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Charity tries zealous approach

Street solicitation campaign for Children International is legal, but state hears complaints

Though the enthusiastic solicitors who pound the pavement in search of new sponsors for Children International may be a bit aggressive at times Ñ they've been known to tail prospective donors down the street or onto buses Ñ their campaign is legal and legitimate, according to the Oregon Department of Justice.

What's not always so clear is that the solicitors are actually paid employees of DialogueDirect Inc., a professional fund-raising company that, by contract, is being paid $180 for each new sponsor that is signed up.

Victoria Cox, public information officer for the Justice Department's Charitable Activities Section, said her office has received several inquiries, including one from the Portland Police Bureau, about the legitimacy of the current campaign. She said she's heard reports from police and pedestrians that the solicitors, who are paid by the hour and on commission, have been overly aggressive in their efforts.

However, she said, DialogueDirect has registered the campaign with the Justice Department and filed all the necessary paperwork.

Despite the formalities, Cox said the department is working to determine whether the 10 or so 'dialoguers' who've been working in Portland since July have been making the appropriate disclosures to donors on the street.

By law, petitioners such as those working for DialogueDirect must disclose that they are working for a professional fund-raising company before asking for money, Cox said. They must also say how much of a donation for impoverished children will go directly to the charity.

Briana Cano, one of the solicitors, said she and her colleagues always follow the protocols, even as they adapt their pitch to different potential donors. In addition, she referenced a chart showing that Children International spends about 10 percent of its annual revenues on fund raising and 80 percent on programs. Another 8 percent is spent on 'management and general activities,' and 2 percent on reserves.

Though not a normal occurrence, Cano said she herself has been 'slapped' and shoved to the ground while soliciting donations here in Portland.

Vanessa Montes, marketing and public relations manager for New York-based DialogueDirect, said the company monitors its solicitors by sending out undercover employees to ensure they adhere to 'our stringent standards regarding ethical fund raising.' That last occurred in Portland the week of Sept. 13.

As for Children International, the Kansas City, Mo., nonprofit is by industry standards a legitimate charity. It has been providing health care, education and other services to impoverished children since 1936.

The nonprofit reported revenues of $86.5 million in fiscal 2003 and meets the Better Business Bureau's 'Standards for Charity Accountability' Ñ including that it spent less than 35 percent of revenues on fund raising and more than 65 percent on programs. The organization also received three of four stars from Charity Navigator, a nonprofit that analyzes charities.

That Children International has employed a professional fund-raiser highlights an issue that can arise when such arrangements are made. Fund-raisers often are able to negotiate contracts that only require them to return small percentages of donations back to the charities.

According to the 2002 Oregon Attorney General's Charity Profile, for example, the telemarketing company Heritage Publishing Co. gave Children's Wish Foundation International Inc. just 12 percent of the funds it raised. And Washington's 2004 Commercial Fundraiser Activity Report shows some fund-raisers returned to charities as much as 94 percent and as little as 4 percent.

'I think oftentimes (charities) are not putting out the effort, so they might negotiate a contract where they're getting such a low percentage because it's really no skin off their back,' said Sandra Miniutti, director of external relations for Charity Navigator.

Currently, states cannot dictate a minimum percentage, Cox said. In addition, she said the Justice Department won't know exactly how much DialogueDirect gives back to Children International until the end of the campaign next summer.