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Tv Charities: Let The Giver Beware

January 20, 1985|DAVID JOHNSTON and JENNIFER LEONARD | Johnston is a Times staff writer who covers charities. Leonard is a vice president of the California Community Foundation, an umbrella agency for 185 charitable funds benefiting Southern California. In 1983 they wrote the Columbia Journalism Review guide for journalists on how to cover charities.

In addition, there are the electronic churches, which depend on donations from at-home viewers to stay on the air. Fund-raising experts believe the electronic ministries receive more than $500 million a year in donations.

Today such appeals fill the air around the nation and around the clock.

At one point Jerry Lewis' 1983 telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Assn. had to compete with five other appeals airing at the same time on Southland channels, four by electronic ministries and one by KCET, the local public station.

The National Assn. of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions faced a similar problem with its first telethon broadcast in 22 cities on Memorial Day weekend 1983. That was the same weekend that the Democratic National Committee chose to resume its telethon after an eight-year hiatus.

And telethons have been staged for all sorts of unusual causes.

A two-day telethon in 1975 raised $52,000 to help then Fresno County Sheriff Guy Langley defray legal expenses on charges he illegally laundered campaign funds. Langley later pleaded no contest.

In Barstow, a 1979 telethon raised $132,000 to finance a heart transplant, but the man died before a donated heart became available.

Peter Popoff, an anti-communist video minister, uses TV fund-raising proceeds to buy helium-filled balloons, which are sent wafting above the Iron Curtain laden with Bibles and religious tracts.

And telethons have caught on around the world: Australia had one to underwrite its 1984 Olympic team. The Argentines broadcast a telethon to help finance the ill-fated war with England over whether the Falkland Islands would be the Malvinas.

Televised appeals have been a boon to charities seeking to make this world a better place.

They've brought public attention--and money--to relatively rare illnesses such as cerebral palsy and muscular dystrophy. Christian ministers seeking fundamental changes in American values have prospered because TV spreads their words efficiently. And legions of sick and starving children around the globe have been saved because relief and development groups bought air time to publicize their plight.

But the entire business operates in an atmosphere of laissez-faire and let-the-giver-beware that is unusual even for the American private-enterprise system.

So far, neither government officials charged with overseeing charities, nor the TV industry, which profits from the time sold, has done much to help the public differentiate between worthwhile TV charities and organizations that are ineffective or, even, outright scams.

Only the charity business itself has made some limited efforts to publicize financial and other information which can help the would-be donor make decisions, provided they are willing to do some studying.

Several private groups play watchdog to the American charities, but their efforts are limited to analyzing what these charities say they do. Many charities, especially religious ones, decline cooperation with these voluntary financial disclosure efforts. (See box on this page.)

M. C. Van de Worken, former executive director of the National Charities Information Bureau, a charity watchdog organization in New York City that is closely affiliated with United Way of America, urges viewers to be skeptical about TV charities.

"People should not give just because they see something appealing," Van de Worken said.

"The whole purpose of the TV show is to make the cause appealing," he added. "It's a hype, a pitch and they are doing a selling job, just the way car manufacturers are when they put some sexy person on an automobile hood and say 'buy this car.'

"They aren't saying anything about the quality of the car, what's under the hood; they are selling by glamorizing the product," Van de Worken cautions.

Federal and state governments collect financial reports from secular charities through tax returns, but they rarely conduct their own audits of the figures.

Bob Burns, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Social Services, said that his office can do little more than make charities operating in the city disclose how much they raised last year, their current goals and the percentages of donated funds that they say will be spent on administrative and fund-raising costs.

Religious charities are immune from scrutiny by any earthly authority under long-accepted interpretations of the First Amendment. Said Burns, "If you call yourself evangelical--whether you are or not--and you spend 96 cents of every donated dollar on big salaries, hotel suites, corporate jets and gold-plated Jeeps and only four cents go to feed people, it is absolutely legal and there's nothing we can do about it."

Jerry Falwell sometimes holds up a thumbnail-sized piece of celluloid on which is printed, in microscopically small type, the entire Bible. He offers it free to viewers just for calling in on a toll-free number. The Rev. Robert Schuller sometimes makes a similar offer of an inexpensive bracelet trinket.

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