(Less Than) Transparent Fundraising: Is This Ever Okay?


Last night on Valentines’s Day, the All Need Love Festival took place in Chicago. Held at the Field Museum it was supported by a PR machine – in less than one month they had built a very strong social media presence, had successfully reached out to and partnered with dozens of media outlets and had worked out a deal with Groupon to help in ticket sales.

I noticed the social media buzz and had seen it mentioned in the Chicago Tribune and The Sun Times. The All Need Love “profile” on foursquare had even sent me a friend request. Still, I didn’t pay too much attention because it fell on my cause community’s awareness day.

Once my work day was done last night I went on their site to figure out what exactly it was. On the bottom of the page along with the logos for the event sponsors and partners I noticed a logo I recognized, SFK: Success for Kids. They used to be named Spirituality For Kids and I had contributed to a project of theirs, Kids Creating Peace, in the past.

Naturally I wondered how they were involved…there was no mention on the home page that a portion of proceeds from this event would benefit a charity, no mention on the information page for tickets and no mention on the purchase page for tickets (priced from $96-$260). The event site has 10 pages and I didn’t notice it anywhere.  I tweeted them to ask, emailed their press contact and called the event hotline. No luck. I checked their facebook page and their tweet stream. Not a single word about it. I went back to the event website and finally found a page that mentioned a portion of proceeds would benefit SFK.

To be honest, at first I thought this was an interesting tactic. SFK was founded in 2001 as a related entity to The Kabbalah Centre. I knew that SFK had been working to make the public perception of the organization less about The Kabbalah Centre because they felt they could raise more money and make bigger impact that way. In January of 2010 they officially reorganized as a separate 501 (c) 3, but the staff, Board of Directors and programs didn’t change in any way and they are still headquartered at the Los Angeles Kabbalah Centre.

It almost seemed smart to market the event to people that weren’t just Kabbalah Centre students. Almost.

I want to say that I have no bias against Kabbalah. I have studied it and as I mentioned, I contributed to SFK in the past. But that’s not true for everyone. There are many orthodox Jews I know who would rather die than support anything related to Kabbalah and more specifically, The Kabbalah Centre. I know a fair amount of people of other faiths who feel the same way (and would about any spiritual practice not their own).

Whether it’s “right” to feel that way is a matter for debate, but what is not up for debate is that religion and our spiritual beliefs are held more sacrosanct than most anything else.

I asked people via twitter how they would feel about buying tickets to an event they weren’t aware was a fundraiser. Not a single person felt positively about this and that was without mention of what kind of charity the fundraiser might be for. What almost everyone said was “what if it was for a cause I didn’t support?”

That is why this situation is not okay. People want to know what their money is supporting and they want to agree to that first.

Did the event organizers lie? No. But their transparency was less than admirable. I found some people who went to the event and asked them if they knew it was a fundraiser when they purchased the tickets, and then asked how transparent it was that a portion of proceeds would benefit SFK once they were at the event. Most people did not know it was a fundraiser. Many people just assumed it benefited The Field Museum if it had any beneficiary at all.

Then I asked people how the event was marketed to them…and that’s how I found out that some of the tickets had been sold outside of the event website through Groupon. The Groupon page for this event is even less than transparent than the All Need Love website! It simply says “portion of proceeds goes to charity”.

This really surprised me. By not posting which charity it benefits Groupon is aiding the event organizers in keeping this information as quiet as possible. That Groupon doesn’t seem to have a policy in place when it comes to charitable events is problematic, and considering the amount of negative press they’ve gotten lately it’s also not prudent.

Again, no one involved with this event  is lying but they’re not telling the whole truth either. Do they have a legal obligation to? No. But that doesn’t make it ethical. Because the charity the event supported is so closely tied to a spiritual belief system I find it especially unethical.

I don’t think it’s ever okay to gain support for a cause through deception cloaked in omission. What about you? Would you ever do this at your organization?



10 thoughts on “(Less Than) Transparent Fundraising: Is This Ever Okay?

  1. Patrick Iwanicki says:

    After inspecting the “All Need Love” website, it appears that the fund raising aspect of the event is furtive to say the least. This strikes me as odd as many events heavily rely on the charitable angle as a pillar of the value proposition. Why are they not playing that up here?

    I’m sure the organizers did not anticipate someone with your keen sense of perception to ferret out their red herring.

    You certainly opened my eyes to something I would otherwise never consider…GOOD SLEUTHING!!

  2. Jen says:

    Estrella –
    While I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of transparency issues in the nonprofit sector, this situation reads to me as work of an overzealous event management company and web designer who do not understand the nature of nonprofit work.

    The fact of the matter is, the information about who the event supports is on the ‘About’ section of their website. Is it as big and bold as it should be? No. But it is there. I don’t think it is buried. I think it was create be a web designer who does not understand landing page, and above/below the fold. They read as being more worried about creating a visually pleasing site than a content driven site.

