Big Day of Giving’s big challenge: Online donation challenge begins amid anti-trafficking charity’s expulsion, last year’s technical issues

Courage Worldwide raised more than $57,000 before licensing issues became public

For those on a philanthropic kick after getting their tax returns, Sacramento’s fourth annual Big Day of Giving offers an online telethon of sorts, with more than 600 local charities vying to break last year’s record generosity in a mere 24 hours.

The online giving challenge has raised more than $16 million for the three-county Sacramento region since its inception, including tens of thousands for one organization that’s disinvited from participating this year.

Courage Worldwide Inc. was bounced from this year’s Big Day list months after its Northern California residential facility for female sex trafficking victims came under state licensing and media scrutiny. But the once-revered charity collected more than $57,000 since 2014 through past Big Day fundraisers, The Sacramento Bee reported. Which raises the question: Just how good are Big Day gatekeepers at weeding out charities that don’t operate as advertised?

Very, says Shirlee Tully, chief marketing and development officer of Giving Edge, a Sacramento area nonprofit information source.

“Our job is to make sure profiles accurately represent what they do,” Tully told SN&R. “[With Courage Worldwide], there were too many inconsistencies about what they are actually delivering and there was a lack of response from them about fixing those, so we pulled it.”

Giving Edge vetted and approved the more than 600 local charities that are participating in today’s Big Day, an initiative created by the Sacramento Region Community Foundation. In addition, Tully says the charities have undergone an extensive year of training and have made two years of financial records available on their online profiles. That process is supposed to cull nonprofits whose spending doesn’t always line up with their lofty mission statements.

In Courage Worldwide’s case, a host of state licensing violations forced its board to close the six-bed group home for sexually trafficked girls last summer, a month after last year’s Big Day event. Courage Worldwide didn’t reveal that status until after the media came calling.

Founder Jenny Williamson has continued to aggressively fundraise on behalf of her organization, even as she’s also defaulted on numerous promises to reopen her so-called “Courage House” by self-imposed deadlines.

In its most recent online newsletter, Courage Worldwide blamed the delays on new state regulations that are phasing out funding for group homes in favor of short-term residential treatment facilities, which have different licensing requirements.

Even with its NorCal home remaining dark, the embattled nonprofit announced its intent to expand services to adult victims of sex trafficking.

In the meantime, the organization has racked up another violation regarding its care of underage girls. On January 27, the Community Care Licensing Division of the state Department of Social Services cited Courage Worldwide with a Type B deficiency for failing to notify it of at least two law enforcement visits last year.

Tully stressed that Courage Worldwide was the only charity removed from this year’s Big Day event, but noted that some charities drop out during the application process or are disqualified if they are unable to meet requirements.

Approximately 30 percent of all Big Day donations are from first-timers, Tully noted. To assuage their concerns, Big Day allows donors to compare charities on its website, which features summaries, financial records and more. Tully pointed out that a charity’s larger overhead spending isn’t an inherent red flag, as some nonprofit business models, like WEAVE’s retail stores, can lead to what seem to be disproportionately high expense-to-revenue ratios.

Today’s goal is to exceed the $7.1 million that was raised for 570 charities last year, though that amount should come with an asterisk. A systemwide server crash froze donations last year and forced Big Day organizers to extend the deadline by another 16 hours to hit their goal.

Courage Worldwide’s April 27 newsletter acknowledged it “will NOT be included in the Sacramento Big Day of Giving,” then referred users to a link where they could make online donations. Its May 5 golf tournament in Roseville was asking $175 a head.