Tens of thousands of people from around the world made donations for the families of five officers who were killed during a march and demonstration in Dallas, Texas, on July 7, 2016. But most of the money never made its way to the widows and children, according to a report by the Dallas Morning News.
The officers were shot by a sniper during a protest concerning police who killed two men – one in Louisiana, the other in Minnesota – just days earlier.
As money poured into city hall, the task of managing it was handed to the Assist the Officer Foundation, a long-standing charity run by the Dallas Police Association.
Since the killings, millions of dollars wound up at two other charities linked to the police department, according to the report. Police Sgt. Demetrick Pennie runs those charities: the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation.
The news outlet’s investigation found that most of the money raised in fact went to three telemarketing companies, one of which is owned by Pennie’s friend. And Pennie pocketed “tens of thousands of dollars.”
In all, the officers’ families received just 22 percent of the total $3.2 million donated to Pennie’s two charities in 2016 and 2017, the Dallas Morning News’ review of IRS filings found.
The Better Business Bureau recommends that charities “spend no more than $35 of every $100 from donors on fundraising costs such as telemarketers,” the report stated.
Where did the money go?
Last year, out of every $100 donated to Pennie’s Texas Fallen Officer Foundation, $5 went to families. The rest includes $74 for telemarketing, $15 to cash reserves and $6 for expenses for Pennie and his team.
For the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation, every $100 donated last year saw $10 going to fallen officers’ families. Additionally, $48 went to telemarketers, $25 to cash reserves and $17 to travel, salaries and other expenses, the report states.
The Better Business Bureau told the new outlet at least 65 percent of a nonprofit’s spending should go toward its core mission.
“Last year, the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation and the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation allocated just 6 percent and 13 percent of their spending, respectively, toward helping families,” according to the report.
The report concluded that the practices are “far out of line” when compared to the IRS filings of other police charities for metropolitan police charities.
The so-called charity work is helping Pennie.
He was paid $43,300 from funds donated to the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation, according to IRS records obtained by the news outlet. He also earns a $89,400 salary from the police department. The foundation also paid $37,900 to its vice president, Sonia Godinez. And $12,600 was spent on travel, although records do not provide details.
How was this defended?
Pennie defended his salary, saying he dedicates more than 20 hours per week for charity. He also explained that his non-profits are only a few years old, and telemarketing is a way attract donations that otherwise wouldn’t be raised.
If donors ask, telemarketers are required to explain how much will go to the charity, according to Pennie.
“We need a constant revenue stream coming in,” Pennie told the Dallas Morning News. “Doing the barbecues and stuff like that wasn’t working. Having the fundraisers doing the phone soliciting — that works best for what we need.”
He also pointed to the impact he has had by holding events for families of fallen officers, such as taking them to see movies, throwing Christmas parties and other events.
But two experts who reviewed IRS filings from Pennie’s charities were alarmed at how little the Dallas Fallen Officer Foundation and the Texas Fallen Officer Foundation allocates to police families.
“This is crazy,” Erica Harris, a Villanova University professor who studies nonprofit accounting, told the Dallas Morning News. “They’re spending all this money to call up people to try and get more money and then they barely use any of the money to do what they say they’re going to do.”
Spending a large amount on telemarketing is often an inefficient use of cash and it’s misleading to donors because they don’t realize that most of their money going to telemarketing firms and not victims' families.
“That is a violation of the charitable ethos,” Doug White, a philanthropy adviser and former head of Columbia University’s fundraising management program, said.