Thursday, May 20, 2010

Loaves & Fishes' donation claim and the Truth-O-Meter

When I went to the Admin office of Loaves & Fishes to pick up a copy of the organization's Form 990 – the 'public disclosure' document that organizations of their type and size are required to file every year, and provide to the public – Libby Fernandez, the CEO, instructed me to "be respectful" and reminded me that I am a user of the organization's services. She told me this while I was standing next to Loaves' wall of rude and truth-twisting political cartoons.  I don't think that Libby saw the oddity of that.

Thinking about respect, and being a freedom-loving American, a journalist (of a sort, that sort being a blogger and Sac Press stringer), and an admirer of journalism at its very best, I thought I'd satisty Libby's instruction by aping the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning procedures of "Polifact" in the St. Petersburg Times. What is more respected that a Pulitzer Prize, eh?

"Polifact" uses a Truth-O-Meter to gauge the validity of claims made by public figures. You can see the possible meter positions they use at right. [They also use three other meter readings, which aren't at right, which are used for politicians' flip-flops.]

What we're going to be looking at, today, is a claim that Loaves and Fishes made on December 22 and which the Sacramento Bee reported on on Christmas Eve regarding a deficient haul of donations.

Here's the nub of what Loaves & Fishes reported in a blogpost at their website:
The number of December donors is the same this year as last but the dollar amount of the donations is down by 14%. The same number of people are giving but they are each able to give less money this year.
These facts/factoids emerge: (1) a claim that December donations were down 14% for the first ~21 days of December, as compared to the prior year and (2) that as many people were giving this year as last, but each was giving less - were used as spurs to motivate people to send L&F more money.

I am going to ignore factoid #2.  It is sloppy to say that EACH donor was ABLE to give less this year than last.  What was probably meant was all they could know which was, simply, there were as many donations this year, in December, than the prior December, but the average donation was smaller.

The core of the appeal is, I think, this sentence:
Donations in the "giving season" sustain us throughout the rest of the year. Please consider giving a special gift, no matter how large or small, to Loaves & Fishes to help preserve this essential safety net for individuals and families who have fallen into homelessness.
I read the appeal as stating that the organization is in real, albeit modest, threat of no longer being able to fulfill its function unless more funds come in.  But I do know that people in our society are acclimated to donation appeals that are little hysterical when we know they are really meaning things in a bland way.  A charity might scream and drop big tears when really all it wants is more money to fix the coffeemaker and buy new draperies. [I'll get back to all this later in this post. Meantime, read on, reader!]

In the Bee article, "Loaves & Fishes reports drop in holiday donations," reporter Cynthia Hubert reported matters from a L&F press conference on Dec. 23 without blinking or fact checking.  Here is most of what Huber reported:
Donations to Sacramento's largest service group for homeless people, Loaves & Fishes, are down 14 percent this holiday season, the group announced Wednesday.

Sister Libby Fernandez, executive director of the organization, said loyal donors continue to contribute to Loaves & Fishes, but are giving smaller amounts this year.

Holiday donations typically represent about 20 percent of the group's annual budget, Fernandez said.

"We rely on Thanksgiving and Christmas donations to get us through the year," she said at a news conference.

"We are so grateful to the people of Sacramento, and we know that everyone is hurting this year. But we are asking people to dig deep one more time. We're begging for a little more financial help."
The facts/factoids we can pull from the text are these, I think:
  • Donations are down 14%, but it is now uncertain about the timeframe of the decline.  "Thanksgiving and Christmas donations" certainly seems to include a period before the beginning of December.
  • Holiday donations (typically) represent 20% of Loaves & Fishes' annual budget.  But budget for what?  Anticipated donations, I would have to suppose.  But that is pretty weird:  The public is not responsible for meeting what the nonprofit hopes or anticipates it will receive.  If by budget, Fernandez means annual expenses, L&F can have met that with the two-million-plus dollars their 990s show they have long had sitting in cash and short-term investments.
  • Loaves and Fishes is "begging" for people to dig deep and give more.  This is hype that should mean L&F is in a very real state of need.

So, now, readers, Wohoo, let's do some Truth-O-Metering!

"Facts are God's arguments; we should be careful never to misunderstand or pervert them." - Tryon Edwards. Loaves & Fishes claimed on December 22, 2009, and at their news conference the following day, that donations were down 14% either through that date in December or up to that point in the Thanksgiving-Christmas-New Years holiday season.  I believe that some calculation based on precise factors was made, but it is disappointing that whoever wrote the L&F blogpost or Libby did not squarely know what it/she was writing/talking about.  The calculation, whatever it was, should have been precisely known and described.  While accounting is an art, math is science.  To the question of whether Loaves & Fishes raw stat is true, the response is that it is confused.  Verdict:  Half True.

Torture numbers, and they'll confess to anything. On the question of whether the "14% Down" claim was properly representative of a dire situation at Loaves & Fishes, IT WAS NOT. Loaves & Fishes Form 990 for 2009 reveals that donations for the year were $3,820,111 - down less than 3% from 2008. L&F added more than a quarter million dollars to their fund balance in 2009, increasing it to $5,681,367, including $388,363 in Cash and $1,695,546 in Savings and temporary investments. While the city and county were broke and slashing services, and citizens were losing their job or on furlough,  Loaves & Fishes was growing bigger and spending less. I'm sorry, Chicken Little, but the sky WASN'T falling.  And, Chicken Little, you knew it wasn't.

β€œThe window to the world can be covered by a newspaper.” -Stanislaw Lec. Cynthia Hubert, the Bee reporter, printed Loaves & Fishes' claims without asking that they be substantiated nor inquiring into the implication that the nonprofit was in real need of funds.  The Bee's obligation should be to its readers, not to Loaves & Fishes.  The article was a bald appeal for donations, and the Bee reporter and Bee editors should be there, on behalf of the public and on behalf of the reputation of the newspaper, to see to it that the content was genuine, meaningful and did not misdirect readers.  To the question Did the article convey the truth? The Truth-O-Meter reading is FALSE.

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