Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund: An Unregistered NJ Charity Raises In Excess of $1,000,000 for Hurricane Sandy Relief

On February 10, 2013, the Asbury Park Press published a report written by Staff Writer Shannon Mullen about a charity calling itself Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund. This is the same name as New Jersey First Lady Mary Pat Christie's hurricane relief fund, but is in no way connected to it.

According to the report, founder John Sandberg began registering domain names related to Hurricane Sandy and anticipated relief efforts in the week before the storm actually hit and filed paperwork to register his non-profit organization on October 30 – the day after the storm left the area. According to the report, Sandberg explained that he anticipated that existing relief groups and government agencies would be overwhelmed if the destruction turned out to be as dire as forecasters had warned. The reality is the destruction was far worse than any forecaster predicted, but there were very few people in our area who were prescient enough to know that in advance.

“Nobody’s been out there since day one like we were – nobody,” Sandberg, 30, is quoted as saying. Sandberg, a real estate salesman shares a home in Sussex County with his girlfriend and charity co-founder Christina Terracino, 27, who is an accountant.

“We were out there before the Red Cross. I was delivering pallets of Vitamin Water all across South Jersey since week one, before anybody had anything,” Sandberg asserted. 

As a person who was directly involved in relief effort in the first 36 hours after the storm made landfall, I'll disagree with Sandberg’s claim. Although the Red Cross and FEMA were slow in responding, tens of thousands of private volunteers and private-sector relief groups were in the affected areas almost immediately. On the Tuesday evening after the storm, a relief supply drop-off point set-up at Toms River North High School had five school buses filled top to bottom and stem to stern with clothing and blankets. I speak for the tens of thousands of people who were out there immediately when I say I take exception to Sandberg's claim that he was "out there before anybody."

When asked about similarities between Christie’s relief organization and his own, Sandberg commented that “technically [Christie] copied me." His reference was to the domain registration, even though legally Sandberg never actually registered his charity. Internet domain registrations do not take precedence over legal filings.

In fairness to Sandberg’s charity, HSRF has donated supplies and gift cards totaling almost $650,000 from received donations. 
However, as of the report’s publication, the Hurricane Sandy Relief Foundation as yet to distribute over $800,000 in cash donations received through its website. “I wouldn’t say we’re in over our heads, but I think we definitely put the brakes on at the right time to re-evaluate, you know, before making a mistake,” Sandberg said.

The HSRF is not registered as a charity or a tax-exempt organization in the State of New Jersey or with the IRS, in spite of claims to the contrary on its website.

Hundreds of grassroots organizations sprang up in the aftermath of the storm, and while there are bound to be organizations being set up by people with ill-intent, it is also just as possible that in cases like Sandberg’s HSRF, the founders are simply ill-equipped to handle the crush of donations.

Speaking from experience, I raised almost $8,000 worth of gift cards and hard goods in the three weeks immediately following the storm simply through appeals on social media outlets. I discouraged monetary donations and made the point to know that once the $10,000 limit had been reached I was liable to the IRS to report the donations. My point is, I expected maybe a thousand dollars after begging and cajoling and I was not prepared for the avalanche of love and support from people from around the country. I suppose the benefit of the doubt is the proper course to take here, but after reading the entire report I can’t help but feel uncomfortable about HSRF.

The Red Cross, through my own personal experience, is not an organization I would donate to, but as reported here earlier in the week, the Robin Hood Foundation seems to be doing fabulous work providing relief. There are hundreds of others. The needs are still great, especially in the hardest hit areas on the barrier island in Ocean County and the Bayshore area in Monmouth County, and charities who muddy up the waters of goodwill with either irresponsible or nefarious actions only hurt the people who are still trying to rebuild their lives.

To check a charity’s tax-exempt status, refer to the IRS online database or call 977-829-5500. 

Donations are still needed, and will be for sometime. It's far too soon in the journey for the rest of us to forget about the affected.

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