9/11 charity raises money with big event, but small return - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

9/11 charity raises money with big event, but small return

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For many people impacted by the events of 9/11, few causes are more important then helping the families of victims of terrorism and the first responders that came to their aid. After the attacks, hundreds of charities were created raising more than $2 billion. 11 years later, millions of people continue to help financially.

"What could be more catastrophic than to drop a building on people who were there to help?" said Ted Sjurseth.

He founded America's 9/11 Foundation in 2001, starting with an informal motorcycle ride to New York City to support businesses suffering financially after the attacks.

Eventually he formed a non-profit. For the past 10 years, he has led a 400 mile, four-day motorcycle ride to all three crash sites to honor the victims and first responders. It starts in Shanksville, Pa., goes to the Pentagon near Washington D.C. and ends at New York's Ground Zero.

"It's a heart thing that you do, you can't pay me to do it," Sjurseth said.

He's not paid and neither is anyone else on the board. All of the work that goes into it is voluntary. Over the years, the Leesburg, Va. charity raised $2.2 million. According to filings with the Internal Revenue Service, its mission is to provide scholarships to the children of first responders and to help cash-strapped fire departments and police around the country. But putting on the ride has turned out to be quite costly.

"Some people ask where do our funds go. Well, the main place they go is in hotel rooms," he told FOX 5.

The ride is by far the biggest expense, with the cost of hotel rooms, tolls, compensation to close roads and other expenses that add up. The amounts raised and donations from the 2012 ride last month are not yet available, but the charity's IRS 990 form filed between 2003 to 2011 shows over the past 10 years, only $168,000 has gone to scholarships. Another $540,000 went to buy motorcycles for police departments and to help first responders.

Charity Navigator, which evaluates more than 6,000 charities, says donors should be concerned.

"We think it's terrible," said Ken Berger, President and CEO of Charity Navigator. "We think it's a real waste of money when these kind of expensive events seem to cost so much money."

The charity has been audited by the IRS and meets the IRS requirements. On closer inspection, Charity Navigator says follow the money.

The event's website features a pie chart touting nearly 90 percent of its money goes to programs and services. That changed in 2011 when its tax filing show about 44 percent of revenue was spent on fundraising.

"They claim scholarships are a central part of what they do, but out of approximately $350,000 to $400,000 raised, about $30,000 goes to scholarships," Berger noted.

Charity Navigator recommends checking out any charity before you donate by looking at its finances, management, accountability and mission. Following the terrorist attack, the IRS fast tracked more than 300 9/11 related charities. As of 2006, Charity Navigator found one-third of those couldn't be found and 38 were out of business.

"After a few years, the amount of giving declines significantly," said Berger.

Even those who have a close tie to the 9/11 attacks have found it difficult to raise money. Tom Heidenberger lost his wife, who was a flight attendant on American Airlines Flight 77 that hit the Pentagon.

"I had lofty expectations of getting half of a million dollars or $700,000," Heidenberger told us of when he embarked to raise money for the memorials at the three crash sites.

Five years after the attacks, he biked 33 days across the country in a ride of remembrance to honor the 33 flight crew members that died, which included his wife.

"I had the want to see it through because I lost someone and I wanted to do this on my own," he said.

He raised $150,000 split between the memorial funds at each crash site. It angers him to see other charities that failed to live up to promises, like some that pledged to send victims' children to college.

"They're getting $2,500, $10,000, small amounts. What's it cost to send a kid to college nowadays? It doesn't meet the expectations," Heidenberger said critically.

He believes events like America's 9/11 ride still have a symbolic value not measured in dollars.

"It's better than nothing. It's not just about money. It's not just about service. It's about remembering someone or an event," he said.

That idea is not lost on Sjurseth, who often asks those who question his motives with "What have you done?" to help the families of 9/11 victims or first responders. While the ride may be expensive, it has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and donations. It's just not as much as he'd like it to be.

"I'm not a professional fundraiser," he said. "I'm just a local guy who's been motivated to do something."

For the first time, America's 9/11 Foundation recently hired an executive director to help boost fundraising at a salary of $60,000 a year. Now it hopes having a professional with experience in fundraising will boost its revenue.

"This could be a $100 million organization in 10 years," Sjurseth envisions. "We could provide serious help for police departments, fire departments and EMS departments around this country that need it."

Last month, hundreds of bikers made the journey on the America's 9/11 Ride. For years, the annual charity ride has been a big event with small returns. People will have to judge for themselves whether it's money well spent.

Online:

www.charitynavigator.org

Links to America's 911 Foundation IRS 990 forms (2003-2011)

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