Rick Bowen: American Scumbag

Youth Services Insider gives major kudos to the Tampa Bay Times and The Center for  Investigative Reporting (CIR) for their joint special on America’s 50 Worst Charities.

Youth-serving advocates and direct service providers will grimace at the fact that, while many of them struggle for government funds and donations, the list of 50 worst charities is dotted with organizations that purport to serve kids but really just launder dollars raised by professional fundraisers.

More than $1 BILLION was brought in over ten years by the 50 charities, and only a tiny percentage was used for charitable purposes while $970 million went to paid solicitors.

Typically, these sham charities do not raise money on behalf children involved in the child welfare or juvenile justice system. All of the child-related charities on the Worst 50 list focus either on missing, cancer-stricken or disabled children.

Except one: The Knoxville, Tenn.-based Youth Development Fund, led by founder Rick Bowen.

Sounds like it should be an organization that either raises money for, or directly operates, programs aimed at developing assets and resilience among youths.

Right? Not so much.

YSI was enraged, but not surprised, to see the Knoxville, Tenn.-based Youth Development Fund sitting at number 12 on the “Top” 50 list. We did a feature story on YDF back in 2005 that focused on how much money came into the organization and how little came out of it.

Bowen operates out of his house in Knoxville and doles out some money to grant “wishes” for a dozen or so sick children each year. The biggest expense on its books though, year in and year out, are payments to the for-profit companies that conduct phone and mail solicitations for the charity.

Bowen didn’t do bad, either. YSI found $1.5 million paid to Bowen in salary from 2000 to 2003, and the Times/CIR project identified another $720,000 between 2004 and 2007. (Mysteriously, no salary is listed on tax returns between 2008 and 2011 as the charity continued to bring in money at the same rate)

YSI visited Bowen at his Knoxville home and office in 2005. We already heavily suspected that Youth Development Fund was a sham, but any objectivity on the subject went out the window when we asked Bowen about his compensation. From our 2005 story:

“Bowen also says that his pay is no larger than that of people who run large organizations. He points to a five-year-old list of CEO compensation at large organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. “I looked at salaries of these other [national] people, and thought well, you know, I need to be paid what I’m worth.”

He was essentially saying that his work was on par with one of the world’s leading cancer research hospitals and a group that oversees youth development activities for more than two million young scouts.

When it comes to actually spending money on the mission, Bowen has included the following as “program services” in various years between 1997 and 2011:

1) YDF’s payments to its fundraising solicitors, based on the premise that their calls asking for money were tantamount to informing people about the issues important to the charity.

When YSI looked into Bowen, 90 percent of the program service expenses we found from 1997 to 2003 were for this type of education.

“You might want to write this down: Solicitation is, by nature, education,” Bowen told YSI in 2005. “You’re telling them about something they don’t know anything about.”

Thanks, pal.

2) Payments to Bowen’s own production company for a local television show about deep-sea diving, for which he was forced to travel to hellholes like Cozumel and Key West for hard-hitting segments on recreational diving.

3) From the Times/CIR project:

Since 2009, the charity has also shipped donated medical supplies valued at about $9 million to Central America. Bowen said the supplier recommended an orphanage in Guatemala as one of the recipients. Youth Development Fund pays the supplier a few thousand dollars for shipping and counts the full value of the shipment as revenue on its tax forms. That boosts the charity’s good deeds and makes its fundraising costs look lower in comparison to donations raised.

“It’s just a way to help so many more people,” Bowen said of the donations. “I got thank you letters, the whole bit.”

We wrote our feature on Bowen and YDF in 2005, and it was quickly followed by coverage on local television. Then Bill O’Reilly got involved, sending a producer down to Knoxville to confront Bowen and then blasting YDF on the O’Reilly Factor.

And judging from Bowen’s position at number 12 in the Worst 50, all of that negative attention amounted to absolutely nothing.

Here’s hoping that the Times/CIR project provides the oomph necessary for the feds and states to figure out how to better regulate charitable practices. YSI would be lying if we said we were betting on it.

Other youth-related charities on the Times/CIR Worst 50, and their past 10 years of fundraising activity:

Kids Wish Network
Solicitors Raised: $127.8 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $109.8 million

Children’s Wish Foundation International
Solicitors Raised: $96.8 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $63.6 million

Children’s Cancer Fund of America
Solicitors Raised: $37.5 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $29.2 million

Children’s Cancer Recover Foundation
Solicitors Raised: $34.7 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $27.6 million

Committee for Missing Children
Solicitors Raised: $26.9 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $23.8 million

Operation Lookout National Center for Missing Youth
Solicitors Raised: $19.6 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $16.1 million

American Foundation for Disabled Children
Solicitors Raised: $16.4 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $13.4 million

Children’s Charity Fund
Solicitors Raised: $14.3 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $10.5 million

Children’s Leukemia Research Association
Solicitors Raised: $9.8 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $6.8 million

Find the Children
Solicitors Raised: $7.6 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $5 million

Caring for Our Children Foundation
Solicitors Raised: $4.7 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $4.1 million

American Foundation for Children with AIDS
Solicitors Raised: $5.2 million
Charity Paid Solicitors: $3 million

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by John Kelly, editor-in-chief of the Chronicle of Social Change

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