PR Fail: Report Names ‘America’s Worst Charities’

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No industry relies more heavily on the public’s good will than the non-profit sector, which ostensibly exists for the sole purpose of serving the greater good. For this reason, inflammatory reports about how some of America’s biggest charities spend their money present professional and ethical challenges for crisis comms experts.

50 foundations around the country desperately need some good PR right now after a joint project by the Tampa Bay Times, CNN, and The Center for Investigative Reporting named them among the worst in the country for doing little beyond “turn[ing] donations into profit.”

The saddest part about this story is the fact that most of the groups on the list claim to support children, veterans, cancer victims, and public servants like cops and state troopers. We’d like to think that Americans will be quick to punish any charity suspected of exploiting sick kids.

The rankings, determined by comparing how much of the money raised by these groups goes to pay their lawyers/executives/administrators and how much they spend on direct cash aid, are anything but flattering. The project gets personal in places: a report on the practices of the Reynolds family, founders of Cancer Fund of America and related groups, is particularly brutal.

These groups risk significant damage to their reputations and revenue streams. Recent stories about dubious behavior on behalf of breast cancer charities sponsored by Susan G. Komen and the NFL led to some terrible PR and, in Komen’s case, forced resignations and event cancellations.

Now it’s damage control time. The Cancer Fund of America already posted a note on its homepage claiming that the Times “refus[ed] to print the truth as we presented to them,” and a Google search for The American Cancer Fund reveals this disclaimer:

First and MOST importantly we are NOT Cancer Fund of America and we are NOT one of the charities that CNN noted as the worst charities.

Tell us, PR pros: how should these prime offenders respond? Should they continue issuing “no comment” denials, turn to charity ranking organizations like GiveWell to help them improve their operations and reputations, or simply try to divert attention from the negative press with flashy new campaigns?

Frankly, we wonder whether any damage control campaign will be enough to make up for this horrible, terrible, no good, very bad PR.