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Phone solicitors ring up mixed signals

When callers asked for money to benefit the Humane Society of North Pinellas, local residents did not hesitate. They sent in $179,406.

But only $41,190 _ about 23 cents on the dollar _ actually went to the Humane Society, according to county records.

The rest of the money went to a professional telephone solicitation company and to pay certain expenses. The professional fund-raising company hired the staff to make the calls and handled the details of the campaign.

Collecting 23 percent of the donations may not sound like a good return, but the Humane Society is not alone.

Many charities are using professional telephone solicitation firms. Even though it often means that for-profit companies are raising more money than the charities themselves, the charities say they can't turn down the income this process provides.

Several charities use the professional soliciting companies because they find it difficult to attract enough fund-raising volunteers, said Mary Helen Shelton, a consumer services consultant for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. The fact that more women are working probably is a factor, she said.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that people used to be able to use volunteers," she said. "Anymore, they have to rely on having (paid) people do it for them, in a lot of cases."

There is nothing illegal about a for-profit company taking 80 percent or more of the money it raises for a charity. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that states could not limit their take, Shelton said.

"It could be as little as 1 percent," she said.

Rick Chaboudy, executive director of the Humane Society of North Pinellas, said the organization used this approach reluctantly in a yearlong campaign that ended in February.

"To be quite honest with you, everyone had problems with doing the phone solicitation," he said.

But on the other hand, he pointed out that non-profit organizations that rely on volunteers have a difficult time raising money in normal times, let alone in an era of recession.

Normally, the society's year-round volunteer fund-raising efforts bring in about $50,000.

With the professional firm, "this was an opportunity for us to make in one shot the type of money we make almost year round," Chaboudy said.

The money now is paying for a $42,000 project to add more space for the animals and isolation rooms for dogs and cats that need to be separated from others.

"There's still that stigma to it, and I don't know if we're going to do it in the future," Chaboudy said. "I think we will."

The state Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) will also. The organization hires Veterans Fundraiser Inc., which phones residents in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties regularly, asking people to buy trash bags, first-aid kits, flags and other items.

The callers say that a portion of the proceeds will go to the VFW to build a veterans home in Fort McCoy near Ocala.

A portion does _ 10 cents on every dollar.

In contrast, 48 cents of every dollar contributed goes to pay the professional staff of Veterans Fundraiser Inc., according to records filed in Pinellas County. The rest goes to pay for the cost of products and other expenses.

However, another benefit of the arrangement is that the for-profit fund-raising company hires a lot of veterans to do its work, said Ayaz Furniturewalla, the company's Florida district manager.

"It's a way of getting them jobs."

Besides, he says, VFW officials wouldn't agree to the arrangement if they didn't think it benefited them.

"We don't force them to come to us," he said.

Boyn Inc. is another professional fund-raising company that works in Pinellas, raising money for the Vietnam Veterans of America. It gives 20 cents of every dollar it raises to the veterans organization.

William Klase, president of the Florida West Coast Chapter of the veterans organization, thinks the arrangement is reasonable.

"Out of that 80 percent, they have to pay salaries, they have to pay office expenses," he said.

Of the 20 percent the veterans organization receives, he said at least half will go toward helping needy veterans.

Not every charity is pleased with its fund-raiser.

Dee Smith, past president of the Dunedin Jaycees, said she was impressed when a Sarasota company called Events International offered to collect money so local children could see a "kids against drugs" display.

It sounded like a great plan. The company would phone area residents for donations. The donations would pay the expenses of setting up the display and also provide money to the Jaycees. The Jaycees planned to donate 100 percent of their share to two charities, a youth ranch in Palatka and the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis.

The first problem was the display itself, which came to Dunedin one day in March.

"When that thing came to town, I was so embarrassed," Smith said. "It was terrible." She said that the display was crude, and that the televisions and lights in the display didn't work.

The next problem was the financial accounting. She was supposed to get weekly financial reports about the progress of the fund-raising campaign but said she is missing several reports. At this point, she said, she has no idea how much money has been raised for the charities.

She said she would definitely be cautious about using a professional telephone solicitation firm again.

Jim Nordmark, president of Events International, did not return phone calls for comment on the Dunedin case last week.

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