Distinguishing bogus and bona fide volunteers

Rules for the public on how to distinguish between bogus and bona-fide volunteers


More and more reports are coming to light of possible or blatant cases of fraud in the charity sector, with the latest originating from Penza, Perm and Moscow. The Agency for Social Information has asked leading experts to explain how people who wish to give to charity can best protect themselves and avoid giving money to those intent on profiting from their goodwill.

Details emerged from various social networks of a fraudster who entered the office of Penza’s Local Community Charity “Civil Union”. The man asked for one of the charity’s booklets and took a picture from the corridor walls as he left. This same person was later seen sitting on the pavement, with two dogs in tow, with the booklet and picture on the ground, asking for money “for charity”. Witnesses alerted the police.

The day before, a warning had appeared on Perm’s Civic Chamber website of probable fraudsters operating on the city’s streets. The organisation reported that a number of people dressed in white robes, emblazoned with the words “Save the Child!” were asking passing drivers and pedestrians for donations in aid of seriously ill children. Dimitry Zhebelev, founder of Perm’s Charitable Project “Dedmorozim”, stated that these individuals were, in fact, working for a Government-registered charity “Compassion”.

“By checking “Compassion’s” website, we can find out from their mandatory accounts submitted to Russia’s Justice Ministry how much money they collected and how much found its way to helping children. One look at the files reveals that the real figure is zero. Prosecuting them because they’ve collected slightly more than zero is difficult, but that doesn’t add up. So, the only way sure way of protecting yourself from all this is by sharing information – forewarned is forearmed”, Zhebelev added.

On his Facebook page, Zhebelev explained that, as well as the zero accounting and information on “Compassion’s” activities, he’d found a report stating that 59,000 roubles had been raised and put towards charity projects. “So, it’s not all that bad as money has at least reached someone”.

There have also been reports of six volunteers being detained by police. “We’ve established that the people involved in collecting money for their own personal gain are from the neighbouring Republics. My colleagues are currently carrying out checks to establish whether these activities can be treated as a criminal offence”, said Vladimir Chistyakov, Deputy Chief of Police at the Ministry of Internal Affairs in Perm in a statement on Monday.

The charity “Give Life!” has warned people to be on their guard against fraudsters on the streets in Moscow. People collecting money were seen in the “Ostrada” and “Babushka” Metro stations. One of them offered balloons to passers-by in exchange for donations and was carrying a supply of bogus forms and badges. It later emerged that the collection organiser was a certain Mikhail G, who had visited one of the “Give Life!” offices and explained that he had, in fact, been involved in unofficial activities for “Children – the flowers of life” for the past two months as part of an arrangement for collecting donations agreed with the charity.

“This agreement involving Mikhail G refers to an open donations arrangement (without dates or amounts) between the charity and an individual which includes the stipulation that “the amount and frequency of donations should be determined by a donor independently”. This agreement does not authorise any activities that raise money for use by the “Give Life!” charity. Despite this signed agreement, this charity has not received any donations from Mikhail G. We have no information on how much he actually received from the sale of balloons using our charity’s name”, said Ekaterina Shergova, a manager at “Give Life!”

Shergova reiterated that “Give Life!” never collects money on the streets, let alone pays for volunteer promoters such as Mikhail G. “This goes against all the principles and rules of the charity. The fact is that we’re seen as a scam and, as a result, we have instructed our lawyers to prepare the necessary documentation for submission to the courts”, Shergova added.

There have been frequent reports of fraudsters making rather amateurish attempts to collect money for charity. The Agency for Social Information has written about a new child welfare charity “Our Children” which, in the space of only a few months, has shaken the charity world by its less than open activities. Dimitry Daushev, Fundraising and Communications Director of “Children’s villages – SOS, Russia” believes that people need to be aware of certain things in distinguishing between bogus and bona-fide volunteers. Firstly, suspicions should immediately be aroused if donated cash is going straight into people’s pockets or bags. “Give Life!”, for example, routinely uses donation boxes which are numbered and sealed in accordance with the charity’s rules. Passers-by are generally unaware of this, but at least they can see that the boxes themselves are sealed”, Daushev added.

At the same time, according to Daushev, it is theoretically possible for perfectly respectable charities to go about collecting cash. “This can happen, but it begs the question as to how this money is accounted for. There aren’t many ways in which cash can be accepted legally, but it can be done by issuing a cash order or some special form of strict liability on behalf of the organisation concerned”, he added.

Furthermore, proof should be sought to make sure that a representative of an organisation or charity is really who he or she claims to be. Volunteers should carry confirmation of their agreement with a charity, or the appropriate authorisation that bears the organisation’s stamp. If a person is genuinely working for a reputable charity, it will always be in their best interests to keep this documentation on them. If this is the case, the next question should be: does the charity really exist? A copy of the organisation’s certificate of registration can provide the necessary confirmation.

An organisation can authorise its volunteers to make use of official property, such as cars which, by implication, confirms that an individual is working on its behalf. Can such property include a cash box for donations? “Hardly anyone trusts volunteers with such things. As a result, other issues also come into play, mainly connected with the movement of cash and its regulation. There needs to be some kind of action underwritten by organisations whereby a cash box is made available in a particular place, or issued to someone. There should be a group responsible for ensuring that a cash box is empty at the outset, then makes a record of the money collected before transferring the amount to the charity’s business account”, said Alexey Morozov, a Greenpeace representative.

It is 10 years since Morozov was out on the streets collecting money and he believes that, if volunteers are still to be entrusted with collecting money, they should at least have some form of documentation ready to hand. “There’s no single rule, but all charities with a vested interest in protecting themselves should introduce the necessary procedures to ensure that the paper trail is above board and transparent and so avoid official sanctions”.

An agreement between volunteers and organisations is only necessary when he or she is reimbursed for travel and accommodation costs incurred on official business, or for purchasing special clothing. The issuing of documentation by a charity to its volunteers needs to be controlled internally as the law does not provide in this area, according to Daria Miloslavskaya, Chair of the NGO Council “Lawyers for a Civil Society”.

According to Daria, “Each charity needs to have a procedure in place that clearly explains the means by which donations are collected, together with how the volunteers who go out onto the streets are selected. From a legal standpoint, there should simply be one document that regulates the collection of donations which should be clearly prescribed within all internal records. If not, then any donation collections will be seen as unlawful.”

So, what can be done to tackle this issue more generally? How can we beat the fraudsters and spare donors the necessity, not only of helping those in need, but also ensuring that no-one uses their good name for personal gain? There’s no quick answer. Unfortunately, there is a certain naivety amongst passers-by and potential donors which is a common emotion that goes with the donations culture. We need the whole community to educate people on how they can distinguish between honest and potentially fraudulent activities. This is not something that can be achieved in a day, let alone a year.

The Association of Fundraisers is quietly starting to come to grips with this issue by addressing the need for establishing a legal interpretation of the concept of charity, rather than advocating standards.

Author: Georgy Ivanushkin


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