13 Undercover

Critics raising questions over breast cancer charity's fundraising, spending tactics

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Breast Cancer Awareness Month ended last week, but the fight to help women battling the deadly disease continues year round. Whether or not you know someone touched by breast cancer, many make donations to the cause to show support.

One of the groups asking for your money is based in The Woodlands and has raised millions. But as 13 Undercover found out, critics are raising questions about where the cash is actually going.

We've tried for weeks to get those running the Breast Cancer Charities of America to sit down on camera to answer questions raised by charity watchdog groups about exactly how they spend your donations. But so far, we haven't had any luck.

The Breast Cancer Charities of America says it exists to eliminate breast cancer as a life-threatening disease.

They claim to have a variety of programs, including research, education, advocacy and helping cancer sufferers overseas.

But their main service is what they call the Help Now Fund.

On YouTube, there's video of Erica Tullis, the charity's executive director in 2011, at a Los Angeles fundraiser for the group.

"Our main service is called the Help Now Fund, and we pay for the rent and utilities for women going through breast cancer," she says in the video.

And there is also video of Tullis, just a few weeks ago, again promoting the Help Now Fund at a Conroe fundraiser for her charity.

Erica says, "That is the primary program service that we have, is called the Help Now Fund. Where we go in and pay for those rent and utilities for women going through breast cancer."

According to the group's publicly available IRS forms, it's received almost $45 million in public donations since it began in 2009.

But its Help Now Fund has only handed out just over $187,403 to women to help pay their bills. That's less than 1 percent of the $45 million it's collected in donations.

"I think it's horrendous," said Leah Napoliello with the Better Business Bureau.

The Better Business Bureau says it's unable to give the charity a grade because it has repeatedly refused to cooperate in a comprehensive review of its finances.

"They say the Help Now Fund is a way to help people facing the disease, and then very little money is going to help the victims of breast cancer. So it's very misleading," Napoliello said.

Get this: Of the more than 500 women who've gotten money from the Help Now Fund, the average received is just $348. And according to the charity's website, each woman who applies for financial assistance must meet specific criteria and is limited to a maximum of only $500.

"That's just a drop in the bucket of the resources needed," said Ken Berger with Charity Navigator.

Charity Navigator in Virginia, another watchdog group, is also critical of the Help Now Fund.

"It seems pathetic that such a minuscule amount of the money is going to such a critically needed service," Berger said.

The charity promotes this recipient of the Help Now Fund on its website, along with several other women. Vicky Clary tells me this is about more than just money; Erica Tullis has become a personal friend and also lent needed emotional support.

In an email, Clary says the fund contributed $500 to pay some of her expenses and added:

"I was a recipient of the BCCA's Help Now Fund and that they continue to support me both spiritually and emotionally in my fight against breast cancer and my current battle against brain cancer."

To help in that battle, the charity has local fundraisers like this stiletto sprint and this recent masquerade gala in The Woodlands.

We caught up with Tullis as she left one of her fundraisers after several unsuccessful attempts over the phone and by email to get her to sit down for an interview.

"Can we talk to you for a minute? We'd like to talk to you about you charity and how you spend the public's donations," we told Tullis.

"As requested, I would prefer we set up an interview time. Thanks Brian," she said.

"We are right here. We'd like to find out why so little money goes to women with breast cancer."

We tried to get Tullis, who's paid $100,000 a year, to explain to you how she spends your donations.

"Would you make time to set up an appointment?" we asked her.

"I emailed you and said please call my office and set up a time to talk," Tullis replied.

"So you'll sit down and do an interview?" we asked.

"Thank you," she said.

Tullis never did sit down for that interview.

Here's why: We got several emails and letters from the charity complaining about our reporting and accusing us of a "lack of comprehension or reckless disregard of officially accepted principles of non-profit accounting."

As for where the money goes, we were told, "Information you ask for is in the documents we provided you and is public knowledge."

And 13 Undercover is making those public records available on our website for you to see for yourself.

By the way, Erica Tullis said at one point told us she would consider an interview, but demanded editing rights over what we said in our story -- and that wasn't going to happen.

Our investigation continues Friday as we follow where the majority of their donations actually go.

Find Brian on Facebook at ABC13BrianCollister or on Twitter at @BrianCollister

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