The Great American Senior Show

The Independent Sector Helps Seniors Avoid Charity Scams

December 09, 2022 Sam Yates Season 2 Episode 91
The Great American Senior Show
The Independent Sector Helps Seniors Avoid Charity Scams
Show Notes Transcript

With more than 1.8 million lawfully registered charities in the United States, there is always the temptation for scammers to use a charity to take money from senior citizens and everyday people. 

The Great American Senior Show sat down with Ben Kershaw, Director, Public Policy and Government Relations from the Independent Sector to discuss how seniors can become better educated about seperating real charities from the fakes.

As Sam Yates, your host for the Great American Senior Show discovered, the Independent Sector is the only national membership organization in the United States that brings together a diverse community of changemakers, nonprofits, foundations, and cororations all working together to strengthen civil society and ensure all people in the United States thrive. 

Sam Yates:

Hello, everyone, and welcome to another exciting edition of The Great American Senior Show. I'm your grey haired host, Sam Yates. And today we're taking a look at something that hits home for many, many of our seniors throughout the nation, and that is reaching into their wallets, their banking accounts, giving to those organizations that many seniors say, well, that's a great cause they hear a commercial on TV, and the next thing you know, they are making a donation. The Independent Sector is a DC based organization. I believe you guys have been around since 1980. If I recall, doing a little research on it. My guest today is Ben Kershaw. Ben is the Director of Public Policy and Government Relations. And that's a mouthful, but Ben actually is responsible for tracking many, many things at the organization. And I want to give a little bit of a, an intro to begin by saying that the independent sector is the only national membership organization that brings together the entire diverse community of giving communities that we have the the changemakers, the not for profits, the foundations, all of those organizations that are asking for our seniors dollars and our are asking for everyone's dollars. So independent sector works to strengthen the civil society by making sure that people aren't getting scammed, and that the dollars are going into the right directions. Fair assessment, Ben?

Ben Kershaw:

Absolutely, Sam, it's really good to be with you today. That nonprofit sector that we represent, and you know, and again, you hit on the full breadth of that sector in our membership. That sector includes about 1.8 million organizations that serve their communities every day, and in every way imaginable. Nonprofits are also a major economic force. They employ about 10% of the private workforce in America, which, for example, is a little bit more than manufacturing. So there's a lot for us to do together. I'm really glad to be with you today. Well, I

Sam Yates:

always like to start our programs by getting to know the guest, you've got a great title, I know that you are not someone who is shy about podcasting because the organization had podcasting at one point in its history. And if you ever want to do podcasting, again, I'm raising my hand, but tell us about yourself.

Ben Kershaw:

So, you know, in my work at independent sector, my job is to oversimplify to help do gooders do more good. So the public policy team and I work to advance laws or regulations that really helped make the nonprofit sector healthier and more effective at serving communities, whether that's asking Congress to tweak the tax code to help Americans give more to charity, or asking the federal government to release regular workforce data about nonprofits. We do some of that work on our own. But most of it, we do, and the best work we do is together with our membership. Before coming to independent sector, I was a lobbyist for the Association of museums, the American Alliance of Museums, a long standing Independent Sector member, and I bounced around Capitol Hill in the house in the Senate before that.

Sam Yates:

Well, that's amazing. I used to do a bit of work for an organization in Ohio, the United States Air Force Museum, and I think so many people believe that I actually lived there, because I could in my reporting days, I would always come up with a new story. And one of my favorite go twos was the museum because there was always something new in the old at that museum quite fascinating. So I have to tip my hat to you for that. The organization though, if your organization has been around since 1980, as I mentioned in the lead, and you have a new leader at the helm.

