From the Editor: For several years now members of the National Federation of the Blind have been hearing advertisements about Heritage for the Blind. Being familiar with most service providers and charities in work with the blind, many of us have called this organization, only to find those answering our calls to be quite vague about program offerings. Generally we are asked to leave a number and promised a callback. If we get one, we find that we are offered no specific services but instead are referred to other organizations, foremost among them the National Federation of the Blind. Our research suggests that Heritage for the Blind provides little if anything in the way of direct services, and it appears others share our concern about a charity that has so much money that it can afford to purchase commercial rates on the major radio networks, offer free vacations to its donors, and still purport to have money left over to provide services to blind people. Here is what the Better Business Bureau had to say about them on September 11, 2014, in a press release that ran on their website and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch <STLtoday.com>:
Better Business Bureau (BBB) is advising motorists who are planning to donate vehicles to charity to consider alternatives to Heritage for the Blind, a national charity that has been soliciting car donations in the St. Louis area.
The charity recently sent mailers to area residents asking for vehicle donations. The mailers urge recipients to “provide help for the visually impaired” by calling a toll-free number and arranging to donate their vehicles to the organization. The ads show a Heritage for the Blind truck towing a car and suggest that potential donors ask about a free three-day vacation voucher. BBB believes the ads have the capacity to mislead consumers. In addition, BBB also warns that the charity omits important information on its website and fails to adequately explain how it is spending its money.
Charity officials have declined to respond to BBB requests for information. “BBB has tried to get Heritage for the Blind to open up about where its money is going without success,” said Michelle Corey, BBB president and CEO. “This organization has said, basically, that it is too much trouble to respond. When a tax-exempt charity that solicits the public takes that position, it is a cause for concern.”
The nineteen-year-old, Brooklyn, New York-based charity raised $14 million in the five years prior to January 2013, according to Form 990 reports to the Internal Revenue Service. From January 1 to December 31, 2012, the most recent information available, the charity reported nearly $4.2 million in contributions. Almost all of the money came from its vehicle donation program. The IRS records show brothers Shrage and Steven Toiv, the charity’s top-paid employees, received salaries of $135,000 each that year.
Heritage for the Blind has not responded to requests for information from BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance. As a result BBB has been unable to determine whether the charity meets BBB’s Standards for Charity Accountability. Charity participation in a review is voluntary, but BBB encourages participation to demonstrate transparency and strengthen public trust. The charity also declined to discuss its operations in an email to St. Louis BBB, saying, in part: “Heritage for the Blind is in full compliance with all statutes and regulations of every state in the nation, as well as those of the Internal Revenue Service, and is current with all required filings. However, as much as we may like to, Heritage for the Blind simply does not have the resources to respond to every detailed request we may receive from non-governmental groups and organizations.”
In its 990 IRS report and information on its website, Heritage for the Blind says it produces and distributes large-print and Braille religious and non-religious publications, operates a phone referral and support program, offers educational information to consumers, and provides a medical alert service called “Freedom Carephone.” However, it has declined to release any details on how much money is going to each program and who it is serving. Specific BBB concerns include:
Heritage for the Blind’s IRS 990 report for 2012 says that the charity spent nearly $3.9 million that year, with $1.8 million allocated to fundraising, and $1.7 million allocated to program services. But BBB says Heritage for the Blind has repeatedly declined to detail its program service expenditures. Carole Bellman, St. Louis BBB’s director of charity review, said the charity’s refusal to break down where its money is going means that donors are left to wonder how the money is being spent. “For people to be able to trust a charity, they have to know how their money is being used,” she said. “Any charity that keeps that information secret is doing a disservice to itself and donors.”
A BBB employee phoned the charity requesting assistance for a sight-impaired relative. A charity representative told her that it could help her access a variety of services, including books for the sight-impaired, help with technology, monetary grants, and a folding white cane. The charity then sent a packet of information that included two “talking alarm” key chains (wholesale cost $2 to $6), a plastic “vision simulator card” (distributed by the Ohio Optometric Association), a Braille alphabet card (produced by American Foundation for the Blind), and a listing of St. Louis area organizations that assist the blind and visually impaired.
In June 2010 New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that Heritage for the Blind was among sixteen charities, fundraisers, and individuals subpoenaed as part of what he called a wide-ranging investigation of the charitable car donation industry. An official with the attorney general’s office said last week that he is “not aware of anything current in regards to Heritage for the Blind.”
National Federation of the Blind is a seventy-three-year-old national nonprofit that works as an advocate for the blind. Its past president, Marc Maurer, said he had worked with several staff members of his organization trying to research Heritage for the Blind. “We have been trying to track down what they do, with no success,” he said. He said researchers who called the organization for help often were referred to the National Federation of the Blind.
In October 2012 the National Federation of the Blind of Minnesota asked that Heritage for the Blind stop fundraising in that state until it registers with the Minnesota attorney general’s office and “demonstrates . . . that it actually provides useful services to blind Minnesotans.” It also called on media outlets to cease carrying the charity’s advertisements until it met those conditions.
BBB has these tips to consumers considering donating a vehicle to charity: