Last April, I published a piece here called, "A Long Time Between Articles" that briefly discussed a lot of topics. Under the heading, "Where Does All Of The Money Go?" I wrote that I suspected that many if not most large non-profit organizations who claim to serve the population of people with vision impairment spend more time and energy building their endowments than they do on actual programs for the blind. I made this assertion based on very little data about the sector as a whole and grounded my analysis on a few organizations whose financial information I had seen. This article and the downloadable supplementary spreadsheets contain the actual financial information for as many of the most notable blindness organizations we could find and, indeed, many of the biggest are sitting atop a mountain of cash while spending relatively little on programs for the people they state they are helping.
In that same article, I asked for volunteers to help me with research for this and possibly some other pieces in the future. A few people wrote to me offering to help but all but one disappeared as soon as I sent them a description of the task at hand. My new friend, the young Aaron Espinoza came through with flying colors and it's largely due to his energy and diligence that this article and its planned sequels became possible. Make a note of Aaron's name, he's active in the blindness field in California and I predict his will be a name you'll see often if you follow the world of blindness into the future.
Aaron completed his research months ago but I didn't write the article until today. Essentially, showing the financial information of blindness organizations in its aggregated form does not make the entire landscape look very good. There are some organizations with more than a hundred million dollars in the bank that spend rather frugally in spite of their wealth. We're often asking the question, "why don't we have the money to do some important task for people with vision impairment?" The answer, as you will read below, is that the money is there but the large organizations are steadfastly refusing to spend it on affecting change for the community they claim to represent.
This article is the first in what I hope will turn into a series. In this piece, we explore the aggregated numbers of as many blindness organizations we could find on Charity Navigator or Pro Publica, two sites that track US based non-profit organizations. We did our best to find as many organizations in the blindness space as possible and it's likely that we missed some. If you see such an omission in the supplementary spreadsheet , please point it out in the comments section or by sending us an email via the contact form on this site and we'll add them to our data set.
Before we look at the financial information for the sector, I want to describe the data set and how we gathered it. As I mention above, all of the information in the spreadsheets came from either Charity Navigator or Pro Publica, two sites that track US based 501(c)3 charitable organizations. We searched these sites for every blindness organization we could think of as well as on generic terms like "blind" and "visual impairment." Neither of the sites had all of the organizations listed and the data comes from the most recent year for which we could find information so some is from 2015, 2016 and 2017. No organization appears more than once in the data set.
Because the two charity tracking sites present their data slightly differently, our data set is not perfectly consistent. We did our best to harmonize the data but the reader should be aware that some small differences may have crept into the totals resulting from the different sources being, well, different. We did our best to make it as accurate as possible and, as far as I know, this is the first time in history that anyone has aggregated the wealth of the blind in a single place.
The Big Numbers
Our data set represents a single year's financial information for a lot of different blindness organizations. While some of the data comes from 2015, most from 2016 and some from 2017, we aren't looking at a specific year but, rather, providing a snapshot of how these organizations behaved in a single year. Our research showed that most of these organizations show pretty similar numbers from one year to the next so we believe our harmonized data provides a solid picture of the landscape of this sector.
In our harmonized year, the blindness organizations we studied had income of a little more than $889,000,000, nearly a billion bucks raised. In the same imaginary year, the sector spent a little more than $828,000,000 and put more than $60 million into their bank accounts.,
We should also look at the value of the assets held by these organizations. In our data set, the assets of these groups added up to more than $2,182,000,000, a real lot of money. Unfortunately, neither of our data sources break down an organization's assets into clean categories so we've no idea if these dollars are bound up in real estate and other non-liquid investments. It's impossible for us to know if the assets are being used to serve the community or to amplify the institutional egos of these agencies. Because we cannot know how the assets are invested, I can only say that I would suggest they spend at least 5% of such each year. My 5% number is based on the fact that the US stock market has grown at an average of 9% per year since 1929 so I felt 5% would be sustainable. In fact, the 5% number may be a good guideline for the really large organizations but the smaller ones trying to build their organization into the future will probably not achieve this goal.
To put these large numbers into some perspective, when I was VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific, the annual budget paying all of the programmers, testers and other contributors to JAWS, MAGic, OpenBook, PAC Mate, ConnectOutloud and our other software projects totaled about $1.5 million. We could do all of that work for a fraction of what I believe the non-profits in this sector could afford easily on an annual basis.
If the so called leadership in this sector wanted to, they could buy VFO, Aira, Humanware and literally all of the other AT vendors that are currently owned and governed by sighted investors. We literally could have the power to control our own technological futures if these organizations invested in such, instead they simply appear to be hoarding dollars.
The Worst Organizations
In this section, I'm defining "worst" as those agencies that have a large annual revenue stream, a large amount of assets but still spend relatively little per year.
- With a total of approximately $72,000,000 in annual revenue and assets in excess of $144,000,000 Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) spent a mere $28,000,000 in the year we studied them. Putting all of this money into perspective, important open source projects like NVDA Remote Access, DictationBridge and tdsr were all developed for a total of $35,000. FFB is dedicated to promoting research into cures for blindness and I'm certain there are research centers who could benefit greatly from an extra few million per year.
With assets in excess of $177,000,000 and annual income of more than $12,000,000 LightHouse Guild International (LGI) spent a little less than $8,000,000. I was involved with a project called Spotlight Gateway a project for which we raised $100,000 for LGI to distribute free iPads to blind kids and veterans. LGI got that money roughly two years ago and, to date, have distributed zero devices to the kids. Our money was earmarked for a specific project and LGI simply ignored our requirements.
If you download the spreadsheet containing our entire data set, you will notice that the vast majority of these organizations are spending less than they could be. The question we need to ask is "why?" If these agencies intend to serve this community, why are they playing "Man On The Silver Mountain?"
The Best Example
Reading everything above would lead one to think that all blindness oriented agencies spend their time trying to enrich the organizations rather than serving the community. The LightHouse For The Blind And Visually Impaired Of San Francisco (LHSF) is an example of how a very large blindness group can spend effectively and make a positive impact on the community as a result. With annual revenue of more than $8,000,000 and assets of just over $130,000,000 LHSF , in fact, spent more than $37 million to serve its community. LHSF is very well run and is more committed to serving the community than most any other organization we studied. LHSF has also demonstrated a willingness to support community based projects and financially supported both DictationBridge and tdsr, two of the important free libre open source software projects mentioned above.
What We Didn't Study
If you download the spreadsheet, you will see that we gathered a lot of data that is not mentioned in this article about dozens of different blindness organizations. We used their numbers for total spending in our calculations but we did no research into how this money is actually spent. Looking at the spreadsheet shows that some spend much more on overhead than on their actual programs. We will analyze this in a future article.
If you're interested, though, I highly encourage you to download the spreadsheet and take a look at all of the other data points we didn't cover here. You can learn how much the CEOs of these organizations are paid, other broad categories for spending and lots of other goodies.
The only thing I can conclude from this effort is that a lot of blindness agencies are motivated by institutional ego more than they are by serving their constituents. I suggest you download the spreadsheet and look at the different organizations before you donate to any to try to ensure that your money is being spent and not hoarded.
With my apologies to our friends at LHSF, I publish this corrected version of this article. I had a factual error in my statements about them in the original and it's corrected in this version.