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Charity gets backlash over fees charged to volunteers

Nov. 23, 2013 - 09:22AM   |  
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A charity formed in 2003 to send care packages to deployed troops is in turmoil as many of its volunteers protest a new policy forcing them to donate money each month in order to participate.

Soldiers’ Angels on Nov. 1 began requiring volunteers to donate $1 a month, preferably by credit card, in order to receive access to lists of troops, including chaplains, who have requested packages, cards and letters.

“I don’t see why we have to pay to volunteer since we pay for all the stuff that we put into the packages, and the postage to send those packages to the troops,” said Cyndi Fisher, who has been sending packages on behalf of the charity since 2006.

“When we signed up originally, we had to be verified, and most of us have been doing this for years,” Fisher said.

Soldiers’ Angels’ Chief Executive Officer Ann Davidson referred questions about the new policty to Amy Palmer, a volunteer for the group.

Palmer said the fee is necessary to “verify” the charity’s volunteers.

“It’s our responsibility to protect the data of service members and their families. We thought this was the safest way to ensure those people are verified,” Palmer said.

“There are other volunteer opportunities in other capacities” that don’t require verification, she said, while still other volunteers may need more verification, such as background checks, depending on the work they do.

Palmer is a co-founder of another well known military charity, Operation Homefront. She served for 11 years as chief development officer and chief programs and field operations officer for that charity, but was fired Sept. 17 for alleged discrepancies in documentation involving the whereabouts of about $36,000 in donated items.

Palmer has since filed a lawsuit against Operation Homefront alleging wrongful termination, alleging that the charity fired her for refusing to sign off on and submit “inaccurate and unlawful” reports to donors.

Although the amount Soldiers’ Angels is charging volunteers is small to some, the move still doesn’t sit well with a number of volunteers who have willingly contributed out of their own pockets to support an effort to boost troop morale, Fisher said, adding that some Soldiers’ Angels volunteers have chosen to work with other organizations rather than pay the fee.

In tallying up the receipts that she still has, Fisher said, she’s able to account for at least $1,611.93 that she has spent on care packages and postage.

Since Fisher has refused to pay the $1 a month, she said she no longer can get lists of names of troops who have requested packages.

Charity Navigator, a nonpfofit evaluator of charities, does not specifically track whether a charity requires fees from volunteers.

But Sandra Miniutti, spokeswoman and chief financial officer of Charity Navigator, said she has not seen “anything like this.”

She noted that the practice is not illegal, and that some charities might ask volunteers for donations, but not require it. “The volunteers are already paying [to send packages]. What is the charity providing? It doesn’t pass the smell test,” she said.

Charity Navigator’s current rating for Soldiers’ Angels is two stars out of four. The group has received consistently low ratings because its finances are poor on the sustainability side and its fundraising costs “are a little on the high side,” at 17 percent, Miniutii said. Most charities spend 10 percent or less of their revenue on fundraising.

Palmer defended the fees as a way to help weed out certain volunteers. In the past, she said, some volunteers who were removed after soldiers complained about them for various reasons, such as sending expired food or anti-war material, later returned under false names.

Prior to implenetation of the fees, about 175,000 people were in the Soldiers’ Angels volunteer database, which would add up to about $1.2 million a year for the group’s coffers if that number of volunteers all donated $1 a month.

But many of those names and their contact information were not current or valid, Palmer said. A “few thousand” volunteers remain in the database because they have paid, or their fees have been waived or paid by another donor, she added.

Soldiers’ Angels intends to put the revenue from the fees back into the group’s teams that provide a variety of services, such as baking homemade treats, supporting medically-evacuated wounded troops, and supporting hospitalized veterans, Palmer said.

“In the past, they haven’t had money for offsetting some costs of traveling or shipping” for those types of activities, she said.

Palmer acknowledged that the new fee policy sparked many complaints when it was first announced, adding that volunteers have been generally frustrated because “they’ve had an up-and-down experience” with the group in recent years.

Soldiers’ Angels has had some financial hardships that have led to the layoff of some employees and the closure of an office in San Antonio, for example.

Donations also are down, from $8.6 million in 2011 to $5.9 million in 2012. “I’m a volunteer,” Palmer said. “I know it’s frustrating because there hasn’t been consistency. We’re trying to restore order to the organization.”

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