Heritage for the Blind sent these items to a BBB employee who asked for help for a sight-impaired relative.
Better Business Bureau is advising motorists 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 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 19-year-old, Brooklyn, N.Y.,-based charity raised $14 million in the five years prior to January 2013, according to Form 990 reports to the Internal Revenue Service. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 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:
Potentially misleading advertising. The charity’s mailers and other promotional literature asking for car donations refer to a “free 3-day vacation voucher,” “free vacation vouchers” and a “free vacation” for those donating vehicles. However, the company that is partnering with Heritage for the Blind to provide the vouchers says, “there are fees associated with this offer so obviously this is not a ‘free’ trip. Our offers generally are 70 to 90 percent off the going retail rate.”
Omission of important information on the charity’s website. Based on reports to the IRS, one of the charity’s programs involves the production of large-print publications. It appears that most of those publications are religious materials distributed to the Jewish nonprofit group, Jewish Heritage for the Blind. That information is not included on the charity’s website.
Donations to a family member’s nonprofit organization. In its most recent 990 report, Heritage for the Blind reports that it donated $110,000 in large-type religious publications to Jewish Heritage for the Blind. The disclosure notes a family relationship between the two groups but does not detail the relationship. Rabbi David Toiv is listed as director of Jewish Heritage for the Blind. Neither Jewish Heritage for the Blind nor Heritage for the Blind has responded to BBB requests for information.
Heritage for the Blind’s business relationship with the medical alert company Freedom Phone, a business owned by Shrage Toiv. While the exact nature of the relationship is unclear, Heritage for the Blind notes that it provides “freedom care phone services for those in need.” Freedom Phone is owned by Shrage Toiv and it is unclear whether Freedom Phone donates the medical devices or sells them to the charity.
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 repeatedly has 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 16 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 73-year-old national nonprofit that works as an advocate for the blind. Its past president, Mark 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 National Federation of the Blind.
In October 2012, 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:
- Research the charity, making sure it is tax-exempt and asking what programs will be supported by your donation. The charity should be able to provide detailed information about the charity’s operations. Tax-exempt charities have an ethical obligation to be transparent with the public.
- Find out how the charity benefits financially from the resale of the car.
- For tax records, take a photo of the car and keep copies of current classified ads or guide value estimates for similar vehicles. (For more deductibility information, get a copy of IRS Publication 561, “Determining the Value of Donated Property.”)
- Understand deductibility details. Most cars donated to charity are sold at auction, and the donor’s tax deduction is limited to the gross proceeds from the sale. The charity must provide that amount to the donor in writing. Donors can claim the car’s full fair market value only in certain conditions, such as when a charity uses a car in its program or gives it to needy individuals.
- Check IRS guidelines in A Donor’s Guide to Car Donations (Publication 4303), at www.irs.gov/pub/irs-pdf/p4303.pdf. If you are claiming a car donation of over $500, you will need to complete and attach IRS Form 8283 to your tax return. If the car is worth more than $5,000, you will need a written professional appraisal.
- Transfer the car’s title to the charity’s name and keep a copy of this record. The title change will help you avoid potential problems if the car is somehow parked illegally by the organization or is involved in an accident or other mishap before the charity sells it.
Check out a charity by going to www.bbb.org or call (314) 645-3300.