Trending Topics

Beware COVID-19 fundraising scams invoking first responder support

It is important to be diligent with donations to ensure your money goes to a good cause


It is important to do your homework and become an informed donor to ensure your money is used wisely.

Photo/Getty Images

One part of the current COVID-19 landscape is beginning to look like a repeat of the months and years following September 11, 2001.

Everyone wanted to help the heroes of that awful day. Many wonderful charities provided a great deal of assistance to the FDNY and NYPD and the families of the first responders we lost that day. But there were also many “charities” that did little more than enrich the people running them. They diverted generous donations away from organizations making a difference.

In the years following 9/11 and through today, many of the worst charities include those claiming to help firefighters and police officers. In fact, one list I’ve seen still has four fire and police charities in its top 20 of charities to avoid.

I take this personally because I am both a firefighter and the executive director of a 501(c)3 that has long helped the families of fallen firefighters – the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF).

On September 12, 2001, I was privileged to lead a team of people to New York and serve with members of the FDNY and assist the families of the fallen. All these years later, we are still working closely with and help fund FDNY’s Counseling Services Unit.

We were far from alone in providing much-needed help in New York. But as I looked at organizations claiming to provide support, and were not providing any meaningful assistance, I realized there were important lessons about giving that everyone should learn.

Today, many of us not only want to help the firefighters, medics and police officers on the pandemic front lines, but also the doctors, nurses and others who are putting themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe. I encourage you to be generous, but to also make smart choices about who you trust to ensure your money is being used for the purposes you intend.

It is important to do your homework and become an informed donor to ensure your money is used wisely. A good place to start is Charity Navigator, a website that evaluates U.S. charitable organizations. It does not accept donations or advertising from any of the charities it evaluates.

One key item to look for is how much of your money will go toward the mission of the organization. Well-run charities strive to keep administrative costs below 25%. Having at least three-quarters of your money being put to work helping others is a good sign.

You also can tell a lot about a charity by how it appeals to you in its advertising or solicitations. Do not fall for the do-or-die pitch. Turn away from high-pressure tactics that want you to donate on the spot. Avoid any solicitation that asks you to wire money.

Sound-alike names are a common scam to be aware of, too. It is a problem I deal with multiple times each year as executive director of the NFFF. It is also a problem for James Birch, my counterpart at the National Police Foundation. Neither of our organizations solicits donations by phone. That does not stop others from either invoking the names of our organizations or something very similar during telephone canvassing. Phone solicitation is an expensive proposition. Any organization doing it is likely spending most of your donation on overhead or using professional fundraisers who get a big cut of the donated funds.

By now you have probably experienced “charity” phone solicitors using fake numbers local to your community. They do so to get you to answer. Do not trust your money to any organization that needs to trick you into answering your phone for a donation.

Also, be careful about who you are sharing your credit card information with. That is why doing your homework now – before giving money – is key.

One final tip is specific to COVID-19: We know there are lots of organizations urgently looking for a vaccine to help prevent the spread of the virus. While it might sound good and tug at your heartstrings, it is highly unlikely that any of those research organizations are also soliciting funds to find a COVID-19 cure.

With the current economic pressures, it is admirable that so many are still willing to give up some of their hard-earned money to help others. That is an important part of who we are as a country. It is also just as important to be diligent, so the money you donate truly goes to a good cause.

Additional Resources

Chief Ronald Siarnicki began his fire service career with the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department in 1978 and progressed through the ranks to chief. In July 2001, Chief Siarnicki retired from the Prince George’s County to become the executive director of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. He is a graduate of the master’s program, school of management and technology at the University of Maryland, University College and has a bachelor’s degree in fire science management from UMUC. Prior to joining the Prince George’s County, he served as a volunteer firefighter with the Monessen VFD Hose House 2 and currently serves with the United Communities VFD in Stevensville, Maryland. Siarnicki is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Siarnicki on LinkedIn.