Ben Kershaw:

Yeah, we're really excited to have Dr. Akela. Watkins joining us as CEO next month. She's a lifelong community organizer. She has experience running national nonprofit organizations. Yeah, I think she also brings experience working within a number of foundations. I'm particularly really excited that she's an accomplished policy advocate. Her current organization works to turn vacant places into vibrant spaces. She's also the first African American to lead our organization, which, which is really important to us and the work we do. I should, I shouldn't have full disclosure, Sam. Right. She's She starts next month. So I haven't met her yet. So I can't give you any insight dirt on her just yet. Our office holiday party is next week. So look forward to staying

Sam Yates:

in touch. Absolutely. And I will go ahead and make the ask to have her on at some point in the future. I know that CEOs and leadership is something that that is impossible sometimes to get your arms around and make that request or get through to make that request. So Ben, the request has been made. And once she is on board, and she has settled into everything that she does, with a vast amount of responsibility, just whisper in her ear and say, Great American senior show, Sam Yates would like to have you on. And I would love to just be able to chat with her and get her take on where we are going with charitable organizations. But back to you. This is the time of year that people are doing tax planning. They're doing many, many things to make sure that they don't pay too many taxes, or they're just feeling good. It's the holidays. There's a lot of scams out there right now. Fake charities, how bad is the problem? Well, I'm

Ben Kershaw:

glad you asked Sam, the overwhelming majority of charities in America are not just legitimate, they are heroic, they're essential to their communities. And that's part of what makes the rare fraudulent activity in the charitable sector so upsetting. it diverts funding from organizations and causes that really need it. As an organization like mine that looks out for the health of the entire US nonprofit sector. Independent Sector is also particularly worried about charity fraud, because it damages the public's trust in all nonprofits. So you know, it's not my side of the shop, but our organization releases annual data about trust in nonprofits. Unsurprisingly, our sector is more trusted than government were more trusted than corporations. But high profile scandals hurt that. So charity fraud anywhere hurts every nonprofit.

Sam Yates:

And I think I had mentioned to you of working with the American Red Cross. And and that's again, one of the you know, just for clarification, I was familiar with your organization, but really had never put two and two together to have you on a podcast. One of the things that I did, as an independent public relations specialist providing PR and marketing services to the Red Cross at a local regional level was to go to your organization and compile reports based on what is the value of volunteer hours, that's something that you also do? Yeah,

Ben Kershaw:

we are, we are not a research organization, you know, in the way in the way that a think tank might be. But Independent Sector back to its founding has really strong connections with the nonprofit research community, we hosted an annual symposium with nonprofit researchers. And we do publish working with the do good Institute at the University of Maryland right now, the annual value of volunteer time, and it's almost $30 An hour this year, it's a record. And if folks want to check it out on the IRS website, there are state by state fingers

Sam Yates:

as well. And those figures for those that are listening of our seniors right now, if you volunteer with one of the organizations, and your organization is not compiling some sort of figures to say to your board of directors or to the community, here's what our volunteers are doing. They're not only contributing back to the community, but their time has a real worth. And that's very, very important. From my vantage point, it was always important to say, you know, I'm contributing X number of hours on top of the buildings that I would be doing for the organization, because if you give something away, it has no value. So for all of our listeners, make sure that you do check out the website, which brings us to a very critical part of this interview. How can people get in touch with your organization?

Ben Kershaw:

So independent sector online, we're at indepen Didn't sector.org. And that's the easiest and fastest way to connect with us. You can email our organization info at independent sector.org. We try to keep our website up to date with the latest resources on on policy that impacts nonprofits, but also about the health of the nonprofit sector, and principles for governance and ethical practice within nonprofit organizations

Sam Yates:

within that government sector and and you're always following the roadmap that I put together for this interview. It's like, there is governmental sectors very, very active and every day doing something in Washington, DC, we're going to see new leadership in DC, any advanced thoughts? And I'm not asking for you to throw stones but advanced thoughts on is your job going to be easier, more difficult or about the same? And trying to work with our legislative leaders at that national level? To keep control over many of the things that are important under your umbrella?

