About 10 years ago, a fund-raising company went to the Town of Olean volunteer fire company with a proposition: "Let us raise money for you, and we'll do all the work."
"When we started out with them, we thought it was a great idea," Chief John Artlip said.
But when people around Olean learned that only 15 cents of every dollar collected was going toward firefighting equipment, they balked. Last year, so did the fire company.
"They were raking a huge amount of money off us," Artlip said.
When the department's contract expired with the Pennsylvania telemarketer, called North American Productions, the firefighters decided to dump the company and do their own fund drive. But now, after that effort fizzled, the firefighters are looking to hire another professional fund-raiser.
Some of the most trusted names in Western New York communities, like Olean's volunteer fire company, are the least efficient when it comes to raising money.
Of 465 registered charities in the eight-county region, only a handful actually spent more on fund raising than on their goals, programs and activities during fiscal 1996, according to the state Office of the Attorney General's Charities Bureau. But nine of those were affiliated with police and sheriff's departments or with emergency services.
"It's an abuse of public trust," said Daniel Langan, spokesman for the National Charities Information Bureau in New York.
Well-known organizations that spend only a small fraction of their budget on their mission are cheating donors, and they indirectly hurt other groups that use their donations more efficiently, he said.
There are different opinions about how much charities can spend on incidental costs and still be fair to donors. The charities bureau says at least 60 percent of the budget should go to charitable programs. The Better Business Bureau says 50 percent.
None of the nine Western New York groups achieved either standard in fiscal 1996, or in 1995 either. The Niagara County Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Albion Emergency Squad tied for ninth place, with just 23 percent of their money going to programs or activities. The Niagara Falls Police Club spent 45 percent of its budget on its programs in fiscal 1996, the highest among the group.
"In a lot of cases, they (police and emergency groups) use professional fund-raising organizations, and the telemarketers are getting most of the money," said Julie Doerr, manager of business ethics at the Better Business Bureau.
Like Olean's fire company, all nine groups used professional fund-raisers, increasing their costs of collecting money. Some groups say they're trying to stop relying on for-profit telemarketers, or at least to get a better deal.
But others defend the practice. Hiring a professional fund-raiser avoids the ethically questionable practice of having uniformed police officers ask citizens for money, some police groups said. And organizations that sponsor shows as part of their fund drive -- increasing their fund-raising costs -- say they're providing a valuable community event.
Without the help of a professional fund-raiser, the Batavia Police Benevolent Association wouldn't be able to sponsor the youth sports teams and scholarships that it does, President Edwin Mileham said. The group provided $13,132 to its causes in fiscal 1996 but spent $23,643 on fund raising, or 64 percent of its total budget, according to the state Charities Bureau data.
The PBA hires a fund-raising company from Lancaster to organize a dinner and sell tickets, Mileham said. The cost of the event itself contributes to the organization's fund-raising costs but gives participants more for their money than a simple "thank you" from a telephone solicitor, he said.
"The department and the people don't have the resources" to run the event, he said. "If it wasn't for the fund raising, we would have to raise our dues to the point where we couldn't support these programs."
The Niagara Falls Police Club also hires a professional fund-raiser, who organizes an annual show as the group's main fund-raising event, President Tom Winegarden said. Of the club's $169,556 budget during fiscal 1996, $94,374 went to fund raising and management, leaving $75,182 for programs. The club contributes to the Make-a-Wish Foundation and to a children's camp and sponsors an eye-care benefit for members.
"Without them (the fund-raiser) we'd be dead," Winegarden said.
Both the police club and the Erie County Law Enforcement Foundation, another of the nine least-efficient charities, hire a fund-raising company run by Michael J. Ryan in North Tonawanda. The police groups know the company as MJR Dynamic Promotions, but Ryan said that the fund-raising unit of the operation has been split into a separate company called Campaign Headquarters.
The telemarketing company employs 32 people and is proud of the work it does on behalf of area organizations, Ryan said. He wouldn't discuss what he charges charities, saying every contract is different.
The foundation pays Ryan's company 15 percent over costs to put on fund-raising drives, Chairman Pat Casilio said. The police group, formerly known as the Erie County Sheriff's Foundation, supports training and equipment for area police agencies. In fiscal 1996, it spent $57,976 on those programs, while fund-raising costs consumed $94,881, or 61 percent of its total spending.
"I wish there was some other way we could do it," Casilio said. "We want the biggest bang we can get for the buck." But having uniformed officers collect money from citizens wouldn't be right, he said. And Ryan's company has done the fund drive for many years without generating complaints from donors.
But the charity watchdog group doesn't think the excuses hold water. Thousands of charities manage to spend a smaller fraction of their budget on fund raising, said Langan of the National Charities Information Bureau. The average group monitored by the bureau spends 75 percent of its budget on its cause, leaving 25 percent for fund raising and overhead. Efficient groups use a combination of mailings, phone banks and events to generate their income, minimizing the use of for-profit telemarketers, he said.
In Western New York, the average charity spent 28 percent of its budget on fund raising and overhead in 1996, leaving 72 percent for its goals, according to the Charities Bureau data.
Professional fund-raisers solicit business from police and emergency agencies because their stature in the community is an asset, Langan said. Most people don't want to risk disappointing their local law enforcement agency or emergency service.
The Chautauqua County Sheriff's Association demonstrates that it's not impossible for a police group to meet efficiency standards for charities. The Mayville-based group spent 61 percent of its budget on programs in 1996, or $41,892. The year before, the group spent 88 percent of its budget on programs, or $62,333.
The association uses a telemarketer that hands over something less than 50 percent of the take, association Treasurer Timothy Gustafson said. But dues from members supplement the group's budget, increasing what it can spend on scholarships for criminal-justice students.
Dissatisfied with the telemarketer's performance, the group is thinking about switching tactics and doing a mailing instead, Gustafson said. But competition from other police groups is hurting the efforts.
"There's too many people squeezing the same dollar," he said.