Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida charity begins at home; ends up in New Jersey

Once upon a time, before privatization became the great and holy watchword of state government, United Way ran the Florida State Employees Charitable Campaign.

Maybe United Way didn’t run the tight operation the Rick Scott administration wanted. According to United Way, about 22 percent of the money raised through state worker contributions went to administrative costs. The state Department of Management Services claimed it was closer to 29 percent.

So in 2013, Solix, a private, for-profit outfit out of New Jersey was hired to manage the campaign. No doubt, Solix was expected to bring private sector efficiency to a flabby enterprise run by a bunch of do-gooders.

Solix proved efficient, indeed, when it came to sucking profits out of state employees’ benevolence.

Last month, the Tallahassee Democrat reported that Solix kept 47 percent of the employees’ donations in 2013 — $470,470 out of $990,815 raised. Last year, Solix snagged 51 cents for every dollar donated.

The company countered that it has reduced the total dollar amount going to administrative costs. Except that’s because worker donations have dwindled precipitously, down from $2.66 million in 2011 to $407,677 last year. Leaving only $206,312 for actual charities — while the Solix percentage keeps going up. The Democrat estimated that under the sweet contract Solix negotiated with the state, the company will keep two-thirds of the money donated this year.

What makes the report so jarring is that Florida enacted much ballyhooed legislation last year that was supposed to crack down on operators who pocket unseemly percentages from charitable fundraising. The new laws followed an investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Tampa Bay Times finding that Florida harbored 11 of the 50 most unscrupulous charitable fundraisers in the country. For instance, the Florida-based Kids Wish Network — not to be confused with the Make-A-Wish Foundation — funneled all but 2.5 percent of the $137 million it had raised in the previous decade to its corporate fund-raising arm.

State law now bars telemarketers with criminal backgrounds from hitting up Floridians for charitable donations. Fundraisers who’ve been banned in other states can no longer move their operations to Florida. The state now runs a “Gift Giver’s Guide” website where consumers can check charitable solicitors against the actual percentage of donations that go into their charitable services.

We need it. The AARP just released a survey revealing that 70 percent of the Americans who’ve given money to charities over the last 12 months failed to ask how the money was going to be spent. The survey found 60 percent made donations without verifying whether the fundraiser was even legally authorized in their state.

Too often, it’s enough that an operation has a clever name. Who would know, without checking, that in 2010 the Cancer Fund of America (not the American Cancer Society) paid out 13 times more money for executive salaries than it spent on actual cancer patients.

And who would ever imagine that less than half the charitable contributions collected from Florida state workers would actually go to charity?