When Your New Major Donor Turns Out to be a Scam

February 1, 2016

When Your New Major Donor Turns Out to be a Scam

“Compliments of the Season! I am looking to donate to your non-profit. Will you please direct me to who to discuss about effectively contributing to your mission?”

What a wonderful email to get on the first day of the year back at work. An architect from London wants to make a gift in honor of his late mother. After some initial emails, it is apparent that it is a generous gift, too.

“I admire what you guys are doing and wanted to give back in a big way. I believe this is the time the most to reach out to the needy in the community. Please advise on how this fund will be put to good use. To whom should the check be addressed?”

The size of the gift does pique my curiosity about his intentions, especially since he hedged my question about his connection to Nashville. But maybe it’s just more proof that we are the It City. Or perhaps Deacon Claybourne and Rayna James are a guilty pleasure he’d rather not admit to.

I do a little web research, just to be sure.  I find him easily, the principal architect at a sizable London firm with a solid web presence. He has a LinkedIn page and has been a guest blogger on an arts and music site. He is indeed a real person, and one that would be capable of making a large donation.

So I write a very nice letter detailing the need for housing-related assistance in Nashville and thanking him for honoring his mother in such a meaningful way.

He replies with a warm email, sharing a little about a design he was working on, and mentioning having a nice New Year with his wife and daughters. “Please let me know when you have received the donation. My accountant is due to travel on vacation and probably flies out to Greece today with his family so I want to be sure he sent this out. Warm & Happy New Year!”

I still can’t shake my skepticism. “I’ll believe it when the check comes,” I tell our development officer. She returns from the post office the next day with a Priority Mail Express envelope. Enclosed is a cashier’s check from a reputable US bank, for more than our architect friend had initially indicated.

I prepare a deposit and quickly email him to tell him that I believe the exchange rate has made this gift even more valuable. He replies the next morning. “I have just returned from a trip to Paris and tried to reach you but I figured it was too early.  I noticed there had been a situation which needs to be resolved. There's a family that I had pledged to help with finances for their daughter's dialysis machine. My accountant didn't get this right and issued the total funds to you guys…” My smile quickly turned sour.

According to GuideStar’s article Avoiding E-mail Scams,” banks are required to make funds from cashier’s checks available quickly. A non-profit, eager to make their generous donor happy, forwards along the “extra” money, and by the time the check is discovered to be a forgery, their money is gone.

My follow-up email to our “architect” friend, noting that our bookkeeper could send a check as soon as the bank had verified the funds, goes unanswered. The bank quickly confirms that the cashier’s check is indeed a forgery. And a careful look at the architecture firm’s website reveals an extra hyphen in our would-be benefactor’s email address that is inconsistent with the firm’s actual emails. The architect is a real person, but his name was simply being used to perpetuate this ruse.

Why are scams so enticing? Perhaps because they speak to our greatest hope - that someone will recognize how worthwhile our efforts are and generously support an organization that we know adds value to our community.

But our vigilance protects those who truly believe in our organization’s work. Our skepticism makes us better stewards of their generous gifts.

This attempted scam reminds me of principles I know well, but that I pushed to the back of my mind in the excitement about all of my fundraising woes being so easily alleviated.

Find out why a donor cares about your mission. If he or she cannot tell you what it is about your non-profit that speaks to them, take caution in accepting a large gift.

-  Fundraising is not that easy. I proclaimed to my husband, “See? We just need to keep doing great work, and people will notice!” He was kind enough not to remind me of those words as I sulked.

-  Don’t count those chickens. I was eagerly revising projections on how many more people we could help, while the check was still sitting in the bank’s drive-thru deposit file.

-  If you want to write a great letter, pretend that your audience is a wealthy British architect. Seriously. I chose every word carefully, and should treat my real donors with the same regard.

-  Don’t lose faith. There are a few bad people out there, but the reason that we are here is because of all of the good people in the world, making our missions possible.


Note from CNM: Recently here at CNM, we have also had an encounter with a scammer. Our accountant received an email that appeared to be an email from our president, asking for a money exchange to a certain account. Luckily our accountant knew to double-check! We have also heard about several other attempted scams on local nonprofits this year, so please be careful.

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