Editorial: Tighten rules on charity solicitors

Under Adam Putnam’s plan, Florida would dramatically increase public disclosure of the inner workings of charities.
Under Adam Putnam’s plan, Florida would dramatically increase public disclosure of the inner workings of charities.
Published March 28, 2014

Tallahassee must be doing something right when the best argument an industry can muster against new regulations for charities is that it doesn't want the rules to apply to calls for money that go out of state. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam's plan to tighten up how charities and their for-profit solicitors operate in Florida is advancing in the Legislature, but state lawmakers cannot get sidetracked by special interests with no interest in protecting donors. It's time to shed the state's reputation as a haven for dubious charities and their partners, no matter where they get their donations.

Twice in the last month, groups representing the direct solicitation industry have sent warning signs that their members need to fight the reforms, SB 638 and HB 629, aimed at tightening Florida's porous charity statutes. They have argued, among other things, that the least the state could do is lessen the proposed regulations for calls that won't go to Floridians — even if the calls originate from Florida.

That position is a subtle acknowledgement of how some members of this for-profit industry have paired with so-called charities to exploit Florida's spineless regulations to rake in millions. As last year's "50 Worst Charities" investigation by the Tampa Bay Times/Center for Investigative Reporting documented, such groups prey on people's good intentions as they raise large amounts of money. Then they spend most of the contributions on their own salaries or solicitation costs. The Times/CIR report found that of the 50 worst offenders across the nation, 11 were based in Florida.

Under Putnam's plan, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, Florida would dramatically increase public disclosure of the inner workings of charities and solicitors. The legislation also would clarify when the state has the power to shut them down, including when they are banned in other states.

Among the chief complaints of the for-profit solicitation industry? The bill would require each employee making charity solicitation calls to submit to fingerprinting and a background check for a $100 registration fee — finally giving the state a way to enforce an existing law prohibiting such firms from hiring felons. The legislation also would require firms to provide copies of solicitation scripts, the locations and phone numbers from which calls are to be made, and details about what percentage of funds raised actually flow to the charity.

The changes also would shine a spotlight on those charities that raise lots of money but don't spend much helping others. Charities raising at least $1 million annually that spend less than 25 percent of their proceeds on charity would have to submit detailed reports on where the money went. That information and more would be available in a new online database, enabling Floridians to better investigate a charity before giving.

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Putnam has worked diligently with nonprofits in Florida to try to ensure the new regulations would not be too burdensome on reputable charities, and many charities have signed on in support. Now the full House and Senate and Gov. Rick Scott need to embrace these reforms as well. It's time to force the bad actors out of Florida.