Native Sun News: Charity operation in Rapid City sees criticism

The following story was written and reported by Jesse Abernathy, Native Sun News Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

National Relief Charities, a nonprofit that allocates donated goods and funding for services to Native Americans on isolated reservations throughout the West, has been criticized recently by some Native parents for its distribution of TOMS shoes, which are widely popular among youth. The parents describe the shoes as “flimsy” and “substandard.” PHOTO COURTESY/NATIONAL RELIEF CHARITIES

National Relief Charities targeted
Recipients, employees criticize Rapid City branch
By Jesse Abernathy
Native Sun News Editor

RAPID CITY — In what could be described as history repeating itself, the local branch of a national charity geared toward serving Native Americans has come under fire by several of its Native beneficiaries and employees for questionable practices.

Rapid City’s National Relief Charities administration has been accused of “bullying and harassing” employees and “squandering” money on unnecessary trips to Las Vegas and Hawaii, as well as delivering “substandard goods,” according to various reports to Native Sun News from within South Dakota’s extensive Native community.

Allegations primarily target Clay Ramsey, program manager for the National Relief Charities Plains Office, located at 2401 Eglin St., and Will Burritt, on-site warehouse manager.

When asked Oct. 5 if he bullies and harasses employees at the Rapid City site, Ramsey’s quick, curt response was “No.” He then referred NSN to National Relief Charities’ spokeswoman, Helen Oliff, who is based in Phoenix.

“We have a great organization that we run here, we have great employees that have been here a long time – we really do,” Ramsey added before ending the brief interview.

According to Oliff, who previously worked at the Rapid City site for two and a half years, Ramsey is Native American and has been employed by NRC for over six years.

Burritt did not return a call seeking comment.

With an administrative staff of eight, including Ramsey, Burritt and Program Director Kelly Gibson, who oversees the Rapid City location and also serves as NRC’s interim president, the coverage area of the Plains office includes six states: South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

A total of between 20-25 individuals are employed out of the Rapid City location, said Oliff in an Oct. 5 telephone interview, adding that “It’s a busy office.”

In response to the allegations of supervisory misconduct on the part of Ramsey and Burritt, Oliff said, “We’re nonprofit; we have to be good stewards of our time and money all the time. … I’m not aware of any issues (of bullying and harassing employees) that we had. It could just be disgruntlement for some other reason.”

“I know him (Ramsey) to be a very good manager, and all of us at NRC work hard. I think if there was something going on it would be reflected in other ways.”

All nine reservations in South Dakota – Cheyenne River, Crow Creek, Flandreau, Lake Traverse, Lower Brule, Pine Ridge, Rosebud, Standing Rock and Yankton – are included in the Plains office coverage area.

National Relief Charities, a not-for-profit organization with a service area that covers almost all of the Western United States, provides goods and services to 75 remote, impoverished reservations scattered throughout this service area. The charity claims it aids over 300,000 Natives per year.

The agency’s mission is “To help Native American people improve the quality of their lives by providing opportunities for them to bring about positive changes in their communities,” according to information contained on its website. To that end, National Relief Charities forms partnerships with social service and health care agencies as well as schools within rural reservation communities to provide primarily earned goods and services, including dry foods, clothing, diapers, household items and even minor home repairs for elders in the Southwest, to the people through these entities.

“Every service that NRC delivers has an earning and learning component. We involve the people being served in the delivery of the service, affording them dignity, confidence, self-esteem, and a way to give back to their communities,” the organization’s website states in describing impact. “Our Program Partners recruit hundreds of volunteers each year, knowing that change comes from within and that involvement supports change at an individual and community level.”

Headquartered in Sherman, Texas, the bulk of NRC’s funding comes from individual private donations throughout the U.S. In any given year, the charity rakes in around $40 million, according to Oliff, whose official title is public relations manager. “However, about 50 percent of that is in the form of donated goods, so it’s not all cash,” she noted.

Two percent of National Relief’s yearly funding goes toward administration, she said, and that’s to cover the salaries of about 250 employees. “We have over 70 percent going towards programs on an annual basis; that’s company-wide, so we have program teams and fundraising and administration in five offices,” explained Oliff.

Two percent of National Relief’s annual $40 million intake translates to approximately $800,000 expended on employee salaries per year.