Ben Kershaw:

Well, yeah, so right, Republicans are going to take control of the House of Representatives next year. So we will have divided government. The good news for nonprofits, politically speaking is that, you know, helping your neighbors isn't a partisan issue. You know, maybe we can knock on wood and say, it's not yet a partisan issue. There are no Republican food banks, there are no democratic museums. And we find that every legislator has a charity in their state or district, usually many that they really want to help, and that they want to boost the work of. There's gonna be a lot of new members of Congress next year from both parties. And so there'll be a lot of education to be done about the work of nonprofits and their needs. We expect, you know, Sam, you're not you're not off base, there will be some big disagreements about the basic Gears of government, government funding COVID policies, and more. I guess I would note, you know, Sam, sorry, it's it's right to look ahead to next year, this is this is that season. It's a season of holiday spirit of holiday generosity. But on Capitol Hill, it's also often the most productive month of the year as deadlines approach. So, you know, we're talking about charitable donations today. So I should know one thing that for the past two years, even Americans who took the standard deduction on their taxes have been able to also deduct up to $300 each in charitable donations from their income. Unfortunately, if Congress doesn't act before the end of this month, that will not be the case when people file their taxes for 2022. Right, probably in the spring. So independent sector and our members were really actively working this month, especially to call on Congress to restore that deduction for every American, whether they itemize or not to give to charity. We both know nobody makes a donation to charity, just so they can get a tax break. But that deduction has been proven to increase giving. And it's a really powerful signal about what matters to our country. So there's some things on the radar right now.

Sam Yates:

Right? Take a step back, recap again, for our audience, the deduction, the amount, and it's extremely important, they reach out to their legislative leaders right now.

Ben Kershaw:

So there are two ways that you can file your taxes in America. to oversimplify you can claim a standard deduction, which is in the range of $12,000 per person. Or you can add up a bunch of smaller deductions like deduction for interest, you might pay on a mortgage, or for charitable donations or for taxes you pay to your state, and you can add those up. Unfortunately, the way the tax code has been constructed in recent decades, is that the vast majority of Americans don't itemize. And so they don't have access to the charitable deduction. They can give to charity they should most do, but they don't get any signal through the tax code or subsidy through the tax code, that that giving, you know, matters. In 2020, and 2021, there was a deduction available for everyone whether they itemized or not That was up to $300 per person that's expired in 2022. And if Congress restores it in the next few weeks, it will be in effect for all of 2022.

Sam Yates:

Now, that's not to be confused with Congressman, Congresswoman, the columns 75 hr 7587, which is something totally different if I recall it, and it's been tracking, but it's not there yet. A little explanation if you can,

Ben Kershaw:

for sure. So the bill you reference is called the nonprofit sector strength and partnership acts and and it was introduced this spring by Betty McCollum, Congresswoman Betty McCollum right when we're when we're not just amongst friends, Democrat from Minnesota and by Congressman Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan. And that bill contains a number of policies that would strengthen the partnership between nonprofits and the government with the goal of serving people better. So you know, next time you have me back, we can do a section by section dive through every single piece of that bill. Let me flag just a couple things that I think are most instrumental. It creates some structures to help nonprofits work more effectively. You know, for example, we've talked about how important nonprofits are to the economy. They're also the ones who put many government programs into practice, whether that's, you know, providing food or shelter or health care, but there's nobody within the government whose job it is to look out for nonprofit organizations holistically in the way that the Small Business Administration, for example, rightly looks out for small businesses. So this bill would change that by creating a White House office on nonprofit sector partnership, it would ensure that there's at least somebody in the room when critical decisions are made with expertise in nonprofits. So that's one of the structural pieces of the bill, that would make a big difference. The bill would also help crack down on charity fraud. And I'm happy to talk more about that, too.

Sam Yates:

All right, I want to get into charity fraud. And before I forget, you know that that House Bill rings a bell because I work with many organizations around the country that are into the senior sectors. One of those organizations is called the Area Agency on Aging. And I believe there's like 900 of them throughout the entire nation. And I've been working with quite a few of them. And they're also you know, in those instances, they have people who are working to get monies, into their communities, and in a lot of those, not for profits, and also the charities within those umbrellas don't even know how much they can ask or discuss with their legislative leaders without getting into trouble or staying out of trouble. So, you know, for our audience, I think that's something very important that we track into the future. But scams, how do we spot them?