    The more important issue here is the relationship nonprofits have with organizations and/or volunteers who are selling their mission for them. We have all worked with over the top event planners, designer, or PR reps who get off mission and worry more about making a splash in their world versus meeting the needs of the NPO. Nonprofits need to feel empowered to step in and change direction, bringing focus back to the cause.

    Transparency is critical. If we are looking at transparency issues, let’s focus on organizations who represent themselves as a charity but do not have nonprofit status. Let’s question if organizations are really doing what they tell us they are doing, ensuring our donor dollars have impact.

    – Jen (@PhilanthropyInk)

    • charityestrella says:

      I can see how it would appear to be the work of an overzealous management company, except this overzealous management company *was* working closely with the organization. The headline speaker for the event was the leader of the Kabbalah Centre and his mother is the founder of the organization.

      The event management company isn’t new or naive, neither was the PR firm for this event and I doubt that someone who has orchestrated the kinds of events this event management company has had no input over content or design of the website.

      To Patrick’s point – and this is the only thing that initially struck me as odd – I’ve never seen an event that costs this much money not take as many opportunities as they can to note the proceeds will benefit a charity. We all know this helps increase value proposition for ticket buyers.

      I stared to think it was a little more odd that whoever runs their twitter account was online talking to and replying to many other people but ignoring my public tweets asking how SFK was involved, if they were the beneficiary and how much of the money went to them.

      If the website was the only place this wasn’t big and bold I wouldn’t have thought another minute about it, but you might also notice that almost none of the press regarding this event happens to note that it’s a fundraiser.

      I hear what you’re saying Jen – and I’m not saying they lied – I’m just saying they didn’t make it clear. That “about” page has two drop down menus. I had a few dozen people look at the site without telling them what to look for. Only two (and now three – you!) clicked the actual “about page” – the rest just clicked the drop downs or clicked other pages of the site (performers, etc) to get information about what would be taking place at the event.

      Even if we give SFK the benefit of a doubt (which we should!) they have an obligation to look over all materials regarding the event, including the website and press materials, to make sure it reflects their organization. That’s really my point – it’s not okay to just say “well, our event management company should have made that more clear”. I think that’s your point too and we don’t disagree there. Because SFK raises money almost exclusively through events they should know better, though.

      Whenever an event benefits a charity it should be overly clear to the ticket buyer. They shouldn’t have to go searching for that information.

      * on a side note, did you take a look at the SFK website? It speaks to your last paragraph. You’ve been in philanthropy a long time, Jen. How exactly does an organization that’s never filed a 990 claim that it’s consistently received a four-star rating from Charity Navigator?

      This kind of vague, let’s make sure the truth is in there but let’s cloak it in as much as we can attitude is pervasive throughout the organization.

      My biggest problem with that is that it’s not necessary – the work they do really is good, effective work and that’s how they should be fundraising: by promoting that. Not by hoping that people don’t go hunting through websites.

  3. stephanie baldwin says:

    I really appreciate your writing this piece. It is unfortunate, but I do see this unethical (and almost not legal) behavior in the non-profit world. The “giving” topic creates all sorts of opportunities for less than honorable people.
    Just one example: a person I know that sells trucks told me that buyers, while informing him of their needs, revealed that they owned numerous clothing drop off boxes (which we generally assume are “for charity”). Turns out they were quite well-off from taking these donations and selling them to third world countries; illegal-no, unethical-certainly.
    I admire your integrity.

  4. Debra Askanase says:

    Hi Estrella, as Patrick write, great sleuthing! Since I had not ever heard of SFK, I know that I would have missed that there is a nonprofit partner. I also think the fact that some of the proceeds benefit a nonprofit is missing is really a shame. I’ve also been on the nonprofit end when I worked at nonprofits where a company would just decide to donate proceeds to us but give us little to no notice or ability to suggest how the nonprofit would be represented at the event.

    That said, the one who lost here is the nonprofit partner, SFK: Success for Kids. As Jen mentions in her comment above, sometimes the nonprofit really has to speak up for themselves in cases like this. If The Kabbalah Center is trying to appeal to a broader audience, my gut tells me that partnering with The Field Museum would have been just the way to broaden that appeal without compromising the nonprofit’s visibility. (Again, we don’t know who had say over how things were presented.)

    In the end, my takeaways are: 1. nonprofits should create their own internal policies that dictate how they want any cause marketing partnership to reflect on the nonprofit organization 2. full transparency is always best in cause marketing partnerships, because that creates a win-win for all.

    I also think that the cause marketing relationship has innate tensions – the corporate partner wants to win CSR points with the public, the nonprofit wants to expand its donor base and attract funds through the cause partnership. In this case, the tensions show more than the partnership.


  5. Hope says:

    They are also backing out of their “Groupon promise” that states that if you are at all disappointing with Groupon, they will refund your money. I changed my mind about one groupon and was injured and couldn’t use the other and asked for the amount to be refunded. They refused because they said that they MEANT was that if you used it and weren’t satisfied, they would refund your money. Well, if that’s what they mean, that’s what they should say!

    To me saying FOR ANY REASON, means any reason . I’ve watched them grow since the beginning and am really bummed they are turning slimy.

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