Kappa diverts cancer donations

by Zachary Goldstein | 11/18/05 6:00am

Last May, Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority hosted two annual spring traditions within a week of each other. On May 28, Kappa sponsored its third-annual Breast Cancer Walk/Run fundraiser, with all proceeds to benefit the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. A week later the sorority held its traditional senior banquet -- a sumptuous buffet served by Blood's Catering. But when it came time to pay the cancer center and the catering company, the sorority's funds were not sufficient to write checks to both. The caterer got paid. The cancer center did not.

It was not until October that the full amount raised -- $1,484.74 -- was paid to the cancer center, but in the end, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center "got every cent of it," Kappa president Katie Fahey '06 said.

The five-month delay was not premeditated, according to Kappa treasurer Katie Jaxheimer '06. The event's organizers had intended to cut the check immediately upon pooling the donations in early June, but with their house account in the negative and no special fundraising account set aside, the check had to wait.

"I want to be clear that we were not specifically taking money from the cancer center," Fahey said. "We have one big bank account that all the money goes into. When we had to pay too much for the banquet, we didn't have enough to write the check."

Fahey stressed that the funds were not deliberately taken from the cancer center.

The sorority was unable to restore the house account to a positive balance until the Fall term, and it increased membership dues for the term in order to ensure sufficient funds for the donation.

"Our only source of income is through dues, so we had to wait until we had at least two classes of Kappa on campus in order to write the check," Jaxheimer said. "For Fall term we increased house dues by $10 per person to make sure we would be able to donate the money as soon as possible."

Kappa's incident provides a cautionary tale. For five months, nearly $1,500 in charitable donations went unaccounted for. Despite the College's limited oversight procedures, which include an informal audit at least once per term, no one was aware of the missing funds.

Laurie Rogers is the financial assistant for the coed, fraternity and sorority system and the undergraduate societies. Hired by the organizations themselves, it is her job to informally audit the books of each organization at least once per term. While unable to comment on any specific organization's finances, Rogers said that, in general, she would notice a large deposit into an account with no matching expenditure.

"But the ultimate responsibility is theirs," Rogers said. "I certainly will look for that more in the future. But even if I did see something, all I could do is comment on it [to the organization]."

Dean of Residential Life Martin Redman acknowledged the danger inherent in fundraising efforts. Whenever an organization is transferring money from donor to charity, there is always a risk of losing track of some along the way, whether negligently or more maliciously, he said.

"It is certainly good news that the cancer center was paid," Redman said. "But you could unfortunately imagine a different situation where some money does disappear."

Director of Co-ed, Fraternity and Sorority Administration Deb Carney agreed.

"You have got to trust students," Carney said. "In the end, it is about ethical decision-making and trusting that if they say they are going to do something, they will do it. It's about integrity, because bad things can happen to any organization."

But while College officials emphasize the importance of honesty and integrity in campus fundraising, they downplay the role the College has played in facilitating dangerous fundraising practices.

In addition to the declining balance account on every student's Dartmouth Card, which is used for food, students have access to a DASH discretionary fund for campus expenses. While the most common uses for the DASH include vending machines and laundry, a few departments on campus, including the Tucker Foundation, Student Activities and Residential Life, allow their member organizations access to DASH accounts.

Traditionally, student groups from fraternities to publications have used student donations via DASH as a primary source of charitable revenue. The corresponding College department -- for Kappa, it was Residential Life -- then processes these transfers and writes a check to the organization.

But Redman acknowledged that, with approximately $40,000 raised annually by Greek organizations, this may not be the safest or most efficient way of processing donations.

"My concern in looking through this stuff is that I'm not sure we are serving ourselves well by not writing the check directly to the charity," Redman said. "We are assuming good faith on everyone's part and assuming that no improprieties will take place, but could we clean up the process by changing our policies? Probably. Perhaps we should allow groups to use DASH only if the check that we write goes to the [charity]."

Redman said that Kappa's incident has led him to start conversations with the other College officials responsible for processing these kinds of DASH donations.

"We should be able to do better to increase oversight on the part of the fundraising that we help with. We are nervous about whether we are doing what's best for the charitable organizations or the students," he said.

Such a change would likely be appreciated by the fundraising organizations as well.

"Yeah, that would be good," Fahey said, referring to the writing of DASH checks directly to the charity. "Then we wouldn't have had to work to find some way to pay [the cancer center]. We wouldn't have had to touch that money. It would have been less work for us and safer."

Both Redman and Jaxheimer pointed out that by cutting out the fundraising organization in the middle, it may make it difficult to cover up-front fundraising expenses like T-shirts or a band.

As Redman noted, however, increasing supervision over DASH donations is only half the issue. In fact, in the case of Kappa, DASH comprised less than one-fourth of the total amount raised: just $351. Making sure donations received via cash and check get to the right place is much more difficult.

For fundraisers run through an organization's primary account, Rogers stressed the importance of maintaining watertight records of all the monies that go in or out of the account and clearly categorizing those for fundraisers in order to dispel any appearance of impropriety. Organizations can also use secondary accounts reserved specifically for fundraising so that charitable donations and house funds do not mix.

Kappa members are resolute in their assertion that the five-month delay that slowed the transfer of charitable donations to the Norris Cotton Cancer Center was unintentional; it was more a result of sloppy financial planning and unforeseen circumstances than intentional misappropriation. But given the current loopholes in the College regulatory system, it is not hard to imagine a much more malicious theft by an organization in the future without additional oversight.

"In a way it's good this happened, because now we will all be more cautious. But I'm sure no one did anything intentionally in this case, just a slip," Rogers said.

As for the cancer center, it's just happy to have received any donation at all.

"We are grateful for any support," DHMC Director of Development Dominic Albanese. "We want to put the money we receive to work as soon as we can, but we are grateful for any support we do receive."