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This burns me up: Misleading but not illegal

Published August 24. 2018 12:22PM

Many area volunteer fire companies have sounded a warning to their residents to be wary of a solicitation letter that on casual reading might lead them to believe that it comes from their local department. It doesn’t.

It actually comes from the Volunteer Firefighter Alliance Inc. of Knoxville, Tennessee, which is a bona fide 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization. I made a visit to its website, and at the very top of the page it says in bold letters “The Volunteer Firefighter Alliance is a national organization and is not affiliated with any local volunteer fire department.”

So why are local departments up in arms about the letters that have been found in some parts of the Times News area? The letters give the IMPRESSION that they are coming from the local departments.

The reply card prominently displays the name of the area, whether it is Lehighton, Marshalls Creek, Exeter (Luzerne County) and, most recently, Chestnuthill Township, thus giving the resident the impression that this is a direct appeal from the local fire company and implies that any donations will go to that company. It will not.

Alan Bohms, VFA’s executive director, is puzzled by the reaction, saying that the mailer clearly says that the disclaimer appears in bold print. He is right, but it is on the back of the solicitation mailer and in fine print.

A donation to Volunteer Firefighter Alliance Inc. will be used to “educate the public about the many benefits volunteer departments provide their communities and the challenges faced by these departments,” according to the organization’s mission statement. The association requests that money be sent to a box number in Topeka, Kansas.

What the donation will not do is help the local fire department from a financial standpoint specifically, although the solicitation letter has a twofold goal — to find volunteers, who, of course, are badly needed all over the country, and to get donations to further the VFA’s efforts to promote volunteerism.

Obviously, these goals are praiseworthy, but my quarrel is with the way the solicitation is being handled. The letter from VFA should make it crystal clear on the front of the solicitation letter and on the mailer, in prominent print, that it is not affiliated with the local fire company. If it wants to solicit funds from local residents, those who contribute should know in no uncertain terms that the money will go to VFA for its national promotion and education campaigns, but not a penny of it will be returned to the local volunteers; in other words, complete transparency.

Bohms said the mailings in our area ended several weeks ago. A second mailing to other ZIP codes in the area was canceled and the solicitation letters scrapped at a cost of thousands of dollars to the organization because of numerous complaints, he said. The solicitation letter and mailer are being revamped; the new letters will not mention the local area, Bohms said.

If a resident responds to the VFA mailer indicating that he or she would like to become a volunteer, Bohms said the organization will put the person in contact with the local fire company.

In listing its achievements, VFA said that its intent is to help volunteer fire departments recruit members through its national radio and television public service announcements, direct mail outreach program and provide customized marketing materials to individual departments.

VFA said that is has reached more than 43 million people nationally with its public service announcements, a number it insists has been verified by Nielsen Media reports.

It also said it has mailed out nearly 4 million recruitment letters containing information — these are the ones that are in dispute locally.

VFA provides important fire-prevention brochures to local companies upon request and also helps with the dissemination of other important educational safety materials, Bohms said.

You work hard for your money, so you should have assurances that when you donate to a cause near and dear to your heart that these hard-earned bucks are going where you had intended.

The Federal Trade Commission urges you to consider this information before donating: Having the word “volunteer” or “firefighter” in an organization’s name doesn’t necessarily prove anything. Just because an organization claims it has local ties or works with local volunteer groups does not mean that the contributions will be used locally.

The organization should provide its program description and how much of your contribution dollar will go toward the volunteer organization and how much will go for fundraising costs. (In VFA’s case, just 25 percent of the donations received are used for public education purposes. The rest goes for fundraising and administrative costs, including the use of a professional fundraiser.)

Many organizations may be tax-exempt, but donations may not be tax deductible. VFA says that the donations it receives are “tax deductible to the limits allowed by law.”

The best safeguard you can take when you get one of these questionable letters, whether it is from VFA or any other fundraising group, is to contact your fire department, especially if it says it is collecting donations on its behalf. If the claim cannot be verified, report the solicitation to your local law enforcement officials.

By Bruce Frassinelli |

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