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Money to burn 

While the Waldo Canyon Fire was causing thousands to evacuate their homes, many thousands more opened their checkbooks to give to one of the charities that offered help.

Most donors simply trusted that their money would be used wisely — perhaps to buy blankets for those who lost a home, or to help in the clean-up effort. But increasingly, e-mails have been floating into the Independent from readers worried that donated funds may not be used as advertised.

Could the money, for instance, go to help fund relief for other disasters? Could it simply go into the charity-in-question's general fund? Worse, could workers simply pocket the money without fear of answering to an auditor down the line?

We spoke to four charities that are helping with Waldo, to understand more about how they handle donated funds. What we found was a surprising variety of approaches.

Arguably the biggest player in the fight to help evacuees, the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross was an obvious draw for donations.

But when it comes to keeping Waldo dollars with Waldo, the Red Cross isn't the best bet. As regional communications director Patricia Demchak Billinger explains, the charity is too big to make a lot of promises to donors. In fact, the Red Cross is so big that, on an administrative level, it doesn't even view our fire as its own emergency; it's lumped into an operation called "2012 Colorado Wildfires."

"At one point we had, there was something like 13 fires going on [in Colorado], and we had shelters open for five of them," Billinger says.

Given the scope of its operations, the Red Cross offers Waldo donors three options. Online donors can choose to donate to "disasters" — where money first goes to the disaster in your area (in this case, Waldo), with leftover funds applied to any other American disaster. Alternately, donors can give to the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Red Cross — that keeps the money local, but usable for any of the Red Cross' normal or emergency operations, wildfire-related or not.

Thirdly, if donors call their local chapter rather than going online, there's the option of that "2012 Colorado Wildfires" fund.

Billinger notes that any donation that lingers in a special fund, unused, will be transferred to other needs. But she says it's unlikely that donations aimed at helping Colorado fire victims would go elsewhere. As of late last week, the charity had raised $2.4 million in its Colorado Wildfires Fund, but the fires were expected to cost the Red Cross about $4 million.

According to Billinger, the Red Cross response to Colorado summer wildfires included 1,900 overnight stays at shelters, 45,000 meals and snacks, the deployment of 26 emergency response vehicles and much more. The Red Cross is now moving into "Phase 2" of its relief efforts for Waldo, providing mental health services, food and snacks, clean-up kits, and case workers who can lead victims to the best local resources.

Donors looking for reassurance can check the Red Cross annual report, at redcross.org, for financial information.

J.D. Dallager, CEO of Pikes Peak United Way, says he's not sure exactly how much money the United Way has collected for the Waldo Canyon Fire, but he knows it's over $500,000, and he knows it's sitting in a special account.

The United Way wasn't a big player in the initial push to help evacuees, other than serving as a source of information. Thus, donations intended for Waldo — including a $125,000 El Pomar Foundation grant — are largely intact. Now, Dallager, says his organization is deciding what to do with the money.

To that end, the charity will assemble an advisory council of five to seven people from El Paso and Teller counties. The council will take applications from local charities that have helped or are helping fire victims. United Way has few requirements thus far, only stipulating that money should go to health and human services-related issues directly tied to the fire. Administrators want the money to hit the streets sooner rather than later.

Dallager says any organization that receives money from United Way will be held accountable for how it's spent.

"Any time we grant money out, we have to have a report back as to how that money was used," he says.

At this point, Dallager says United Way is hoping to make financial reports related to the fire available on its website.

President and CEO Jan McHugh-Smith says all fire-related donations to the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region have been directed into the organization's general emergency fund. That fund has been used to offset costs from the fire, but it's also used any time the shelter suddenly has a huge influx of animals — for instance, when a hoarder with 50 neglected cats is busted.

On a normal day, the Society provides animal control to a slew of Front Range communities. During the fire, the shelter took in 439 animals — 217 cats, 136 dogs, 86 others. Already full of the homeless animals it normally cares for, the shelter at one point held more than 700 animals in Colorado Springs, with even more in Teller County.

That said, it wasn't the supplies that added costs for the charity; food, medical products and crates were donated. Instead, staff overtime, meals for staff, and other general expenses multiplied costs: "We were running two facilities, and one facility was 24-hours," McHugh-Smith says.

The Humane Society's role in the emergency is largely over now, but costs and donations — the latter exceeds $25,000 — are still being tallied. You'll find annual financial reports and tax forms at hsppr.org.

Of all the charities consulted for this article, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation's Waldo Canyon Fire Fighters Fund offers donors the most flexibility and control.

Eric Cefus, director of new business development, says the community foundation is very specific about how money is spent. The Firefighter's Fund, for instance, is restricted to issues related to Waldo. And the money, like all of the foundation's money, has to stay in the region.

"[We've] requested dollars from the community under this name and this purpose," Cefus says. "We are very diligent about that."

PPCF also accepts any restrictions donors make on their funds, so long as they don't break PPCF rules. (The charity, for instance, is only allowed to gift money to other nonprofits in good standing.) So if a donor only wants her money to go to, say, the needs of volunteer firefighters, PPCF will accommodate that.

Thus far, Cefus says, the fund has mostly been used to fill in gaps left by other charities. When the Green Mountain Falls volunteer firefighters ran out of gas money, for instance, PPCF gave them the cash. But with the immediate danger over, PPCF is looking at funding long-term needs with the money it's raised — more than $50,000, with more expected to roll in soon. That could be fire-related education, restoration of the land, or fire mitigation.

PPCF, whose roots go back to the 1920s, oversees many funds that benefit the local community, from urban gardens to animal welfare. Some, like the Indy Give! campaign, are set up by individuals or boards and simply overseen and audited as a part of the foundation. Others are set up directly by PPCF leadership, as is the case with the Firefighter's Fund.

PPCF posts all its financial and tax documents at ppcf.org.

stanley@csindy.com

  • Tracking the huge influx of cash charities received during the Waldo Canyon Fire.

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