In 2011, according to its income tax-exempt return – Form 990 – filed with the Internal Revenue Service, NRC took in $45,914,998, up just over $2.5 million from 2010’s take of $43,408,732.

The organization’s expenditures for 2010 were $42,769,689, according to information reported to the IRS; that gave NRC total revenue of $639,043. In 2011, NRC’s expenditures were $47,482,819; NRC operated at a loss of $1,567,821 last year, on paper anyway.

As with any charity in the nation, National Relief’s tax documents are open to public inspection. Its self-prepared 2011 Annual Impact Report is available online as well; among other things, the report lists revenue, expense, asset and liability amounts.

Additionally, the organization voluntarily provides pertinent financial information to nonprofit online clearinghouses such as GuideStar Exchange, as a member. In the interest of transparency, basic financial and other operational information is available through these clearinghouses to the general public at no cost. Detailed information, however, is usually only available on an incrementally-adjusted for-fee basis; in the case of GuideStar, detailed reports on National Relief Charities run in the hundreds of dollars, which may be cost prohibitive for many individuals wishing to learn how “transparent” philanthropic organizations such as NRC really are.

Basic financial information, including total revenue and expenditures, is also available at no charge in states serviced by National Relief as well as through consumer protection entities such as the Better Business Bureau.

Though it may have now solidly established itself as a legitimate charity, NRC’s original foundation was shaky and suspect, to say the least.

Originally founded in 1990 as the American Indian Relief Council by Brian Brown, a non-Native American from Virginia, the agency initially came under scrutiny by its Native American employees, who suspected Brown’s “charitable” activities were more exploitative of “poor” Native Americans and self-serving than anything.

In April 2001, progressive magazine In These Times reported that “… One rogue charity, the Rapid City, South Dakota-based American Indian Relief Council (AIRC), gained notoriety in the early ’90s when it was accused of dumping useless textbooks and outdated gardening seeds on the Sioux reservation as part of its relief program. One of the AIRC’s largest services was its employment-training program, which consisted of hiring Native Americans to make fundraising calls. Employees blew the whistle on the organization’s dubious fundraising pitches, which they said were manipulative exaggerations and lies. They complained that the money the AIRC raised for Native Americans wasn’t making it to the reservations.”

According to Oliff – who did not specifically name Brown as the founder of the charity, either during the course of the Oct. 5 interview or in her subsequent follow-up email to NSN on Oct. 8 – the founding individual no longer is a part of National Relief Charities. And in order to find out the name of the founding individual, “I would have to go back and look that up,” she said during the interview.

Also in its investigative report, In These Times discovered that “Eventually the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office sued the AIRC in 1993 for lying to donors about certain reservations, claiming they were hit by catastrophic natural disasters and needed funds to prevent famine and death. The lawsuit also charged that the AIRC overvalued the prices of goods it donated to tribes – like the expired seeds – listing them at market value. In 1999, AIRC President Brian Brown settled the lawsuit and agreed to pay the state $350,000.”

Oliff, however, contends that “the facts in the article were wrong” and National Relief has “posted that (statement) quite a bit online to try and set the facts straight. The allegations were never proven. … No fine was ever paid because no violation was ever shown, and I have seen the settlement agreement on that and it clearly states no finding of wrongdoing on the part of AIRC or NRC, which now owns that program,” she maintains.

Additionally, National Relief Charities does not use terms such as “catastrophic natural disasters” and “famine and death” in its donor appeal scripts utilized by compensated fundraisers, or telemarketers, who operate out of Manila, Philippines. This international outsourcing of jobs helps to keep overhead costs down, according to Oliff.

For many reservation residents, hunger, lack of access to fresh, nutritious foods (food deserts) and inadequate clothing, housing and health care are all part of an everyday struggle.

In light of these conditions, telemarketers talk about food and security issues on reservations when soliciting potential donors, Oliff says.

In These Times further reported in 2001 that “ … Instead of shutting down the AIRC, Brown – who had previously been sued by the attorneys general of Connecticut and Pennsylvania in 1991 for inflating commodity values and deceiving donors – discreetly downsized the group’s South Dakota operations and shifted its focus to the American Southwest. The AIRC has been born anew under a different parent organization, National Relief Charities … .”

