Move America Forward responds to Pro Publica report

Earlier today, ProPublica published a rather damning report about the charitable organization Move America Forward (MAF), which organizes the annual Troopathons and has delivered “hundreds of tons” of care packages to men and women of the armed forces on the front lines of America’s battles. Over the years, celebrities from the political and entertainment industries have participated in fundraisers and donated their own cash, as have bloggers such as myself and many others who have given time and/or cash for this effort. Allegations that a significant percentage of those donations went to for-profit companies run by people affiliated with Tea Party Express raised questions about ethics and transparency.

When the article emerged, I reached out to MAF for a response. Danny Gonzalez, MAF’s communications director, has spent the day organizing a response to ProPublica’s specific allegations and to my earlier post. It will be necessary to read my original post to understand the context of the response, but in fairness to MAF, a new post is necessary to give them equal treatment. (I will add a link to this post in an update to the original as well.) The first part of their response is general in nature:

MAF has been around since 2004 and never once has our non-profit status been in jeopardy. We began our care package program in 2006 and since then we’ve sent hundreds of tons of care packages. Right now we’re working on getting another batch of 1,500 out (500 just mailed recently). Our records have been audited by the IRS and were found to be well within the laws and compliance required, in fact our auditor told us privately that our books looked better than most of the charities they’ve dealt with.

As an organization, Pro-Publica styles itself as independent journalism but they’ve fulfilled that mission by going on the attack against conservative groups like ours. They’ve attacked Charles and David Koch, groups like Freedom Path, Americans for Responsible Leadership, Center to Protect Patient Rights, they defended the IRS practice of targeting Tea Party and other conservative groups who they disagree with. They take money from George Soros and are funded by prominent liberal millionaires.

Gonzalez then responded to the specifics of the allegations in Kim Baker’s article. One of the more concerning elements to Baker’s story was the close proximity of MAF and companies owned by Tea Party Express (TPE) figures, especially The Campaign Store (owned by TPE founder Sal Russo) and Donationsafe (started by Shawn Callahan). All of the donations to MAF go through those two vendors, which as Baker notes means that MAF generates revenues for these past or present TPE officials. Gonzales addresses the relationship between MAF and the vendors (lightly edited for punctuation only):

Baker brings up how much money that Donationsafe got from the Conservative Campaign Committee in 2012, but that has nothing to do with MAF. Donationsafe helps provide IT support, and one of their guys often helps set stuff up on the MAF website when we come across something that I don’t know how to do. He helps us with it because we are a client and because we have a long relationship. It’s much better than paying gobs of money to have a dedicated web guy. Donationsafe doesn’t get hardly anything  from MAF because most of our money comes in through care packages. Before we started using Donationsafe, MAF used to use a big company, Aristotle, which was more expensive in fees, and they didn’t have the easy to reach support staff. With Donationsafe I know the support staff guys are local; I can call them anytime day or night with a crisis, and I know they will drop everything and help me out. Donationsafe also gives us a way to process mass orders that we get from our partnerships with radio stations, so without them we would have to pay another staffer to do it manually.

The care packages are processed through The Campaign Store which Barker also demonizes like it’s some kind of big conspiracy. The reality is that when MAF got started originally in 2004 there weren’t nearly as many options available for shopping cart systems online and none of them suited our unique needs, so we built our own with the help of a local team of web developers, and together that formed The Campaign Store. They built us a custom shopping cart that would suit all of our specific needs and also got the merchant account and everything set up so that we could process care package orders and keep track of them. So that’s why the Merchant Account says “The Campaign Store” on the credit card bill when you sponsor a care package.

The Campaign Store team continues to help support MAF and works closely with MAF to this day by setting up new pages and helping us administer the fundraising. Over the years they have built 3 different “web stores” to try to keep it looking fresh and up-to-date with all the graphics. In fundraising it’s important that your site looks up to date. This is a huge job behind the scenes too, because we needed ways to integrate donation tracking with our email server so that we could see where our donations were coming from and interpret what message were resonating with our supporters, etc. Without their IT staff, this would have been a daunting task, something far beyond what I could have accomplished with my meager understanding of web code. Without their guys, we would have had to hire someone to do it, and again that would have been another big cost.

The thing is, Move America Forward really only has two paid staff. We get the job done by using vendors like Donationsafe and TCS who provide IT services and a helping hand to get things done. Shawn, who is the head of Donationsafe, doesn’t get paid anything by MAF for all the work he does to help us out. It’s only through the business relationship that he gets any compensation for the time he devotes. If we didn’t use TCS and Donationsafe we would need other vendors to get the job done, but that would cost even more money and we don’t have the same relationship that we do with the DS and TCS teams.

Barker also looked through the financial disclosures of all the organizations linked to MAF, and found that MAF paid the rent all by itself even though TPE, DS, TCS, and a consultancy called Frontline Strategies, in which Callahan is a partner, share the space. I asked Gonzalez to address that issue, and he added this statement on the rental arrangement:

Move America Forward (MAF) shares a large office space along with Tea Party Express (TPE) Russo, Marsh + Associates (RMA) and Move America Forward Freedom PAC (MAFPAC) all working out of the same office in Sacramento.

The office doubles as MAF’s warehouse as well, so we need enough work space for the volunteers to assemble boxes and storage space for all the care packages and items that go into the care packages. It’s a pretty sizable space, but MAF utilizes the overwhelming majority of the square footage. TPE and RMA also have their offices as well, but they occupy only a small portion and we share some common areas like the conference room. It’s true that MAF does technically pay for all of the rent but I have to stress that this is a mischaracterization of the facts.

Since MAF uses the majority of the office it would be unfair to make every organization pay equal parts, so the arrangement we have is MAF pays for the rent but TPE and RMA pay for many of the associated bills such as internet and phone service, service contracts and supplies/paper/toner etc. for the printers that we all share and that MAF uses often.

I assure you that overall it’s an equitable division of cost. Otherwise, it would just be way too confusing to figure out exactly how much of the internet, phone and printing costs did MAF use vs TPE or RMA, then figure out how many copies did MAF print vs the other organizations and charge accordingly. It would quickly become a mess and this is just simpler for us. I compare it to having your brother in law move into your spare bedroom and rather than making him pay 27% of the rent he agrees to buy groceries and pay the electric bill in lieu.

The statement doesn’t necessarily address all of the issues raised by Barker in her article, but some of those are relatively minor and could just be attributed to poor judgment in selection of photographs and a lack of scrutiny for the details in their claims. (In fairness again, Gonzalez was responding more to my post than the whole ProPublica article, too.) The close proximity of MAF to TPE and its officials’ businesses are more serious, and perhaps that issue hasn’t been fully appreciated in the past. It should be now; whether or not it makes life less convenient, there should be enough separation to keep donors from worrying that their efforts aren’t going for someone else’s profit, especially when it comes to the rental arrangement. It may well be legal, but it doesn’t look good, and that does make a difference when you’re asking people to part with their cash and time for your charity instead of someone else’s.

MAF has certainly provided needed care packages for our troops. Donors and sponsors will need to determine for themselves whether MAF provides the best channel for those efforts and funds in the future — as they should for any charitable effort. Let’s hope MAF can clear the air to restore confidence in the future.