the “Support Our Troops Bowl-a-Thon” appears to be aimed at raising funds to support the MRFF’s legal actions against the Department of Defense.
The MRFF’s connection between the common phrase “support our troops” and its mission of litigation is somewhat unusual. Few people probably expect that the self-described “agitation and litigation” organization “supports the troops” in any stereotypical way. This makes it vulnerable to the accusation that it is misusing an emotional appeal for “the troops” as a vehicle for fundraising.
Had it chosen to do so, it could easily have eliminated any misperception by saying
“Support our Troops: Contribute to our legal efforts against religious coercion in the military”
or anything that indicated the funds they were requesting would support their litigation, not provide material support for American servicemembers.
Non-profit organizations do have legal obligations not to misrepresent their objectives under state laws. However, there does not appear to be a legal requirement that they explicitly state what they intend to do with the donations they receive. Discovering their purpose is left to the discerning judgment of the individual contributor.
Notably, despite its constant cries for financing, the MRFF is hardly strapped for cash. It has raised six figure sums every year, including more than $500,000 in 2007. It paid its President, Michael Weinstein, 45% of its income in 2006. It is also worth noting that by some measures of Charity Navigator’s publicly listed ratings system, the MRFF would be ranked in the bottom 10% of non-profits, earning zero stars due to inefficiency with its donations. (Charity Navigator has not reviewed the MRFF.)