Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation

Location: Schererville, Ind.

Total cash raised: .8 million

Total fundraising costs: .1 million

Cash raised by solicitors: .6 million

Total paid for professional solicitation campaigns: million

Total spent on programs: .3 million

Disciplinary actions*: 0

* Information provided by state regulators in more than 35 states.

Based on IRS 990 filings from 2008-2011, when available. Autism Spectrum only filed a simplified 990 for smaller organizations in 2008, so these numbers reflect three years of information: 2009-2011.

Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation is one of the worst charities in America when it comes to spending large amounts of cash on for-profit solicitation companies.

But that fact has been obscured in documents filed with state regulators.

The Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting took a closer look at the charity after readers suggested we investigate.

IRS tax documents show that over the past three years, the charity raised $7.6 million through its solicitors. More than 90 percent of that was paid directly to for-profit solicitation companies hired by the charity.

Its history of using high-cost fundraisers for most of its income would be enough to make Autism Spectrum one of the nation’s worst charities on the Times/CIR list. The rankings are based on the amount of money charities spend on fundraisers. But because state reports filed by one of the charity’s solicitors understated Autism Spectrum’s fundraising cost, it did not make the list.

The charity was founded in 2007 and is run by Michael Slutsky. The organization’s mission is to educate the public about autism and provide families and community organizations with financial assistance, tools and educational material to help detect and treat the disease.

It provides scholarships for autistic children to attend “social skills” camp, sends holiday gift cards to families with autistic children, and gives Early Detection Kits to agencies that work with infants, toddlers and preschool children, according to its website.

But Autism Spectrum has done far more for professional solicitors than it has for people with autism.

Of the $7.6 million raised by solicitors, less than 3 percent has been spent on direct cash aid.

Three charities that received grants from Autism Spectrum said they were unaware of its high-cost fundraising. Shelley Reilley, president of Parker Autism Foundation in North Carolina, said her charity needed the money.

“I need to make sure that my families are taken care of, and if this is the way that I have to do it, then I will,” she said. ”I couldn’t do it without his (Slutsky’s) help.”

She said she has received about $10,800 from Autism Spectrum each year for the past three years. The organization also donated Target gift cards at Christmas and a new van for transporting children to the camp run by Parker Autism Foundation.

Grants are a small part of Autism Spectrum’s programs. About two-thirds of the $2.3 million the charity reported spending on programs was educational material delivered in conjunction with its fundraising pitches. 

The Times and CIR asked the charity for samples of fundraising material that includes educational messages. Charity officials did not provide examples, and Slutsky said the charity is trying to reduce its fundraising costs.

(If you have been solicited by one of Autism Spectrum’s fundraisers, please contact us).

A report by the St. Louis Better Business Bureau found ties between Autism Spectrum and two other charities that rely heavily on professional solicitors: Veterans Relief Network of Dyer, Ind., and National Cancer Assistance Foundation of Sarasota, Fla.

Slutsky is listed as its registered officer and agent of the cancer charity. The president of the veterans’ charity, Helen Ignas, is a director of Autism Spectrum, according to the charity’s most recent tax filings. Documents filed with North Carolina also list the same home address for Ignas and Slutsky.

Slutsky said that Ignas was a friend and that she is not on the board of directors. He said Autism Spectrum had no relationship with Veterans Relief Network or the National Cancer Assistance Foundation.

The charity has gotten low marks from watchdog organizations. Charity Watch gave it an F, and Charity Navigator issued a zero-star rating. The Better Business Bureau reported that the charity did not disclose information when requested.

Why Autism Spectrum didn’t make our list

Reports filed by one of its solicitors with regulators in California, Florida and New York say that Autism Spectrum gets almost 50 percent of the money raised. The reality is the charity gets closer to 20 percent, according to the charity’s tax filings.

The charity referred questions about its solicitor’s reports to the company, Associated Community Services.

The president of Associated Community Services, Richard Cole, said his company provides accurate information to state regulators but wouldn’t explain the discrepancy.

Many other charities that work with Associated Community Services pay a company owned by the telemarketer an additional 20 percent of every dollar raised for collecting donations and accounting services.  

For example, Youth Development Fund, No. 12 on the Times/CIR list of America’s worst charities, reported on its 2010 tax filing that it retained more than half of the money raised by Associated Community Services. But separately, it reported that an additional $540,000 was paid to Central Processing Solutions, a company at the same address as the telemarketer. In the end, Youth Development Fund received less than a third of the money raised.

How they compare

Autism Spectrum Disorder Foundation spent more than 90 percent of donations raised on professional solicitors’ campaigns. Here’s how that compares with the top five medical charities that made the Times/CIR list of America’s worst:**

** From 2011 IRS 990 filing or latest year available

Charity Investigator is an initiative by The Center for Investigative Reporting and Tampa Bay Times as part of our America’s Worst Charities project. We’ve solicited tips from readers about nonprofits they believe our reporters should investigate. You can submit a tip here.

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Kendall Taggart is a former data reporter at The Center for Investigative Reporting. Her recent project, America's Worst Charities, exposed systemic weaknesses in state and federal oversight of nonprofits. The series, produced in collaboration with the Tampa Bay Times, won the Barlett & Steele Award gold prize. Kendall also was part of the reporting team that uncovered flaws in the way school regulators in California inspect and certify public schools to ensure they are seismically safe. That series, On Shaky Ground, won the public service award from Scripps Howard and two awards from Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kendall is a Massachusetts native and graduate of Reed College. She has lived and worked in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Trujillo, Peru.