Finances With Wolves

Telemarketers rake in millions of dollars by telling donors they're helping Native Americans. But the biggest beneficiary by far is the charity itself.

He made the move shortly after an episode in which he successfully evaded a reporter from a local newspaper who literally chased him down an alley seeking a comment.

Our food banks are depleted again. It's the Lakota Sioux, honey, way out in the middle of nowhere, 200 miles even from a pay phone, and they really have a tough time. They really need it the most on the reservations we checked on. And this winter was really, really tough.

--a National Relief Charities telemarketer, in a successful 1996 call to a Richmond, Virginia, woman

By early 1994, Indian Country Today reporter Pamela Skillman had started to sift through the tawdry history of American Indian Relief Council and Brian Brown.

Her stories spurred debate and consternation in Rapid City and on the reservations. Many Native Americans expressed happiness for whatever help they were getting. Others--whose numbers seemed to grow by the week--said they considered Brown and his charity a rip-off.

Skillman interviewed American Indian Relief Council malcontents, some of whom still were working as telemarketers at the Rapid City office. Brown fired the whistle-blowers, which led to protests--Russell Means, famed American Indian Movement activist turned actor, joined the picket line--and more news stories.

In May 1994, Rosebud tribal president William Kindle wrote to Brown, asking him to quit soliciting donations in his tribe's name. Kindle told Brown his brethren were "not receiving any benefits or very little from [American Indian Relief Council] fund-raising activities."

Some of Brown's former employees traversed South Dakota, asking that tribal councils compel the charity to become more accountable.

The disenchanted workers penned a manifesto, demanding that Brian Brown stop lying "about Lakota people to sympathetic donors, to supply accurate financial information, and to treat employees with fairness and dignity."

The negative momentum forced Brown in October 1994 to grant a long-avoided interview with reporter Skillman. He spent most of the session trying to explain away his troubles as misunderstandings, glitches and the doings of the disgruntled.

"I think you have to surround yourself with ethical people," Brown told the reporter. "I think we spend our money wisely and we have a lot of nice programs. . . . I think things have improved a lot and will improve a lot more in the future to change this organization for the better. If you look at us six months from where we are today, I think you'll see a lot of better results."

But Brian Brown would be long gone before the six months were up.
In early 1995, he signed a three-year lease with a Phoenix office complex, found the Apache Junction post office box and incorporated in North Carolina under a new name--National Relief Charities.

The charity registered with the Better Business Bureau, naming a "Ted Firethunder" as its Arizona contact person. Firethunder's local phone number is listed as 602-811-6955, though Arizona doesn't have an 811 prefix.

In March 1995, Brian Brown hired veteran Phoenix telemarketing manager Tom Hennessey to head the new local office. Hennessey says Firethunder is a South Dakotan who had nothing to do with the Phoenix operation.

Hennessey did no homework on his new employer before he took the job.
"Brian flew me up to South Dakota to see things," recalls Hennessey, a soft-spoken man in his late 40s. "He told me, 'Don't tell anyone we're moving, okay?' I knew I was in some kind of charade, but I let it ride. That was a mistake."

Former American Indian Relief Council supervisor Jacque St. Claire analyzed Brian Brown for Indian Country Today shortly after he closed shop in Rapid City: "He came here and took us on a dirty ride, caused us a great expense, and left us high and dry."

Who basically are you?
My name is David.
And you're a fund-raiser, a telemarketer?

Well, I don't know. We're a nonprofit charity that raises funds for hungry Native Americans.

--dialogue between potential donor and National Relief Charities telemarketer, summer 1996

Tom Hennessey took the witness stand in October at an Arizona unemployment hearing for one of his former top assistants.

At issue was whether the employee merited benefits, or if he'd been fired justifiably. Clifford Johnson, Hennessey's successor as National Relief Charities' telemarketing general manager, questioned him at the hearing.

"Did you believe in National Relief Charities' mission and purpose?" Johnson asked.

"As far as I understood, yes," Hennessey replied. "The original mission and cause were very worthwhile, but I found out that certain claims made by the charity were not true. The amount of money that was raised and what was dispensed to the Indians was very disproportionate and considerably different than what we were led to believe."

After the hearing--which the ex-employee lost--Hennessey relived his year-plus as Brian Brown's employee.

At first, he says, things went great guns. The classified ad he wrote to attract workers he now sees as ironic--"A REAL JOB, NOT A SNOW JOB," its headline promised. He hired about 50 telemarketers for starters, only a handful of them Indians.

"Brian told me he didn't care if he saw another Indian," Hennessey says. "But I made a concerted effort to hire Native Americans because they could personalize the pitch so well."

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This comment is posted by National Relief Charities for clarification and accuracy. ** David and Bernice Myers founded the Famine Relief Fund in Virginia in 1998. It closed in 1990, the same year David Myers started AIRC in South Dakota (SD). He operated as a call center with Native Americans raising funds used in turn to provide services for Native people. In 1992, Myers resigned as President of AIRC on short notice. He brought in Brown as President and took a service contract with AIRC during the transition.

In 1993, the Pennsylvania Attorney General brought a case against Brown, Myers and AIRC by association, related to alleged misuse of funds/payments to Directors and exaggerated claims in fundraising. The settlement agreement in this case clearly states “no finding of wrongdoing” and AIRC incurred no fine. AIRC ended the case by offering a settlement to stop the drain on legal fees – AIRC’s federal 990 form includes this information. However, AIRC asked that the settlement funds be directed to aid specific tribes in need that AIRC was already serving.

The form 990s for the early years show program percentages started high (60%) but declined (40% to 25%) as the organization attempted to expand and in doing so incurred higher fundraising costs. However, at no time was the percent of donations at the 2% or 4% level as mentioned in this article. Nor did the SD office close when the Arizona (AZ) office opened; rather, SD expanded to serve more Plains tribes, even as AZ was growing.

The early 990s also show AIRC served 15+ tribes in the Plains and Southwest. Resources benefited many people and communities – not just a single tribe. AIRC’s early income is also misperceived. AIRC had no gift-in-kind products to distribute at the time; all services were cash-based and income ranged from $1.5 to $5M. Program expenses ranged from about $1 to $1.5M and included job services (10-45% of program expense), self-help programs (housing, gardening, 10-40%), substance abuse (about 10%), and a Native crafts make-sell program (about 10%). Roughly, 45% was grants, 25% specific aid to individuals, 10% substance abuse, 10% crafts and 10% self-help.

Today, AIRC is one of eight programs of National Relief Charities, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in good standing. NRC is a GuideStar Gold Exchange Member, representing the highest level of transparency, and a Top-Rated Nonprofit. NRC’s headquarters and telemarketing center is located in Texas. NRC serves 65 reservations in 11 states, benefiting 250,000 Native Americans each year. We invite you to review NRC’s 2012 annual reportand form 990 for accurate information and to contact us at 800-416-8102 or if you have any questions.

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