Ben Kershaw:

Well, it's a good question. Again, the vast majority of charities are doing great work and are honest and honorable. The IRS notes, a few key things to look out for when you are you know, when you hear from a charity, one thing to keep an eye on is how you're asked to give. If you're being asked to donate gift cards, or if you're being asked to wire money to a charity, that's a red flag that you know that something may be. Similarly, you know, the IRS also notes that this false sense of urgency that scammers can sometimes try to give you is a red flag, no matter the urgency of earthquake or hurricane relief, or a starving puppy. There's no cause in our sector that can't wait an hour for you to get the exact information about that organization and to look them up and to make a donation. So those are a couple of things to look out for.

Sam Yates:

And the IRS, though really has the responsibility for making sure that charities are given the right approval, but there's just so many of them I think you'd said earlier in the program. How many charities are there out there today? It was a huge number.

Ben Kershaw:

Yeah, there's over a million registered charities in the United States. So I think it's important to note, Sam, because the responsibility shouldn't be entirely on seniors or on any American. So the nonprofit sector strengthened partnership act, for example, would put an end, at least temporarily, to a dramatically oversimplifying process that has allowed a lot of bad actors to get in to the charitable sector without proper scrutiny. You know, about 2% of charity applications used to get rejected, which I don't know maybe that I'm not an expert on on that, but that maybe that jives right now, for the last few years since 2014. They created a, again, a dramatically over simplified process, a three page form, that is producing rejection rates of point zero 4%. That's one in 2400 applications is rejected. And that's a clear indication that this form isn't collecting enough information. The IRS is own internal watchdog, has said that as many as 40% of applications are mistakenly accepted. And to avoid just, you know, throwing numbers at you. Let me give you your kind of one quick example. For this summer, a man with a previous record of financial fraud was indicted in New York City. He was indicted for registering 76 Fake charities at the same post office box in Staten Island. He had registered the American Cancer Society of Michigan. in Staten Island, he had registered the United Way of Ohio, in Staten Island, he had a history of financial fraud, and the IRS approved all of these designations. So something needs to change because again, it's not seniors job to vet all of these things. There are some do's and don'ts and some red flags. But the government has a role here.

Sam Yates:

Ben, I know that just a few minutes ago, you said you would come back for a future program. I'm going to make that ask official can you be back because there's a lot more that I would like to go into.

Ben Kershaw:

I would love to stay in touch. Yeah, whether it's me or anyone else. That is these are critical issues. And we're I'm happy to be talking to your listeners today.

Sam Yates:

All right, one more time, How may people get in touch with the with the organization?

Ben Kershaw:

Independent sector.org is our website info at independent sector.org is our email address. My name is Ben Kirsch I work on the policy team there. But you know, the organization is full of do gooders who are eager to connect to connect with you.

Sam Yates:

So for our seniors, if you would like more information, reach out to Ben, Ben, one last time, anything that we did not touch upon that perhaps is critical that you mentioned before we wrap today's program up.

Ben Kershaw:

I would just say that there are scams out there. This is the season of generosity. America's vibrant and powerful charitable sector is not an accident. It was created by Americans investing in their communities. So just thank you to everyone who does donate to the organizations you trust, whether they're organizations you've supported for a long time, or whether you're just getting to know them and you vetted them. A number of independent sectors members have websites that can help with that organizations like candid and Charity Navigator and the BDB wise giving Alliance there. There are resources out there to help you feel confident when you donate. And again, not that I can ever speak on behalf of this sector. But just on behalf of me I am so grateful to everyone who invests in civil society in America. Thank you.

Sam Yates:

Amen to that Ben Kershaw, the Director of Public Policy and Government Relations for Independent Sector. My thanks for being here today. We are definitely going to have you back in the future.

Ben Kershaw:

Pleasure to be with you Sam.

Sam Yates:

So until our next episode, I am Sam Yates your gray haired host of the Great American Senior Show and I want to thank you one more time for being here and to our audience. This is a valuable resource. So don't let this resource slip by, check it out. Have a great day, everybody.