Joe Niamtu, III, D.M.D., is an internationally recognized cosmetic facial surgeon practicing in Richmond Virginia.
Donating to charitable organizations is a great way to give back to the community. However, physicians and practices need to create concrete safeguards to protect against being scammed, says Joe Niamtu III, DMD, who knows the hurt of this very real situation.
Most practitioners are indebted to their community for the success of their practices. I truly believe that most fulfilled and successful doctors are eager to give back to their communities. I, like many readers of this article, have provided pro bono services, participated in volunteer efforts, become involved with numerous charitable organizations, and simply tried to make my community a better place. I performed many charitable reconstructive surgeries on children in the earlier part of my career. I have 2 special needs children with severe disabilities but was active in helping children years before my sons were born. Having said that, much of my current charitable work centers around children and adults with disabilities.
Like many, my practice is called on frequently for charitable fundraising support for innumerable causes. This began as a trickle 20 years ago and has developed into a streaming pipeline. Despite this, I've tried to support any request. The most common request is the donation of a cosmetic item for a charitable auction. Providing a neuromodulator or filler treatment or a skin care basket has been an easy way to support these groups.
Many of the groups are well-known national charities. Additionally, I have supported public and private school fundraising auctions, gymnastic team auctions, golf tournaments, and pretty much every describable request within a community.
For the most part, this has been extremely bilaterally beneficial. My practice gets to assist organizations with raising funds for their good work and at the same time I get recognition as a provider of cosmetic services in my community. Some fundraising “winners” have become regular patients. Generally, this is a win-win situation.
Whether it be seen as good or bad, the more charities you support with donations of products or services, the more requests you get for further donations. As I mentioned earlier, what began as a trickle became a significant investment.
This did not bother me because in the end, I am helping people in need.
Even when they are soliciting with the best of intentions, some people find a way to take advantage of the person or practice donating. In the beginning, we simply accepted all requests and printed a certificate redeemable for a given service. We had no rules and assumed it would be an easy situation.
In years past, some people would come to the practice holding crumpled and tattered auction certificates issued 3 years prior. Others would show up with a certificate they personally did not bid on and once, someone showed up with a photocopy of a certificate demanding redemption.
We quickly learned there had to be some rules, so we refined our certificates. We began putting a chronological number on the certificate as well as issuing an expiration date and declaring that the certificates are nontransferable.
This immediately solved some of our problems, but unfortunately our diligence was not enough. After implementing the updated rules, I would ask certificate recipients what price they had paid in the auction. Frequently, and especially for nationally known charities, the bidder had paid far more than what the actual auction item was worth in the fun of a charitable bidding war.
This made me feel great because the charity really benefited. Other times, people would show up with a certificate for neuromodulator treatments or injectable filler that had a retail worth of $1000 and they had only spent $20 for the winning bid. After this, we started informing charities that if the item did not sell for a reasonable portion of its value, it should not be auctioned, and we would re-donate the next year.
Just when we thought we had everything under control, a member of my staff noticed that a person who had requested auction items for various “charity golf tournaments” had not only picked up the certificate from our office but also personally redeemed it. At first this did not set off red flags. I have seen auction chairs purchase an item they personally requested from a practice because they either wanted the service or product themselves or wanted to drive up the value for the organization.
However, the reality was that the person collecting these golf tournament certificates would pick them up and redeem them when different staff was in my office. Well, that is until someone noticed. At this point we investigated the charitable golf tournaments: we could find no record of 1, another responded that they had never asked for or received any auction item from the practice, 1 didn’t respond at all, and the last said they did not keep records of charitable donations.
It was at this moment we realized we had been scammed. Adding to the hurt was the fact that some of this malfeasance was done in the name of children’s charities.
This situation made us review our entire process and add additional safeguards. First and foremost, we issued a compliance list for receiving, auctioning, and redeeming a charitable certificate, with the following requirements:
Needless to say—and shame on us for not doing more research—we now investigate any organization that requests a charitable gift. Due to the amount of requests we receive, we have also started rotating the smaller venues (sports teams, PTAs) instead of honoring every single request.
It has been my pleasure to support national and local charities and organizations within our community. Like anything else in life, there are situations where people may take advantage of one’s generosity. We learned much of this the hard way and I would like to pass along some caveats, which include the following:
I still believe that the more you give, the more you get. Just give wisely.