Putting the aDa in MADD

Americans are a charitable people. In fact, our altruistic tendencies caused Americans to donate over $300 billion to charities in 2009. But with 1.5 million charitable organizations vying for public support, it’s hard to know if your money is being funneled to places that are bloated, poorly run, or even downright scams.

The American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Rating Guide keeps an eye on non-profits in order to ensure they are wisely spending the money they receive from governments, corporations, and private citizens. Grading on a scale that everyone can understand – charities receive a letter grade from A to F – the guide helps donors get the most bang for their buck.

That’s why the AIP’s recent downgrading of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to a “D” rating is so important. Everyone wants to get drunk drivers off of the roads and every year thousands of Americans give money to MADD to support that mission and provide services to the families of drunk driving victims. But where is that money really going?

In its earliest days, MADD filled an important niche on the American political scene. Before 1980 there was little discussion of drunk driving.  Back then, if a police officer pulled over an obviously drunk driver he or she would likely to be sent on their way with a scolding. But all that changed after Candy Lightner founded MADD in the wake of her daughter’s death at the hands of a multiple-offense drunk driver.

Due in large part to Lightner’s efforts and greater responses by alcohol retailers, drunk driving fatalities decreased by a full third between 1982 and 1995.  While drunk driving deaths used to account for over 60 percent of fatalities on the highways, today that number has been cut in half.

While we can’t declare outright victory in the war against drunk driving any more than reckless driving, we can certainly acknowledge that great strides have been made. MADD recognizes we “are now down to a hard core of alcoholics who do not respond to public appeals.” The vast majority of drunk driving deaths are caused by those who chronically drive drunk and do so with extremely abusive drinking behavior. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the average drunk driver in a fatal accident has a blood alcohol level of more than twice the legal limit.

In many ways, MADD is a victim of its own success.

With the drunk driving problem so much diminished, MADD works to stay relevant by expanding the number of people it is attacking. The group has pivoted from a reasonable public interest outfit concerned with deadly drunken drivers to a radical activist group that wants to install alcohol detection devices in every automobile as factory-installed equipment.

Depending on your body weight and gender, having even a single glass of wine with dinner could make it impossible to start your car. This is neo-prohibitionism and far beyond the scope of what MADD’s founder intended for her organization.

“Police ought to be concentrating their resources on arresting drunk drivers — not those drivers who happen to have been drinking,” Lightner said after leaving the organization. “I worry that the movement I helped create has lost direction.”

Of course, it’s not her organization any longer. Under the aegis of Chuck Hurley, MADD’s CEO from 2005 to 2010, MADD has devolved into little more than a vehicle for funneling money to its lobbyists and employees. In 2008, MADD spent almost $30 million on salaries, fringe benefits, and fundraising, leaving just a third of its budget available for victim services and charity work. Hurley used the once-venerable organization as a means of enriching MADD’s board; during his tenure, compensation for officers and directors spiked by 56 percent. Overall, spending on employees jumped 38 percent. At the same time, the group’s revenue dipped by almost a quarter.

The numbers don’t lie. Whereas AIP states that a nonprofit organization should spend only $35 to raise $100, MADD spends almost twice that amount. And AIP isn’t the only philanthropy watchdog to have noticed MADD’s shady practices: Charity Navigator gives MADD only one out of four stars.

MADD receives a third of its operating budget from government grants – i.e., your tax dollars – and corporate donations, and an equal amount from individual donations. Isn’t it time that MADD’s enablers, er, donors, demanded greater accountability?

With the group’s 30th anniversary fast approaching, MADD’s new CEO, Kimberly Earle, should use this AIP report as an excuse to clean house, cut down on institutional bloat, and refocus efforts on curbing “drunken driving” as opposed to all moderate and responsible “drinking and driving.”

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