CHARLOTTE, N.C. - With images of soldiers and the American flag, mailers from AMVETS National Service Foundation ask recipients to fill up pink bags to support veterans.
Clair Lane has seen neighbors leave full bags on their doorstep.
“The white panel truck comes through and it has AMVETS on the truck. Like you said, I don’t know where they go,” Lane said.
Channel 9 followed the donation trail to the Community Thrift Store on Freedom Drive where the manager showed Eyewitness News anchor Erica Bryant around.
“We sell 15,000 to 17,000 items a week in here,” said store manager Charley Brown.
Eyewitness News saw the truck’s sign easily flips between AMVETS and Community Thrift Store.
The store has a contract to buy donations in bulk from AMVETS. When trucks are at the store, the signs must display "Community Thrift."
“This is a for-profit thrift store so it's not a charity. We buy the items, AMVETS doesn't want people who shop here to think the goods are going to AMVETS,” Brown said.
It's an arrangement that might be clear for shoppers at the store, but donors Channel 9 spoke with said they had no idea.
“For me being a veteran, I would have a problem with that because I’m thinking that I’m giving to veterans directly,” said donor Elmore Brown.
“Of course now people are going to think twice when you see those envelopes in the mail box,” said Paula Brown.
Veteran Michael Sumner said he's given to AMVETS many times.
After serving in Afghanistan, he also benefited from the charity which helped him cut through red tape to receive VA disability.
“It was a nice big help to have someone outside of the V.A. who was representing the soldier, representing me as a person,” Sumner said.
Some donated designer shirts have sold for $100 in the thrift store, and Channel 9 asked how much of that AMVETS NSF would get.
The store manager told Channel 9 that it’d have to contact headquarters to ask how prices are set.
Eyewitness News called the headquarters but has not heard back.
“(It) makes me want to know where the money's going. How much money are they getting and how much of that money is going to the veterans?” Sumner said.
Others have the same questions.
The group Charity Watch consistently gives AMVETS NSF an "F" rating.
The Better Business Bureau said AMVETS NSF does not meet five of the BBB’s standards for charity accountability.
“They don't make it easy for the BBB or anyone else to see what they're all about,” said Better Business Bureau of Southern Piedmont president Tom Bartholomy.
Bartholomy said AMVETS NSF isn't transparent and hasn't responded to multiple requests to provide audited financial statements.
Channel 9 took those concerns to AMVETS NSF Executive Director Kent Clark.
He responded by email calling the concerns “severely troubling” and said he would “look into these allegations immediately.”
Clark disputed critics and stated his organization allocates "81 percent towards programs that directly benefit veterans, 6 percent toward fundraising efforts and 13 percent toward necessary administrative costs.”
Sumner plans to look more closely the next time he gets a solicitation.
“I just think all the money should go to help veterans -- clothing, housing, food, something,” he said.
Bartholomy said AMVETS NSF also sells donor's personal information. They don't reveal that.
It doesn't post an annual report and the AMVETS NSF board doesn't have a written plan to ensure the best use of donor money.
Most non-profits do post annual reports and audited financial statements on their website.
The BBB has a list of veteran's charities that do meet all of its criteria.
Clark is based in Lanham, Maryland. He declined to do an on-camera interview. He told Channel 9 he’s only been on the job a month and said he was hired to ensure the governance is established and maintained.
Clark added that the charity's IRS form 990 is posted on its website.
The BBB said the form doesn't provide the detail of an audited financial statement to reveal if a charity is truly effective.
Bartholomy said he also takes issue with AMVETS NSF counting the entire cost of these fundraising letters as a program serving veterans.
“They’re taking 100 percent of that fundraising letter as a program and we just can't do that. To us, it is, at its heart, a solicitation letter,” Bartholomy said.
Seven veterans’ charities that meet all 20 of the BBB Charity Accountability Standards. (This represents only a few charities and is not a complete list).
Better Business Bureau
Charity Watch: American Institute of Philanthropy