On February 25, 2009 two board members of Angel Food Ministries, a Christian nonprofit organization that sells vastly discounted food to the needy, filed a lawsuit against the family that owns the organization, the Wingos, for financial mismanagement. Two days later, a former employee filed a lawsuit against the youngest Wingo, Andy, claiming a long-term sexual harassment history leading up to her eventual termination (see the article here).
Sex scandals are always juicy news stories. But if you search “Angel Food Ministries” in Google news, there are by far more articles pertaining to the first lawsuit. What makes the mismanagement of a few million dollars so bloody interesting?
The sad truth is, lately nonprofit bashing is a hotter topic than sex. Since the huge failure of the nation’s largest organizations to respond adequately during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the nation’s obsessive-compulsive, drama-loving eyes have been on the nonprofit sector, ready to point out any time someone makes a mistake. (Let’s not point out the recent and incredible failure of almost every aspect of the for-profit world, mainly related to…MISMANAGEMENT).
When a nonprofit falls prey to a scandal, it doesn’t just affect that one organization- it affects the entire sector, since every sin that surfaces is just fodder for the public’s increasing feeling that nonprofits can’t be trusted with their money. A recent study found that only 25% of Americans believe charities do a very good job of helping people. 75% of the nation has no trust in charities!
What do I say to this? The fault lies with both parties. Organizations must be more careful with their management and recognize that today’s donors are more demanding and involved. All information needs to be readily available and well-presented. Transparency is the key to building trust.
On the other hand, as donors it is not only your privilege but your responsibility to understand where your money goes. So study up on these scandals and on the organizations behind them. As foodies, you should spend at least as much time researching your food charities as your do your food choices.
On Feb. 11 the FBI and IRS raided the Angel Food Ministries offices and recovered documents that are now sealed but are assumed to pertain to the subsequently filed lawsuit. It is alleged that the Wingos mismanaged over $2.5 million via disgustingly high salaries for the family members (the two CEO’s, Joe and Linda Wingo, were both receiving over $500,000 a year!) as well as millions of dollars in personal loans to the family. This past Friday attorneys reached a settlement in the case, part of which involves the founders losing their corporate credit cards. Interesting that the attorneys found it appropriate to punish people that essentially stole millions of dollars as if they are teenagers being grounded.
The scandal is NOT the whole picture, however. Before we can throw Angel Food Ministries into our “never getting a dime of my money” pile, we need to know the impact of their work. They may be mismanaged, but are they doing a good job?
Through churches in 39 states, Angel Food feeds half a million families a month through low-cost grocery sales. There are almost 40 Angel Food distribution centers in the Georgia-Carolina region alone, and they sell $100 million dollars worth of food to the needy each year. Moreover, if you check out their website, you’ll read dozens of stories like this one:
“I just wanted to say Thank you from the bottom of my heart! You have helped me and my daughters more than I can express. I work full time; I am a full time student and also a newly single mother of two small girls. I have been turned down for assistance for everything, food, utilities, daycare, etc. because they say I make to much but yet we can not afford basic need things. I know I have gone days without eating just to make sure my girls eat a little (and this is not a great thing because I am diabetic). I just found your program this past weekend and I have told many of my friends who are in need also.” ~V.S.
As a donor or volunteer, it’s your prerogative to choose your organization. But make sure you understand the one you do choose- the scandal AND the impact. There are resources to help you decide: First, check out the organization’s website- it’s mission, programs, and structure. For financial information, you can go to Guidestar. To read personal stories from people who have experienced the organization’s work, check out GreatNonprofits. Finally, don’t hesitate to contact the organization directly- they’ll be happy to talk to you about what they’ll do with your money.
Clearly Angel Food is having an impact on real people who have real problems. Should we write the organization off simply because of poor management? Would this be a reason to give them extra support? Or maybe our money is better spent helping some other organization whose founders have a straighter moral compass?
In this situation, it’s tough to decide which is more important- efficiency or effectiveness. Especially during this clustermuck of a recession, we have to decide how to best help those who are even more in need of food and shelter. And the decisions we make now will affect our world for generations to come.