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By now, there are very few Americans who haven’t heard of the "ALS Ice Bucket Challenge" -- the social media-driven campaign during the summer of 2014 to dump ice water on your head as a way of raising awareness of the neuromuscular disease ALS and promoting donations to the ALS Association, which funds medical research and support programs for those who have the disease.
The effort has led to at least $94 million in donations to the ALS Association -- a jolt of extra funding for a group that last year spent a comparatively modest $26 million.
But not everyone is happy about this development. A blog called politicalears.com posted an article stating that the Ice Bucket Challenge was a "fraud" because most of the money was being spent on administration and overhead. The unsigned post was picked up widely on social media feeds; that’s where PolitiFact readers noticed it. Several of them asked us to check it out, so we did. (The website has no contact information, so we were unable to reach the person who wrote the post.)
Here are key excerpts from the Aug. 28 blog post, headlined, "Ice bucket fraud: ALS Foundation admits that 73% of donations are not used for ALS research."
"We've been duped. America is filled with fun-loving and caring people. The viral ice bucket challenge has combined both our sense of responsibility to our fellow human with fun. And it has been fun! Who didn't love seeing Sarah Palin doused?
"But wait? Ice Bucket Challenge donations are nearing $100 MILLION. Where is that money going? According to the ALS Foundation, not towards ALS.
"Over 73% of all donations raised are going to fundraising, overhead, executive salaries, and external donations. Less than 27% is actually used for the purpose we donated for.
"According to the ECFA, a charitable watchdog, 27% of donations actually making it to the cause they are donated to is unacceptable. In fact, the ECFA won't deem a non-profit as a reliable charity unless at least 80% of donations make it to their intended projects. ...
"The ALS Foundation is a terrible organization to send your money. If you decide to take the Ice Bucket Challenge, may I humbly suggest that you select a well-researched charity (on your own, no endorsements here) and send it to them."
The post reprints a pie chart taken directly from the ALS Association’s website, showing the following breakdown of expenses:
Research: $7.2 million (27 percent)
Patient and community services: $5.1 million (19 percent)
Public and professional education: $8.5 million (32 percent)
Fundraising: $3.6 million (14 percent)
Administration: $1.9 million (7 percent)
Let’s start by noting some comparatively minor problems. First, the group in question is the ALS Association, not the "ALS Foundation," as the blog post calls it. Second, the ALS Association hasn’t said anything to "admit" the claims asserted in the blog post, as the post’s headline says. In fact, they’ve posted a response to it here.
Now for the blog post’s biggest mistakes:
• "Over 73% of all donations raised are going to fundraising, overhead, executive salaries, and external donations."
Not true. The 73 percent figure appears to come from subtracting everything except for the 27 percent that falls under "research." The charitable way (no pun intended) of viewing the post’s error is that it misread the category headings.
If the post had simply said "research accounts for only 27 percent of the ALS Association’s budget," that would be technically correct though still misleading, since the group’s mission statement includes several goals beyond directly sponsoring research. They include raising awareness, serving as a trusted source of information, providing patients with access to support services and advocating for increased funding for research.
Once you include "patient and community services" and "public and professional education" as legitimate spending to advance the group’s stated mission, the percentage spent on items supporting those goals rises to nearly 79 percent.
But the blog post actually exacerbated its error by specifically labeling 73 percent of the group’s spending as "fundraising, overhead, executive salaries and external donations." That’s flat wrong.
We’ll add that if anyone wants to donate money to the association for research only, they can do that. "If a donor would like 100% of their donation to go to research, he/she can simply check a box on our online donation form here," the association’s website says. "If a donor already donated and would like to redirect their donation, please email us at [email protected]."
• The role of ECFA. The post cites standards by ECFA, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a group founded in 1979 that "enhances trust in Christ-centered churches and ministries by establishing and applying Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship to accredited organizations." However, when we contacted ECFA, Dan Busby, the group’s president, told PolitiFact that his group does not advance the argument made in the post.
"We were very surprised to see the ALS-related report which attributes certain statements to ECFA," Dan Busby, the group’s president, told PolitiFact. "We did not provide any information for the story."
Busby added that, contrary to what the blog post said, his group doesn’t have a "bright line" test for a charity’s appropriate spending percentage. "The data of applicants and members which reflect high overhead expenses are carefully analyzed for propriety," he said. "In addition to considering the financial picture of a potential donee charity, we believe donors should also look at other attributes, including the charity's commitment to effective board governance, financial integrity, and appropriate accountability."
Other groups that analyze charities have given the ALS Association high scores.
Charity Navigator, for instance, gave the ALS Association a score of four stars out of four for financial standards and transparency and accountability. The association is "Top Rated" by Charity Watch, is accredited by the Better Business Bureau and is a Guidestar Exchange gold participant.
The blog post said that "over 73 percent of all donations raised (from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge) are going to fundraising, overhead, executive salaries, and external donations." Whether purposely or by incompetence, the anonymous blogger misreported the ALS Association’s figures. In reality, nearly 79 percent of the ALS Association’s expenditures were for purposes that advance its stated mission. Fundraising, overhead and executive salaries account for no more than 21 percent. We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
Politicalears.com, "Ice bucket fraud: ALS Foundation admits that 73% of donations are not used for ALS research," Aug. 28, 2014
ALS Association, "The ALS Association Debunks Fake News Article that Went Viral," Aug. 30, 2014
ALS Association, financial information index page, accessed Sept. 2, 2014
ALS Association, mission statement page, accessed Sept. 2, 2014
Snopes.com, "Ice Doubt," Aug. 29, 2014
Charity Navigator, ALS Association page, accessed Sept. 2, 2014
Boston Globe, "Will $94 million raised from Ice Bucket Challenge yield cure for ALS?" Aug. 28, 2014
Quartz, "Why nobody should be upset that the ALS foundation only spends 27% of donations on research," Aug. 29, 2014
Email interview with Dan Busby, Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, Sept. 2, 2014
Email interview with Carrie Munk, spokeswoman for the ALS Association, Sept. 2, 2014
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