Atlanta Church “Fines” Its Charity Recipients in Forced Work Program

An Atlanta church organization is under fire for business and donation practices that some believe are unethical. NSPIRE Outreach, which solicits Gwinnett County residents for clothing donations, has admitted to selling most of their donations in thrift stores.

But that’s not all that was discovered by an investigative journalist team at Atlanta’s Channel 2 news station. Although NSPIRE gives the homeless and victims of domestic violence a place to stay, the organization uses those same individuals as a labor force for its organization, and their payment terms have raised some eyebrows among former program participants and government agencies alike.

The investigation began when reporters wanted to know where NSPIRE’s pink donation bags went. Because the bags advertise “Clothing for a cause,” homeowners who received the bags at their doorsteps wanted to know what exactly the cause was.

Former NSPIRE employees helped Channel 2 shed light on the donations, with truck drivers and call center employees who used to work for NSPIRE explaining the drop-off process.

Robert Woodard, who first worked for NSPIRE’s call center to solicit for donations and later as a truck driver, said, “Anything that’s usable goes out on the floor. The stuff that isn’t, goes in the dumpster.”

NSPIRE’s Executive Director and Senior Pastor Gregg Kennard explained that the sale of excess clothing “creates an income stream by which we subsidize the cost of the program. Right now we get $312,000 for the year” from selling the clothing.

Kennard’s figure matches the one from the organization’s Better Business Bureau report, which is based on an un-audited financial statement from 2012. However, NSPIRE Outreach does not meet the BBB’s Wise Giving Alliance Standards for Charity Accountability, due to conflicts of interest, a lack of effectiveness assessments, and missing financial statements from the 2013 fiscal year.

What does NSPIRE’s program consist of? For homeless men and women and victims of domestic violence who enter the program, the organization’s official website lists a multitude of benefits for them.

Participants are given employment in the charity’s call center, transitional apartment housing, continuing education (which is mandatory), counseling, food, physical fitness and health programs, transportation, personal coaching, hygiene products, and a “spiritual community and spiritual growth” through the church’s ministry. From the donated clothing articles, participants are also given a “new wardrobe of gently used clothing of their choosing that is work appropriate,” in addition to athletic wear and shoes.

Despite the benefits, however, former program participants note that they come with a lot of fine print. The job and shared apartments cost a program fee of $4,800, which participants agree to pay off in 12 months time by working 40 hours a week in the call center. This, however, could create the potential conflict of interest as noted in the BBB’s Standards for Charity Accountability.

In exchange for their wages going back to NSPIRE, workers are given a $25 per week stipend, something that doesn’t go very far, according to Charnese Tate, a mother of three who worked for the program.

Call center workers must also make a quota of five “yes” responses for donation pickups each day. If they don’t, they go off the clock, meaning that they don’t receive the wage necessary to pay their program fee.

Other punishments for participants came in the form of a $50 “fine” or docked pay for being “late for church [or] being late for work,” said Cassandra Bethea, another former NSPIRE client. Bethea said that after committing these minor infractions, she and Tate were put back on the streets.

These practices, if investigated, could be a violation of Federal Wage and Hour Laws according to U.S. Department of Labor regulations.

Although Channel 2 spoke to several other NSPIRE clients who said the program helped them get off the streets and turn their lives around, the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, which regulates non-profits, has received several complaints about NSPIRE and has launched an investigation into them. The Gwinnett County District Attorney said he has opened up a file on the group based on the complaints, as well.

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