Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Friends of MS Does Little to Help People With MS

After I was first diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, I naturally sought for support. I soon came into contact with the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Founded in 1946, the NMSS is a "non-profit organization, and its network of chapters nationwide help people affected by multiple sclerosis by funding research, driving change through advocacy, facilitating professional education, and providing programs and services that help people with multiple sclerosis and their families" (see Wikipedia article).

The NMSS is a legitimate charity. Per this Charity Navigator report, about 20% of revenues go to administrative overhead while the rest goes to the research, advocacy, education, and assistance programs/services mentioned above. The three out of four star rating isn't the highest, but it's pretty good. This review gives the NMSS 20 for 20 on charitable accountability and governance.

When I was first diagnosed more than 2½ decades ago it was widely thought that a cure for MS was perhaps a decade away. Thanks to organizations like the NMSS we now know a lot more about the disease. It's far more complex than was thought a generation ago. But better treatments and interventions have been found so that the average person with MS is living better than at anytime in known history.

I used to participate in the MS Walk fundraising event annually. But as our family expanded, the event always ended up conflicting with other charitable activities. The first time we were contacted by an organization called Friends of MS (no website found) to give used clothes, we thought it would be a good alternative to the annual MS Walk fundraiser. However, over time I started to hear some sketchy things about Friends of MS and we discontinued our donations to that organization.

This KSL report puts some meat on the bones of those suspicions. Last year the Better Business Bureau dinged Friends of MS for tiny charity payouts (see 11/18/2014 article). This Charity Navigator report gives Friends of MS zero of four stars. In 2013 administrative and overhead costs consumed 84% of revenues and only $6,000 went to the NMSS. Fundraising consumed 67% of revenues. It looks like the organization spent two-thirds of every dollar taken in to ask for more.

KSL reports that Friends of MS board member Robert Clark concurs that the amount of funds sent to NMSS and other MS charities in recent years has been paltry, due to "increased competition for clothing, rising transportation costs, and fewer landlines for the charity to call and solicit donations." He showed financial reports demonstrating that Friends of MS has given $1.8 million to the NMSS over a 15-year period.

I don't know how much revenue Friends of MS has garnered over the past 15 years. But let's assume that the annual average is at least equivalent to the $1.2 million reported in 2013, which Clark seems to suggest was a very bad year, making for a total of $18 million. That would mean that the organization has averaged only about 10% charity (and likely less). That is abysmally bad by any measure of non-profit charities. In contrast, most employers that allow charitable donations directly from their employees' paychecks screen out non-profits whose charitable efforts amount to less than 75% of revenues.

Clark says, "Every dollar we raise is going to help people here, that work here." Many for-profit businesses could say the same thing. Clark seems to be implying that Friends of MS employees are charity cases, so that you should feel fine about the majority of your donations going to their paychecks. But most people that consider donating to Friends of MS are likely thinking research and aid programs, not fundraiser paychecks.

While Clark "is extremely proud of how the charity fulfills its mission of helping people with MS," donors should be fully aware of how their donations are being used. If you're interested, you might want to read the full KSL article to see how the tight relationship between Friends of MS and the for-profit thrift store Savers works.

Those that are interested in donating to fund MS research and services/programs for people with MS should donate to charities such as the NMSS that have a good track record of spending the bulk of their revenues on these important functions. Perhaps you could agree to fund a co-worker or a friend that is participating in the annual MS bike ride or walk. If you prefer to make sure that most of your donations go to pay fundraising expenses, then Friends of MS looks like a good option for you.

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