Inside the "Celebrity Apprentice" charities: The good, the bad and the defunct

"Celebrity Apprentice" contestants have solicited money for charities that independent evaluators find questionable

Published April 15, 2013 6:10PM (EDT)

                                (AP/Dan Hallman)
(AP/Dan Hallman)

“The Celebrity Apprentice,” viewers are constantly reminded, is about charity.

The celebrities competing for the approval of Donald Trump can get big cash payouts for their favorite charity. Each episode sees corporations, celebrity guests, or private citizens putting up money that ultimately goes to whichever competitor managed the winning team.

There’s no way for General Motors, or for the celebrities and civilians hit up for donations, to know exactly where the money will go: that’s decided toward the end of the episode. Indeed, last season’s premiere saw model Patricia Velásquez deeply upset; she’d worked with fundraising contacts to raise money for a charity with which she was deeply associated, but because her team lost, the money all went elsewhere.

And some of the charities, according to an audit of selected charities performed by independent evaluator Charity Navigator at Salon’s request, may be less-than-ideal custodians of charitable donations. While many of the charities are unimpeachable, future donors might still pause before throwing money at “Apprentice” before knowing where it’ll end up. (We reached out to Donald Trump's camp to ask about how they vet charities for "Apprentice" and have not heard back.) Here's a look at some "Apprentice" charities that we flagged for Charity Navigator's review -- and that fell short of the evaluators' best practices.

Positive Vibrations Youth Mentoring Program
Competitor: Reality personality Omarosa Manigault (2008)
Money won: $0

Notorious “Apprentice” villain Manigault competed for this program, under the auspices of Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum. The most recent 990 form that the museum was filed was in fiscal year 2009: “The 2010 Form should have been filed long ago,” said Charity Navigator. Manigault is on the board of directors of the museum.

Alternative Community Development Services

Competitor: Football player Herschel Walker (2009)
Money won: $0

Walker failed to collect any money for this group, affiliated with Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship, a church not required to file tax returns, per Charity Navigator. We looked closer at Oak Cliff: the church's website indicates that they look to the Rapture and Second Coming as foretold in Revelations, holds conversion-oriented support groups to lead gay people “beyond homosexuality.” Alternative Community Development Services does business as Project Turnaround, which leads “church-adopt-a-school” programs with church affiliates in Dallas public schools as violence preventors.

HollyRod Foundation

Competitor: Actress and television personality Holly Robinson Peete (2010)
Money won: $597,893

Holly Robinson Peete, the “21 Jump Street” actress, is one of the most successful “Celebrity Apprentice” contestants; she came in second place in the 2010 season, raising $597,893 for her HollyRod Foundation supporting Parkinson’s patients and families of children of autism.
The Charity Navigator evaluation indicated that there is a loan outstanding from the organization to Peete and her husband Rodney Peete of about $20,000. That loan is “not in writing and not approved by the board.” The organization also violates the best practices Charity Navigator looks at, with none of the four board members independent from the leadership of the nonprofit. The nonprofit has “no conflict of interest, whistleblower or records retention process,” and there is “no audit committee or independent audit performed.”

Laureus Sport for Good Foundation
Competitor: Track star Michael Johnson (2010)
Money won: $0

Johnson quit before he could earn money for his charity, which has “no records retention or CEO policies in place,” per Charity Navigator. Further, Fiscal Year 2011 “shows negative total net assets, indicating that any assets they may have been spending down have in fact, run out. [The b]iggest change results in the negative assets is due to an increase in grants payable. This liability jumped from $15,000 to over $200,000 during [Fiscal Year] 2011.”

Grants payable refers to a sort of credit -- unpaid-as-yet grants that the organization in question plans to donate. “If I’m a donor and want to make sure the charity I’m supporting will be there tomorrow,” said Charity Navigator CEO Ken Berger, speaking hypothetically, “and if a charity is taking on government contracts and knowing there’s this problem with government payments, if that charity is not proactively trying to diversify its funding, then, arguably this organization is being reckless.”

UPDATE: A representative from Laureus has emailed Salon to indicate that the charity has not taken government money in the past but would be open to doing so in the future. Regarding the unpaid grants, said the representative: "It is a standard practice that a pledge can be paid out over multiple years," writes the representative; "if you make a pledge for a three-year commitment, that pledge will be paid out over three years. Further, in accrual accounting, the total amount of the commitment is recorded on the books in the fiscal year it is pledged resulting in what looks like an 'unpaid grant' in years 1 and 2 of the commitment."

The facts are: that we have not run out of money, have given $1.17 million in 2012, have not taken government funding, to date, and have a diverse funding portfolio.

Specchio Family Foundation
Competitor: wrestler Bill Goldberg (2010)
Money won: $0

This charity’s nonprofit status was “revoked due to non-filing of tax returns.” Charity Navigator found no tax returns for the foundation.

Starkey Hearing Foundation
Competitor: Actress Marlee Matlin (2011)
Money won: $1.05 million

Oscar-winning actress Marlee Matlin collected $1.05 million for this group in the 2011 season, and it helped enrich the coffers of a group that disburses money for the hearing-impaired. “Even though they have a $2 million deficit this year, they reported a $7 million excess last year.” In the broad sweep, it averages out, though Berger noted: “Swings like that could be a red flag -- such volatility of revenue. For a charity of $10 million, those kind of swings could potentially be disastrous.” Starkey Hearing Foundation’s net assets in fiscal year 2011 were $6.375 million.

Gary Busey Foundation
Competitor: Actor Gary Busey (2013)
Money won: $0, so far

It’s just too soon to tell -- shortly before the current season of “Celebrity Apprentice” began filming in October 2012, actor Busey formed this nonprofit in August to raise funds to fight Kawasaki Disease. No financial information is available as yet.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Celebrity Apprentice Charity Donald Trump Gary Busey Marlee Matlin Omarosa Manigault