When a woman showed up at Lissa Anderson's door in Danville soliciting money to help troubled young people who'd gotten too old for the foster care system, Anderson had some reservations, but she made a $100 donation anyway.
"My very first meeting with her was when she came to my door and rang the doorbell and it was late — it was after 9 o'clock," Anderson said. "She went on to say she was with a program called Mr. Mom that helps children with foster care organizations that had been kicked out because they were too old, they were on the street. They were putting them up in hotel rooms, they were trying to get them jobs."
Anderson gave $100. The second time, two weeks later, Anderson said she'd just put her kids to bed and was settled in for the night; her husband answered the door and Anderson told him she wasn't sure she trusted Mr. Mom; her husband, however, gave another $100.
The third time, Anderson said she was having a tough day when the woman showed up in her driveway after dark.
"I just said, 'It is so inappropriate for you to be out this time of night,'" Anderson said. "She left (but) she came back 20 minutes later. She said, 'Whatever you can give me, we're just $125 short of our goal for what we need to raise for the night.'... She just kept going and going. ... I burst into tears."
Anderson, a Danville resident, is not alone in questioning the practices of Mr. Mom and other door-to-door solicitors raising money for needy causes.
Police say they occasionally receive calls from residents concerned about the legitimacy of door-to-door solicitors.
In a recent discussion on the Pleasanton Weekly's Town Square reader forum, one resident asked others to share their experiences with Mr. Mom and quickly received numerous replies from those who had been solicited. After unsuccessfully asking the Weekly to remove the posts, Denise Dinsmore, who describes herself as the co-founder and primary fundraiser of Mr. Mom, posted her own long explanation stating that her organization is legitimate and working hard to serve troubled kids.
Dinsmore has declined to answer questions from the Weekly, including requests for the names of the agencies or individuals who have benefited from Mr. Mom. She claims to have the required local permits to solicit and to have complied with all state laws. But according to city and state officials interviewed by the Weekly and documents on file with the state Attorney General, the group only last month obtained a business license in Pleasanton and state approval to solicit funds. Neither Danville nor San Ramon has any record of Mr. Mom applying for a business license.
All localities in the area require a charity to have a business license. In some cases, such as San Ramon and Dublin, charities must receive special permission from the police department to solicit door-to-door.
In the case of Mr. Mom, officials in San Ramon and Dublin told the Weekly that the group has not been issued permits for door-to-door soliciting and are violating local ordinances if they are doing so.
"They are required to get a business license, but if they have a 501 (c)(3), they don't have to pay for it," said Debbie Hinc, an office technician in San Ramon's planning department.
Sue Wallace, an administrative analyst with the San Ramon Police Department, said charities must prove their legitimacy by providing a letterhead with a supervisor's name and contact information as well other official documents in order to solicit donations door to door.
In Danville, any charity looking to do business should register with the town, according to Finance Director Elizabeth Hudson.
"They should, one, be getting a business license, and two get a permit so they can go door to door," Hudson said. "We have the county issue the permit and then, if we get any complaints, we have police go out to investigate."
San Ramon, Danville and Pleasanton all prohibit any solicitations after dark, but there is a constitutional question that comes into play with enforcing the after dark restriction, according to Pleasanton Assistant City Attorney Larissa Seto.
"Technically, if an organization or person involved in a protected speech activity (such as charities and political organizations) wants to go to homes after 8 p.m., we cannot stop them. We can only encourage them to come back during more regular hours," Seto said. "In theory if the person at the home asks them not to come back, they should not come back because that would be trespassing."
A resident who feels harassed or threatened should call police.
"What we do when it comes to enforcement -- if we get a call, we run them off, give them a citation, whatever. It's complaint based," said Danville Police Chief Steve Simpkins.
The Mr. Mom Non-Profit Organization has been raising money in the area since 2008, according to a registration statement filed last month with the state. The group admitted in a signed stipulation agreement that it had violated state requirements by not filing proper reports since it initially solicited donations. With the filing of the registration statement and catch-up reports, the group, which lists a Pleasanton mail drop as its address, was cleared to resume fundraising by the state on April 22.
Registration with the state Registry of Charitable Trusts is required of any charity, but does not mean an organization has obtained its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status from the IRS. Mr. Mom has no such IRS exemption, although Dinsmore said such an application is pending with the IRS. Dinsmore cites a "501(c) (3) non-profit number" in [handouts that is actually the Federal Employer Identification Number assigned to Mr. Mom.
California law permits an individual or organization raising less than $25,000 a year for a charitable purpose to operate with few constraints as long as it registers and files a short annual report. Such groups, or even individuals, don't even need to be nonprofit organizations.
For small groups, the state has no way of monitoring how funds are spent. Detailed expenditure reports are not required, but state officials refer questions to the IRS website, which lists all tax-exempt charities including detailed information on where their money is spent.
"By law, the (group or) person has a duty to use that property for its intended charitable purpose," said Rebecca MacLaren of the state Attorney General's office in an emailed statement. "If you solicit and accept money for a charity, you're responsible for making sure it gets used for those purposes. Failure to do so may subject the solicitor to personal liability for the amount received."
Those who've met Dinsmore describe her as a "sweet" 20-something who can be quite persistent.
It was this persistence that prompted another woman, who asked that her name not be used, to give Dinsmore between $1,000 and $2,000 since 2008. She added that many of her neighbors have also contributed.
"This woman — she seemed very honest. She would show up at my house at 11 o'clock (at night)," the woman went on. "She would say she hasn't met their daily quota, there were times she told me that if they didn't meet their daily quota, they'd have to kick a kid out."
The woman said the last straw came recently when Dinsmore asked that the couple contribute their entire year's donation in advance.
In her posting on Town Square, Dinsmore said Mr. Mom is soliciting donations to fulfill a financial commitment to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
However, Jan Still-Lindeman, senior director of public relations for the national office, said there's no affiliation between Mr. Mom and the Boys and Girls Clubs, and that clubs don't endorse door-to-door solicitations. Local Boys and Girls clubs contacted by the Weekly said they have never heard of the organization.
Dinsmore would not provide information on how the funds she raises are spent, but in her Town Square posting she said she is helping a "very small number of kids that have aged out of foster care" and that "we also assist non foster care kids that are in desperate need of financial support."
None of the several foster care agencies in Alameda or Contra Costa counties contacted by the Weekly, however, had heard of Mr. Mom.
"Donors have to be proactive and make sure they know who they're giving money to," said Belinda James, head of the state's charitable trust section of the Attorney General's office. "What's important is not to give impulsively but to check out the name and make sure the charity appears in our website and make sure that it's current in reporting to us. That's a red flag, if the charity isn't current on reporting to our agency."
James said potential donors should not be afraid to ask questions if someone shows up and asks for money. Ask for written information from whoever is soliciting; any reputable charity will have the answers.
"If a donor is solicited and doesn't know about the charity, the best thing to do is to ask for written information before giving a donation," James said.