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Value Village, Savers, TVI,Thrift, Scam

This is a small sub-article of the cover story, from the February 12, 1996 edition of Alberta Report. "Charity" for billionaires

Most Albertans who donate their old clothes and household goods to the Alberta Community Living Foundation (ACLF) assume their contributions will end up in the hands of needy Albertans. Actually, the chief benefactor of their generosity is an American billionaire named William O. Ellison, who lives in a $1.5 million dollar mansion on Lake Washington outside of Seattle.

The ACLF is the fundraising arm of the Alberta Association for Community Living (AACL), the province's chief advocate of mass de-institutionalization of the handicapped. It operates an extensive team of telephone workers who solicit donations from Albertans and keep records of generous supporters for future canvassing. The ACLF's yello trucks can be spotted in neighbourhoods throughout Alberta picking up used goods from donors.

But rather than distributing these goods directly into the hands of unfortunate disable people, as many people expect of a charity fundraiser, the donations are actually delivered to a private, American-owned firm that sells the items for a profit at thrist stores operated by Value Village Stores Ltd. Value Village is owned by Mr. Ellison, 68, and his 48 year-old son Tom.

In 1987, the Los Angeles Times documented how the Ellison family built a multi- billion dollar empire exploiting people's open-handedness to charities. Many organizations throughout Canada and the US, including Amvets, Disabled American Veterns, the California Council fo the Blind and dozens of associations for the mentally handicapped, including the Alberta Association for Community Living, sold the Ellisons and their associates the right to canvass for tax-deductible donations in their name. The company then sells the goods for a profit at their chains of thrift stores, which include Value Village, Thrift Village, Purple Heart Stores, and Red White and Blue Thrift Stores. In exchange, the charities reap back a portion of the profit. But the lion's share goes back to the entrepreneurs.

According to the Times, for every $1.00 that went to undersigned charities from some Ellison-owned thrift stores, $2.55 went to the Ellison associates. Overall, about $1.50 goes to the business for every $1.00 that a charity such as the AACL receives. And while store employees earn minimum-wage salaries, the Ellisons pay themselves enormous salaries that have allowed themto purchase mansions and real estate with cash.

The Ellisons are unashamed of the money they make off of people's goodwill to the disabled. "There has to be a profit ... We are not in it for our health," the junior Mr. Ellison told the Calgary Herald in 1991.

Genuine non-profit organizations such as the Salvation Army and Goodwill Rehabilitation Services of Alberta, who market donated goods directly to the people who need them, regard Value Village as a thorn in their side. They must compete with the battery of telephone operators and truck drivers working indirectly for the Ellisons for a finite amount of donated goods. "It does leave us at a distinct disadvantage," says Barry Ulmer, Goodwill's vice-president of marketing and operations.

And the money that Value Village does give the ACLF is further scalped by the AACL before it gets anywhere near disabled people. In 1991, for example, of the $1.2 million that the AACL received from Value Village's thrift business, only $200,000 went to programs for the handicapped. Most was spent on the group's lobbying efforts and conferences. While de-institutionalized disable residents have wound up in prison or living in run-down rooming houses, the AACL hosts conferences in four-star hotels. One was held in the ritzy mountain resort, Jasper Park Lodge.

An even smaller percentage appears to have dribbled down to the handicapped in subsequent years. According to the AACL's unaudited 1994 statement, it netted $1.4 million from Value Village. The Alberta government granted the lobby group a further $110,870 and the federal government another $5,000. The AACL's total stated revenue was about $1.6 million, but more than $1 million was devoted to "advocacy", "office administration", "building operations" and more fundraising.

"Membership operations" and "grants" presumably for the disabled, received only $190,000.

Like the Ellison empire, the AACL pays its frontline workers minimal wages. Revenue raisers, such as telephone solicitors and truck drivers, earn only about $5.00 per hour. It is unclear fromthe financial statements provided to the public by the AACL what salaried employees, including executive director Bruce Uditsky, take home for conferencing and networking. Both Mr.Uditsky and company treasurer Paul Kohl declined to return calls to this magazine.

This is a clear example of what abuses "private charities" can easily partake of. Welcome to the wonderful world self-reliance and independence - where you can get rich off of skimming from charitable donations.