American Cancer Society halts secretive fund-raiser

Kensey Cochran and her mother, Rebecca, discovered that invitations e-mailed through the online Evite service for Kensey's Dec. 11 birthday party had a plea for donations to the ACS attached after they sent them.

"Not sure what to get the girl who has everything?" reads a paragraph added under the text the Cochrans had written. "Make a donation in her name and help create a world with more birthdays. Click Here."

Kensey said: "I feel fine that people donated in my name. But I would have liked to have been given a choice."

She said she would have chosen her own favorite charity, Pennies for Peace, which builds schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

After figuring out what was going on, Rebecca Cochran contacted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

A spokesman for the Atlanta-based ACS said Evite has been a partner in the nonprofit's new ad campaign to create more birthdays by wiping out cancer, but he did not know about the invitation attachments before receiving a call from the newspaper.

"We were unaware of any passive solicitations," Greg Donaldson, vice president of corporate communications, said Wednesday. "Apparently, in the last couple of months, Evite added an element which is essentially a promotional service announcement which shows up in birthdays invitations. I have asked that this particular program be stopped so we can review it."

Evite, in an e-mailed response, referred questions to the ACS.

Rebecca Cochran said they began to figure out what happened after getting a card in the mail saying someone invited to the party gave $50 to the ACS in Kensey's name.

Then Kelly O'Connor, the mother of the invited girl who made the donation, called and asked whether it would be OK to both donate and still bring a gift for Kensey to the party.

Cochran said she could not figure out what was going on. Kensey likes getting involved in charitable activities, such as an annual walk for hunger. Still wondering why the O'Connors made the donation, she said, they could bring a gift if they wanted.

Within a few days,  the Cochrans got a birthday invitation for Kelly O'Connor's daughter Maggie. In the text, Maggie asked that party guests, in lieu of presents, bring an animal toy to give to an Atlanta animal shelter. But there in the bottom paragraph was the same birthday plea to give money to the ACS. That is when the lights came on.

The two families compared invitations. There was no indication on the invitations they wrote that the plea would be attached, but there on the bottom of the  invitations they received was the very apparent pitch.

"It's very hard to challenge a charity right now [given economic times], but this is not the right way to do it," Cochran said.

"When you go to the grocery store, they ask you if you want to donate to St. Jude's Children's Hospital. Here, they don' t give you a choice. It is very secretive."

Kelly O'Connor said: "I am happy to make a donation to the American Cancer Society, but in this way it is very deceptive. It is working for them, but it is not the right way to get donations."

O'Connor e-mailed the agencies suggesting the same. She received responses saying her concerns were being reviewed.

The ACS' Donaldson said: "We would never intentionally mislead people to give to us. That is not how we operate. We want people to choose to contribute to us."

He offered to refund money to anyone who believes they were misled. He said he did not know how much the Evite campaign had raised.

The mix-up ended OK, in Kensey's opinion.

One of the people invited to her party heard what was going on and sent her a $15 check to write out to any charity she wanted to support.

She gave it to Pennies for Peace.

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