Orange bags like this one were distributed in March 2016 at homes in West Asheville and elsewhere. The donations are tied to an Atlanta-based group and don't benefit any domestic violence agencies in WNC. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

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Nspire Outreach, a Georgia-based charitable organization that recently began soliciting donations in Western North Carolina, has been the subject of government and media investigations in at least three states after accusations of deceptive practices.

Following multiple complaints over several years about Nspire, North Carolina Secretary of State Elaine Marshall’s office forwarded those complaints to Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office in February, Secretary of State spokesperson Liz Proctor told Carolina Public Press on Friday.

“I can tell you that we’re concerned about what we’re hearing and are looking into it,” Department of Justice Public Information Officer Noelle Talley told CPP in an email on Monday. Talley said the DOJ Consumer Protection Division has recently received two complaints from the Asheville area about Nspire’s donation bags.

Nspire has previously been active in other parts of North Carolina, but its recent activity in Buncombe County has some WNC-based organizations concerned, bringing the solicitations to the attention of CPP.

Nspire Outreach’s Asheville campaign

Helpmate is a domestic violence agency based in Asheville. The organization operates a shelter and provides counseling, courtroom advocacy and other services for individuals experiencing intimate partner violence.

April Burgess-Johnson, executive director of Helpmate, began receiving calls about clothing donations being collected to help fight domestic violence. A group was hanging orange bags on mailboxes for people to place donated clothing that would then be sold to benefit anti-domestic violence efforts.

But Helpmate has no affiliation with whoever was putting out the bags. Helpmate receives nothing from them and had no advance knowledge of their campaign. And there’s not some other domestic violence organization operating in Buncombe County. Because of the way the state divvies up grant funding, there’s typically just one such agency, at most, in each county.

“This is not a drive organized by Helpmate and its proceeds do not benefit our organization or victim in Buncombe County,” Burgess-Johnson wrote in an email.

Instead the campaign will benefit Nspire, although the group is using the name “Hope for Domestic Violence” in this case. Burgess-Johnson said she’s heard from the domestic violence agency in Cabarrus County that Nspire has previously done campaigns there. Nspire claims both Raleigh and Charlotte as two of its main areas of operation on its Website. An earlier article from a Gaston County newspaper also described concerns about the group’s efforts to bring in donations there.

This card accompanied the donation bags that Nspire Outreach distributed in areas of Buncombe County in March 2016. Local agencies say the charity drive won’t benefit them. Frank Taylor / Carolina Public Press

“I heard from the director of the Mecklenburg county program that Charlotte has been dealing with this for years,” she said.

The group’s Buncombe County campaign features orange bags distributed to homes. Residents were encouraged to put clothing and electronic appliances into the bags, which the group would pick up on a set date. Bags distributed in West Asheville this week said pickup would be Tuesday. Some other bags may have designated other pickup times.

Doubts about Nspire

The only strong indication on the bags that the group was from Georgia and not Asheville may have been the Website identified on the bags: www.clothingpickupatl.com. That site presents Nspire and Hope for Domestic Violence, also called “Hope House,” as separate institutions, but the interconnected nature of the groups becomes clear from the letter Nspire letter Gregg Kennard posted on Hope’s Website.

Other fund-raising efforts have emphasized the group’s supposed initiatives against homelessness and poverty.

But in each case, the concern for local human service organizations is that people think they are donating to a legitimate local initiative, rather than a group located in another state to support its activities there.

Just how effectively Nspire does any of its supposed charity work is a question that officials in Georgia have also been asking in recent years. Because it claims to be, not just a faith-based organization, but an actual church in Lawrenceville, Nspire has claimed exemptions from many of the normal registration and financial reporting rules affecting charitable groups in various states.

In North Carolina, the organization filed paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office in 2008 citing an exemption. Unlike other types of charitable groups, Nspire has managed to continue its activities without any updates to its paperwork since that time.

Nspire’s ambiguous status has also complicated the efforts of other states attempting to restrict its activities.

Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office issued a fine of $45,000 against Nspire in December 2014, after finding that it “falsely represented that it works with other organizations with which it has no affiliation,” a news release from Hargett’s office stated at the time.

“After the Division of Charitable Solicitations and Gaming assessed the penalty, Nspire officials requested a contested case hearing,” Adam Ghassemi, Director of Communications for the Tennessee Secretary of State, told CPP in an email on Friday. “That is currently before an administrative law judge in our Division of Administrative Procedures.”

What to do

Burgess-Johnson expressed thanks to Helpmate supporters who alerted her to the stealth campaign that may be diverting donations people assumed would be going toward local initiatives.

“Asking questions is the right thing to do,” Proctor said. She also recommended that potential donors vet charities before donation by using the Secretary of State’s smart donor checklist [PDF].

Nspire isn’t the only group that has or even may currently be conducting charity drives that some will find misleading. Burgess-Johnson received a report about similar activity in Weaverville that had come to the attention of the domestic violence agency in Madison County.

But when CPP checked into it, that initiative appears unrelated, involving donation jars at local restaurants to benefit a Nevada-based effort claiming to fight child abuse.

“If people spot potentially misleading solicitations for donations or they have made donations that they believe may not have gone to the organization they intended, (the Department of Justices wants) them to let our office know,” Talley said. “People can file a consumer complaint online or call 1-877-5-NO-SCAM toll-free within North Carolina.

“We’re concerned whenever people donate to an organization via a third party, because it is difficult to determine whether the donation actually reaches the intended charity. Our best advice: If you want to support your local domestic violence shelter, contact the organization directly and ask them the best way to help.”

Editor’s Note: Links included in this story were updated on Sept. 5, 2017.

Frank Taylor

Frank Taylor is the managing editor of Carolina Public Press. Contact him at ftaylor@carolinapublicpress.org.

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