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Watchdog Group Keeps Its Focus On Nonprofits

NORTH TEXAS (CBS 11) - Days after the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, donations from across the country poured into the American Red Cross. But a watchdog group that keeps a close eye on non-profits, like the Red Cross, raised some red flags when they realized not all of the money would go to the victims of the Moore disaster.

It's those concerns that got our I-Team digging into the disaster we've seen right here in North Texas.

The explosion at the West Fertilizer plant destroyed Mary Burgess' home. We caught up with her as she was taking one last look. The Burgess home is just one of many being demolished by the First Baptist Church of West, an organization that has become the driving force behind the city's recovery.

Phil Immicke is the church's associate pastor. He's also been the one coordinating donations and where they go. After talking with homeowners in West, he realized one of the biggest needs was demolition.

"One of these houses here, she got $90,000 in insurance but it's going to cost $140,000 to rebuild. Doing this, we've saved her $15,000 that she could put towards that," Immicke explained.

Since the explosion the church has received nearly $400,000 in donations from across the country. They've committed to spending every dime to helping families rebuild.

The American Red Cross also responded to West immediately after the explosion. Information they shared with our I-Team shows they set up one shelter, served nearly 49,000 meals or snacks, gave out more than 19,000 relief items like clothing and blankets, and collected at least $660,000 dollars in designated donations. That's money that can only be used for the victims of West.

Regional Red Cross CEO TD Smyers says if you donated money immediately after the explosion, but didn't designate it specifically for that cause, your dollars go into a general fund. That fund can pay for salaries, overhead, or even other disasters.

"We respond to 4,300 disasters just in Texas every year. Many of which we are not here talking about. But they affect multiple families. And they're families in need. And so that disaster relief fund enables us to move on that," Smyers noted.

The I-Team took a closer look at some other high-profile disasters where the organization responded and collected donations.

In 2011 they responded to the Possum Kingdom fires. They raised approximately $266,000 in designated fund, but only spent $197,000.

For the Bastrop wildfires in 2011 the American Red Cross had $1.5 million in designated funds donated. However, the organization has only used $981,000 to date.

"You have hundreds of thousands of dollars still in limbo right now, haven't been used. What happens to that money," Investigative Reporter Mireya Villarreal asked.

Smyers answered, "Some of these things, especially the ones that impact wide large areas, they are multi-year investments and we need to make sure we're responsibly executing on a timeline that enables them to impact that whole recovery cycle."

Ben Smilowitz is the founder of the Disaster Accountability Project, a watchdog group that focuses on non-profit organizations.

"Well the policies seem to change from disaster to disaster," Smilowitz told us. "We found after the tornadoes recently in Oklahoma, they were collecting money in a non-earmarked way."

The Disaster Accountability Project raised red flags after the Oklahoma tornado, forcing the Red Cross to commit its text message donations specifically to the disaster victims.

"It's not like they haven't done anything and we don't want to say they aren't doing anything but really they need to be honest and straight with the public and they need to clarify these policies," Smilowitz added.

The I-Team is looking into other non-profit organizations and the amount of money they collect versus how much they give back to the community.

We'll keep you posted on what they uncover.

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