America’s Worst Charities is the result of a yearlong collaboration between The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Tampa Bay Times. CNN joined our partnership in March.
The collaboration started independently. Three separate newsrooms were pursuing different stories about unscrupulous charities.
My interest in the subject dates back to the late 1990s. As a reporter at the Orange County Register in California, I helped unravel a bogus charity network that resulted in federal charges of fraud and 15-year prison sentences for four men.
Newsrooms have been exposing similar stories for years – one-offs on bad charities here or there. I kicked myself in Orange County for not looking deeper over time at the way bad charities operate. All of them rely heavily on phone solicitors who keep most of the money raised. When confronted, leaders of bad charities are prone to excuses. They pledge to do better.
We started our end of this project wondering if these charity operators indeed ever improve.
Reporter Kendall Taggart began digging into California data to identify the worst performing charities going back 10 years. She had obtained data from state regulators that traced the vast amounts going to telemarketers – and the fraction going to the cause.
Her early assessment: Bad charities stay bad.
And the worst of the worst appeared to be just outside Tampa, Fla. – 2,400 miles from our California offices.
It was time to find a partner closer to the action.
I picked up the phone a year ago and called the Times’ investigative editor, Chris Davis. He was a key reporter on two projects that were Pulitzer finalists when he worked at the Sarasota Herald Tribune in Florida. He also had edited a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in Sarasota before moving on to the Times.
We had developed a close friendship over the years through our association with Investigative Reporters & Editors, a group representing more than 5,000 journalists across the country.
It’s a good thing I called when I did. Having already reported on a massive charity fraud in Florida, the Times’ Kris Hundley was in pursuit of a larger story about bad charities – systematically building with colleague Connie Humburg a database that logged all enforcement actions across the country.
The database would be the first of its kind. No regulator had attempted to connect the dots. Among other things, it shows how charities that get into trouble in one state simply move to another without skipping a beat.
Joining forces on a national project made perfect sense for both newsrooms. Hundley and Taggart have reviewed tens of thousands of tax records and court filings. They’ve talked to regulators in nearly two dozen states and have crisscrossed the U.S., knocking on doors at charity offices and poring through additional records at regulatory offices. They’ve had doors slammed on them and have watched charity executives speed away to avoid answering questions. Taggart even parlayed a vacation to Guatemala into a reporting expedition. She was turned away by an armed guard during her quest to track donated medical supplies there.
Though we’ve mostly worked in separate newsrooms, hardly a day has gone by without some communication between Hundley and Taggart or Davis and me. Researchers and interns also helped build the charity enforcement database and a separate database on the nation’s 50 worst charities.
We knew that CNN had a keen interest in the subject. The network had spent months exposing fraudulent organizations that claimed to help veterans.
In January, we reached out to CNN to see if the network would be interested in doing more on the subject. After a few meetings and conversations, CNN joined the partnership. Senior Producer David Fitzpatrick teamed up with Hundley and Taggart to tackle some of the reporting on two of our installments.
The collaboration enabled the three newsrooms to share resources and broaden the reach across multiple platforms. Tampa Bay is hosting on its website an interactive database it took the lead on building. Hundley and Taggart wrote the stories together. CIR produced an animated video and marketing material. CNN will produce at least one video.
At CIR, collaboration and partnerships are in our DNA. But these things are never easy. They take lots of work and communication. You can’t assume anything. Newsrooms have different cultures, workflows and processes. Without regular communication, you often can’t account for those variations until it’s too late. But the team worked through these issues.
When we embark on collaborative projects we look to meld complementary skillsets and help broaden the reach of our storytelling. The bigger the audience, the more opportunity to have real impact and results.
We hope that will be the case here.