“I wanted to confirm that AIRC was incorporated in North Carolina in 1990. It became a program of NRC in 1994, as one of eight programs,” Oliff stated in the Oct 8 follow-up email to NSN.

In addition to the retooled American Indian Relief Council, NRC has seven other subsidiary programs it operates under its auspices: American Indian Education Foundation; Council of Indian Nations; Southwest Indian Relief Council; Sioux Nation Relief Fund; Navajo Relief Fund; Native American Aid; and Rescue Operation for Animals of the Reservation.

As far as the Rapid City office “squandering” donated funds on unnecessary trips to Las Vegas and Hawaii, Oliff says this allegation stems from a misunderstanding of the scope of National Relief’s reach.

“I think one of the issues that contributes to the misunderstanding of NRC is that people do not understand our size. They think what they see in SD is it. NRC has 5 offices and provides services to reservations in 11 states in the Plains and Southwest all throughout the year,” Oliff said in her email. “Obviously managing these activities requires some travel but no, we do not hold retreats. We do hold annual strategic planning meetings and Board meetings at cost-effective locations, and the cost for this is included in our 2% administrative expense.”

Four of the charity’s administrative offices are located in the U.S., while the fifth office is the fundraising call center in the Philippines.

And the delivery of “substandard” goods to the Native Americans it serves is simply untrue, Oliff says. She has never heard about any complaints to that effect.

“Our team is dedicated and works hard to meet the mission and fulfill our responsibility to the people we serve,” she stated in the email.

Oliff went on to say that she “confirmed with HR (Human Resources) that there are no employee complaints. As noted, we are an EEO-compliant organization and every employee at NRC knows there are available channels for complaints, including and other than their immediate supervisor. This is consistent with HR best practices.”

“EEO-compliant” refers to National Relief Charities’ adherence to the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity laws that prohibit discriminatory hiring and employment practices.

Don Colhoff, an employee at the National Relief Charities Plains Office in Rapid City, describes his working relationship with Ramsey as being “pretty good” and that he likes working at the Rapid City site.

“I’ve never heard anybody complain about him (Ramsey), but I don’t really pay attention to stuff like that. I’m usually pretty busy,” Colhoff said with a chuckle. “I think (Ramsey’s) an ex-Marine. He’s the military type; his philosophy … I think that kind of rubs people the wrong way. But once you get past that, get to know him as a person, he’s pretty all right,” he added.

Colhoff, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe who lives in Rapid City, had previously worked at NRC for seven years and returned to work there as a truck driver/warehouse worker last month.

He said that the Plains office used to distribute goods to Natives within the Rapid City community against company policy, but has now implemented a volunteer system in which potential beneficiaries must earn donated goods such as clothing and nonperishable food items through a point system. As a fellow Native, he knows that it can be hard for some of the city’s urban Natives to make ends meet and wishes the local site would include Rapid City in its service area as a matter of policy.

“It would be a good thing,” Colhoff noted.

National Relief Charities should also strive to employ more Native Americans at its Rapid City site, he said. Rose Fraser, Oglala Sioux Tribe member and program coordinator for Kyle’s youth center, Oyate Teca, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, said her program has been an NRC partner since the 1990s.

“We collaborate with National Relief Charities, and they really help us with our (youth) incentives and stuff,” Fraser explained. “I really believe that without them we wouldn’t be able to do some of our programs.”

In addition, Oyate Teca has a parent point system in place – similar to the point system in Rapid City – in which active parents can earn “points” toward the “purchase” of donated goods at NRC’s warehouse in Rapid City. The response from parents to this system has been positive, Fraser says.

And her work-related interactions with Ramsey have always been positive, she added.

“I really, really advocate (NRC’s) program to all the program partners in Kyle, like the school … . All of my work that I’ve ever done with every single one of the staff members (in Rapid City) has been positive. I’ve never came into anything that was negative. They’re all professional.”

If anything, the complaints about the National Relief Charities Plains Office in Rapid City “have to be personal. That’s what I think,” said Fraser.

Oliff says she has no reason to believe that administrative misconduct is taking place at the Rapid City location. “We’re doing a world of good for people all over,” she said, “and I’m not aware of any other organization that’s doing this much good for Indian country as we are.”

(Contact Jesse Abernathy at

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