Occupy Sandy Lost Track of Where Donors Intended Cash to Go, Critics Say
RED HOOK — Occupy Sandy's fundraising campaign for communities devastated by October's superstorm has devolved into confusion as volunteers scramble to keep track of who donated the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations they've collected since the storm and where it was intended to go.
The group had collected more than $700,000 in donations by Dec. 21, according to information provided to the state Attorney General's office.
The confusion came after donors were directed from two separate online sites dedicated to Red Hook and the Lower East Side, and routed into a single shared fundraising website without any earmarks, sources said.
"The sites said one thing, and then the money went to another," said an Occupy Sandy member helping coordinate outreach in Red Hook, who asked not to be identified.
The problem began just days after the superstorm struck Oct. 29, when Occupy Sandy worked with Recovers.org, a for-profit online emergency response coordination network for communities that allows users to coordinate volunteers and accept in-kind donations, to create aid sites dedicated to aid for specific neighborhoods.
However, the sites directed donors from each site to a shared donation payment website, WePay, where funds were put into a single account without any tags to distinguish where each donation was intended, organizers said.
"It's impossible to know what the donor intent was in the donations, because of the way it was set up,” said Daniele Kohn, a member of Occupy Sandy who is helping run the WePay account.
"Because we didn't know [WePay] was linked to the Recovers site, it's impossible for us to know how people came to the WePay site” — and, by extension, which funds should go where and whether donors' wishes are being honored, Kohn added.
"We at Recovers never touch cash or monetary donations, but just provide people who wish to donate money a link to an external site. We are not a fundraising organization like Kickstarter, we do not vet individual projects of the communities we are working with, and we do not take any money from the recovery. It is up to each individual donor who visits the external donation websites (in this case WePay), to decide whether or not to contribute," Recovers.org co-founder and CEO Caitria O'Neill said in a statement.
Making matters worse, organizers say, little of the money has been disbursed in the three months since the storm, as those who need it most are struggling to cover basic necessities.
In Red Hook, volunteer leaders of neighborhood recovery efforts say they have received little to no money from Occupy Sandy, other than an initial $2,000 payment to cover "petty cash" expenditures in the weeks immediately following the storm, and a $10,000 pledge made last month for a project titled “Grow Red Hook.”
Moreover, the volunteers say Occupy Sandy has refused to give them any information about when and how much money they can expect to get.
"You cannot raise money in somebody's name and not give it to that somebody — it's fraudulent," said Monica Byrne, a member of Occupy Red Hook and co-founder of Restore Red Hook, which independently has raised close to $500,000 for neighborhood brick-and-mortar businesses since Hurricane Sandy.
"There's no question about the integrity of the work being done, and the fact that people are volunteering and doing a huge amount of really important work, and I give Occupy Sandy and the Red Hook Volunteers huge, huge credit for that," she added. "That said, there's something very murky about the money."
DNAinfo.com reported a month ago that a rift had developed between Occupy's Red Hook volunteers and the wider Occupy Sandy movement. Members of the Occupy Sandy press team, contacted by phone and email, declined to comment, and messages sent to email addresses posted on the website of Occupy Lower East Side were either returned as undeliverable or went unanswered.
The New York Attorney General's Office also declined to comment.
State law requires charities to "apply contributions in a manner substantially consistent with the solicitation or registration statement of the charitable organization or the purposes expressed therein."
As one state official explained, "An organization that raises money for a particular purpose must spend that money on that particular purpose."
Byrne and other Occupy members said a debate has been raging within the Occupy Sandy community since December over the problems with the pay site. The sites, however, remained active until the end of January before being shut down.
Establishing the Recovers and WePay sites "may just have been one of those young, crazy, 'we-were-impulsive-and-now-we-need-to-figure-it-out things,'" Byrne said.
"But we're looking at three months," she added. "It needs to be figured out."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Recovers.org as a charity site that collected money. In fact, it is a for-profit site that does not collect any funds.