Unbridled Spending: Troubleshooters examine a popular Derby gala

Published: Dec. 14, 2020 at 7:09 PM EST
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - It’s one of Louisville’s grandest Derby galas.

“The Unbridled Charitable Foundation is a 501c3,” Tonya York Dees told us at the 2019 gala. “What a lot of people don’t realize is we’ve chosen multiple benefactors every year, and Blessings (in a Backpack) has been one of our primaries for eight years, but we also do Fund for the Arts, Animal Care Society, USA Cares, many other charities, so we try to make a greater impact by giving donations and bringing to the forefront recognition for all these charities that people might not know about.”

When it comes to giving donations to those charities from the money brought in, how is Unbridled Eve doing? According to Unbridled Eve’s 990 tax form for 2018, Unbridled Eve took in $848,871 in contributions and grants, spent $849,474 and then paid out $52,250 in grants, including $25,000 to Blessings in a Backpack and $15,000 to Fund for the Arts.

That’s about 6 percent of the money brought in.

In the previous year, 2017, Unbridled Eve collected $1,194,691 in contributions. It spent $1,047,923, then paid out $70,500 to charities. That’s just under 6 percent. And that’s pretty much the pattern going back to 2013; between 4 percent and 7 percent of the money collected by Unbridled Eve went back out to the charities.

“I have seen red flags that are clearly evident in reviewing their IRS 990,” Bennett Weiner, of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, said.

WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters asked Weiner, the head of the BBB charity monitoring organization that evaluates charitable accountability, to look at Unbridled Eve.

“One of the things that leaped out at me was on the schedule of functional expenses, the 990, which shows how much they spent on programs vs. administration vs. fundraising,” Weiner said.

He said the charities should be getting a minimum of 65 percent of the donations, a far cry from 6 percent.

“When people contribute money in response to that type of event, they would expect the majority of what they give to go for the charitable purpose they were solicited for,” Weiner said.

We also noticed that while the 2018 990 shows Blessings in a Backpack getting $25,000 and Fund for the Arts $15,000, York Management is listed as being paid $81,000, of which Unbridled Eve co-founder Tonya York Dees is the president.

When WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters contacted Blessings in a Backpack Chief Financial Officer Kevin Beam about all this, he asked, “It does look kind of bad doesn’t it?”

“Something is better than nothing,” he added.

In a Dec. 1 email, Tonya York Dees and Tammy York Day wrote they are “not interested in an on-camera interview” with WAVE 3 News Troubleshooters, and wrote “As with anything meaningful in life, there will always be those who want to shoot arrows.”

They contend it’s not all about the 990. Up until 2018, their yearly 990s described their mission as hosting “charitable fund-raising events to disburse to charitable, scientific, literary and educational causes.”

But in 2018, they added they “facilitated introductions to other donors” at the gala who they say wound up giving money to the charity partners outside the event “as a result of the high-profile public relations and media plan.”

They shared a list of donations they said are made to charities outside of their foundation that they claim are the result of introductions made at the gala. They claim direct donations plus facilitated introductions over the years totaled $3,268,000 for charities.

They also shared a 2018 email from the Blessings in a Backpack chief marketing officer, Nikki Grizzle, who is also on the Unbridled Eve Gala committee, that said “we are proud to be part of the Unbridled Eve family” after “$2.3 million in donations to Blessings ... many the result of introductions made by our Unbridled Eve hosts.”

The head of the Wise Giving Alliance said counting facilitated introductions is a stretch, and it doesn’t change what’s going on at the very foundation of the foundation.

“It’s hard to claim that the organization was responsible for someone else making a donation because there are so many other influences that can take place,” Weiner said. “Just because you introduced two parties doesn’t mean that’s the reason someone decided to make a gift. That may all be true, but the fact of the matter is people look to see what this organization has done with its money, in terms of program services it carries out, and that’s important.”

How many tax exempt charitable organizations are not able to meet the threshold of giving at least 65 percent of the money collected to the charities?

Weiner said fewer than 10 percent of the charities his organization monitors are unable to meet that standard.

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