Former employees of Kids Wish Network say the Holiday, Fla.-based charity exploits sick and dying children to raise cash, then misleads donors about where their money goes.

The criticism from four ex-employees comes after Kids Wish was named in June as the worst charity in America by the Tampa Bay Times and The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Ex-employees who stepped forward said they were not surprised by the ranking, which was based on how much charities spent on for-profit solicitors over a decade.

“I realized this was more of a money, money, money business than a children’s organization,” said Rhonda Erlo, who worked as a wish coordinator for about a year before leaving in April. “There are better organizations people can give their money to.”

Erlo and Meanda Dubay, another former wish coordinator, spoke on the record for the first time recently with the Times. Dubay also was interviewed by CNN, which partnered with the Times and CIR to investigate charities with high fundraising costs.

Two other former employees agreed to be interviewed by CNN, but only if their identities were kept hidden.

All four employees told similar stories of a charity that was more interested in cash than sick children. CNN’s report will run on “Anderson Cooper 360.”

The workers said Kids Wish handed out about 70 wishes a year to children with life-threatening diseases. But millions of dollars donated by the general public wasn’t needed to fund those wishes, these employees said.

Instead, it was up to a handful of Kids Wish workers to get theme parks, hotels, restaurants and retailers to donate the goods and services needed to fulfill a child’s wish. At the same time, other employees would call civic groups in the child’s hometown to drum up cash.

The former employees said their internal fundraising efforts could be effective, sometimes more than covering the cost of a child’s wish.

“We would have one person call to get the actual services donated, while another person was calling to get the money donated for things I was already getting for free,” said Dubay, who was a wish coordinator for about six months in 2011. “I wouldn’t go and say, ‘Take this off the budget, I got it for free.’ I have no idea where that money would go.”

If a community was particularly responsive to a child’s story, employees said, their supervisor had them keep calling long after enough money had been raised for the child’s wish.

Erlo, the employee who left this year, said she met a goal of $2,100 to fulfill one child’s wish. But Anna Lanzatella, Kids Wish’s executive director, told her to keep making calls using that child’s name, Erlo said.

“I said, ‘It’s not for her wish,’ ” said Erlo, who felt she was misleading donors. “I realized she just wanted to get more money.”

Erlo and the other employees came forward following a yearlong Times/CIR investigation into charities across the nation. The investigation focused on money raised by outside solicitors, not by a charity’s internal staff.

Over the past decade, Kids Wish reported raising nearly $128 million in cash donations through for-profit solicitors. More than 85 percent of that was retained by those outside fundraisers.

Among the fundraising companies to benefit were several owned by Kids Wish’s founder and former executive director, Mark Breiner. Breiner’s marketing companies were paid more than $5 million to do work for his charity, Kids Wish tax filings show.

Officials at Kids Wish said the Times/CIR report was unfair and argued that the majority of charities rely on paid solicitors.

According to IRS filings, however, about 4 percent of all charities use outside fundraisers.

Lanzatella, the charity’s current executive director, declined to respond to the former workers’ allegations. The charity said in an email that it is considering legal action against employees who violate “post-employment confidentiality restrictions.”

When CNN reporter Drew Griffin tried to interview Lanzatella at Kids Wish’s office last week, he was told she was not in, even though her car was parked by the front door. Two hours later, Lanzatella emerged from the office and went to her car.

She denied any wrongdoing by Kids Wish and said, “We’ve helped hundreds of thousands of children, and that’s what we’re going to continue to do.”

Breiner, Kids Wish’s founder, has denied conflicts of interest with his marketing companies’ work for the charity. It paid his companies $1.8 million while he was executive director and $3.3 million since his retirement in mid-2010.

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Kris Hundley joined the Tampa Bay Times 17 years ago as a business reporter. She is now a member of the Times’ investigative team.

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.