Identifying the 50 worst
To identify America's 50 worst charities, the Times and CIR pieced together tens of thousands of pages of public records collected by the federal government and 36 states. Reporters started in California, Florida and New York, where regulators require charities to report results of individual fund-raising campaigns.
The Times and CIR used those records to flag a specific kind of charity: those that pay for-profit corporations to raise the vast majority of their donations year in and year out.
The effort identified hundreds of charities that run donation drives across the country and regularly give their solicitors at least two-thirds of the take. Experts say good charities should spend about half that much - no more than 35 cents to raise a dollar.
For the worst charities, writing big checks to telemarketers isn't an anomaly. It's a way of life.
The Times and CIR charted each charity's performance over the past decade and ranked them based on the total donations diverted to fundraisers, arriving at the 50 worst charities. By this measure, Kids Wish tops the list.
Tracking donations diverted to fund-raising is just one way to rate a charity's performance. But experts called the rating fair and said it would provide a unique resource to help donors avoid bad charities.
Doug White, one of the nation's foremost experts on the ethics of charity fundraising, dismisses the argument made by charities that without telemarketers they would have no money.
"When you weigh that in terms of values, of what the charity is supposed to be doing and what the donor is being told in the process, the house comes tumbling down," said White, who teaches in Columbia University's fundraising management master's degree program.
Collectively the 50 worst charities raised more than $1.3 billion over the past decade and paid nearly $1 billion of that directly to the companies that raise their donations.
If that money had gone to charity, it would have been enough to build 20,000 Habitat for Humanity homes, buy 7 million wheelchairs or pay for mammograms for nearly 10 million uninsured women.
Instead it funded charities like Youth Development Fund.
The Tennessee charity, which came in at No. 12, has been around for 30 years. Over the past decade it has raised nearly $30 million from donors by promising to educate children about drug abuse, health and fitness.
About 80 percent of what's donated each year goes directly to solicitation companies.
Most of what's left pays for one thing: scuba-diving videos starring the charity's founder and president, Rick Bowen.
Bowen's charity pays his own for-profit production company about $200,000 a year to make the videos. Then the charity pays to air Rick Bowen Deep-Sea Diving on a local Knoxville station. The program makes no mention of Youth Development Fund.
In its IRS tax filings, the charity reports that its programming reaches "an estimated audience of 1.3 million."
But, according to the station manager, the show attracts about 3,600 viewers a week.
Bowen, who runs the charity out of his Knoxville condo, declined to be interviewed. He defended the practice of hiring his own company with the public's donations.
"We just happened to be the low bidder," he said.
Good vs. bad charities
America's worst charities look nothing like Habitat for Humanity, Boys and Girls Clubs or thousands of other charities, large and small, that are dedicated to helping the sick and needy.
Well-run charities rely on their own staff to raise money from a variety of sources. They spend most of their donations on easy-to-verify activities, whether it's running soup kitchens, supporting cancer research, raising awareness about drunken driving or building homes for veterans.
The Times/CIR list of worst charities, meanwhile, is littered with organizations that exhibit red flags for fraud, waste and mismanagement.
Thirty-nine have been disciplined by state regulators, some as many as seven times.