- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Who is Joseph Kony? Thanks to a 30-minute YouTube video that went viral, 78 million people (as of this writing) recently learned that he’s the leader of the People’s Liberation Army in Uganda and is an internationally wanted man for his role in child-soldier conscription. In other words, he’s not a nice fellow.

Unfortunately, through this video, Americans also are learning a hard lesson about charitable fundraising.

The nonprofit group that made the film, Invisible Children, apparently doesn’t do much hands-on work in Uganda. According to the group, about two-thirds of its budget goes to overhead and “awareness” programs, and the group is “not an aid organization.” Also, Kony’s influence is dwindling already - he isn’t even in Uganda anymore and has just a few hundred soldiers. Some of the film footage was shot years ago, and some policymakers listed as “targets” (such as George W. Bush) aren’t even in office anymore.

But if you give Invisible Children $30, it will send you an “action kit,” complete with two bracelets. You’ll be an “advocate of awesome,” but it’s unclear what else. Details, details.

It’s not as appealing after the clever marketing is cut apart by the facts. Unfortunately, it’s a fundraising formula used - really, abused - by more charities than we’d hope to think. Take one well-known group, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). More than 70 percent of Americans, according to public polling, think HSUS is an umbrella group for pet shelters, and a similar percentage think HSUS spends most of its money on pet shelters.

Unfortunately, this could hardly be further from reality. Despite its name, HSUS isn’t affiliated with any local humane societies or pet shelters. According to its tax returns, only 1 percent of the money HSUS raises is shared with local pet shelters.

Instead, it spends tens of millions on overhead (direct mail, pension plans and hefty salary costs). The money it does spend on programs - as little as 51 percent of its budget, according to the American Institute of Philanthropy - goes to nebulous “awareness” campaigns and also to push an animal rights, anti-meat agenda similar to that of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Meanwhile, millions of animals are put down in local shelters every year in part because of inadequate funding.

It’s no surprise that more than 150 people recently filed Federal Trade Commission complaints against HSUS.

Unfortunately, questionable spending crosses many more fields. A “60 Minutes” investigation last year also exposed another charity, the Central Asia Institute, which supposedly built schools in countries such as Pakistan.

The problem? “60 Minutes” discovered that less than half of the organization’s spending went toward constructing and funding schools. It also couldn’t find evidence that some of the schools supposedly built even existed. Meanwhile, the institute had seven-figure expenses for its founder’s book tour, which did not benefit the charity with income.

Other examples abound. The American Institute of Philanthropy, which helped expose the Central Asia Institute, reported in its latest charity guide that nearly half the veterans/military charities it rated received an F grade. The institute found that the Disabled Veterans National Foundation has obscene fundraising costs, needing up to 98 cents to raise every dollar.

Cancer charities didn’t fare much better. Sometimes the difference is as little as one word in the name. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation gets an A+, while the Breast Cancer Relief Foundation gets an F.

What’s the lesson? Nothing new: Research before you give, and don’t accept a charity’s ads as gospel.

Just as you shouldn’t make an impulse buy, an impulse donation isn’t always a wise idea, either. Otherwise, your contribution may be lost in a jungle.

Rick Berman is the executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.