Taking a Look Into Humanwire: Policing Nonprofits Is Our Responsibility
The person (in the picture to the right) is named Andrew Baron. You can probably tell that the studio that the photo was taken in belongs to the police, specifically the Boulder, Colorado Police Department. On Nov. 16, 2017, Baron was arrested for taking more than $130,000 from a nonprofit he set up called Humanwire, an organization that purported to help Syrian refugees.
The organization said on its website that donations would go directly to needy refugees, and that “0 percent” would go to operating costs. The scam was exposed by an investigative report in the Denver Post, which chronicled a steady stream of withdrawals from Humanwire’s bank accounts by Baron. For more than two years, all of the donations for Humanwire were funneled into Baron’s personal account. At the same time, more than 100 refugees that had been promised assistance were subject to evictions from their apartments in Greece and Turkey, as well as other hardships.
This is the kind of story that makes the vast majority of people involved in nonprofit work cringe, and with good reason. We’ve all heard the expression, “one bad apple spoils the whole bunch.” It turns out that this piece of folk wisdom has been confirmed by psychologists, who put it a slightly different way: “Bad is stronger than good.” People are predisposed to notice bad events and be influenced by them negatively more so than they notice good events and respond positively. This is what’s known as the “negativity bias.”
Most nonprofits choose to combat the bad apples by taking a passive approach. They focus on their own positive performance—promoting their low overhead, for example, and touting that they make lists of best nonprofits rated by groups like CharityWatch.
And while it’s a great idea to let your constituents know that their donations are being put to good and efficient use, it may also be a good idea to use our platforms to shun the bad actors. It can seem counterintuitive, but psychologists have documented the fact that presenting some negative information along with positive can make your arguments more powerful, more persuasive.
That’s why letting your supporters know about America’s worst nonprofits may be a winning strategy. Plus, for all of us who get up every day and do work that benefits all kinds of causes, bottom feeders like Andrew Baron can’t get enough exposure, and enough jail time.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the 50 worst charities in America devote less than 4 percent of donations raised to direct cash aid. Some charities give even less. While we recognize the percentage that goes to mission or to direct cash aid isn’t the only thing to consider in evaluating nonprofits, it is important. In one case, over a decade a diabetes charity raised nearly $14 million and gave about $10,000 to patients. Six spent nothing at all on direct cash aid.
These nonprofits often adopt popular causes or mimic well-known charity names that fool donors. Then they rake in cash, year after year. They have paid for-profit solicitors nearly $1 billion over the past 10 years that could have gone to charitable missions.
Communities are powerful in their ability to modify the behavior of its members. These people are, sadly, parts of our community. It’s time for a good shunning.
Otis Fulton, Ph.D., spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising,” and the 2023 book, "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape," and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” She and Otis are also co-authors of the books, "Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising" and "Social Fundraising: Mining the New Peer-to-Peer Landscape." When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.