I Have Serious Concerns About “We Are Atheism” March 16, 2015

I Have Serious Concerns About “We Are Atheism”

In 2011, a website called We Are Atheism was founded to “promote education, activism, and philanthropy about atheists and for atheists.” The co-founders, Amanda Brown and her husband Adam Brown, also began a project for non-religious people modeled after the “It Gets Better” campaign. (I even made a video for them.)

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Then, at the end of 2012, Sandy Hook happened.

In response, We Are Atheism immediately began raising money to help families affected by the shootings (and the Newtown community at large). They called the program “Atheists Giving Aid.” Due to the overwhelming response, the Browns began fundraising after every major tragedy in the months to follow, including the Boston Marathon bombings, the Oklahoma tornado, and the West (Texas) fertilizer plant explosion.

In November of 2013 — nearly a year after Sandy Hook — I received an email from an anonymous source who went by the pseudonym “Mark Felt” (a name familiar to anyone who knows about Watergate). The email was actually sent to a long list of atheist bloggers, organization leaders, and several other people, and the gist of it was that there were a lot of problems with what We Are Atheism (WAA) was doing.

One of the concerns was that the money didn’t go where the Browns said it had gone… a pretty serious allegation. As it turned out, I had looked into this matter myself months earlier. I checked with the organizations WAA said they had given money to and confirmed that, yes, the money had indeed been received in the amounts stated. Nothing to worry about.

At that point, since my mini-investigation checked out, I dismissed Felt’s other concerns.

I’ll admit, though, that I’ve been hesitant to mention the group on this site since then. At the very least, I wanted to see more transparency from them. It shouldn’t be my responsibility to verify their donations went to the right places, after all.

More recently, We Are Atheism began promoting a project called the “Good 1% Club,” in which they’re asking atheists to pledge 1% of their total income to the organization (kind of like a smaller tithe). For some people, that could mean a lot of money.

I wasn’t ready to participate because of my concerns… but I thought I should at least take a deeper look into the organization before saying no.

I wasn’t alone. Todd Stiefel, the philanthropist who has made sizable donations to a number of atheist groups, was doing the same thing.

Over the past few weeks, using Mark Felt’s email as a foundation, and with additional research provided by Stiefel, myself, and others I’ve spoken to, we’ve looked into We Are Atheism’s finances and public statements in order to answer a handful of important questions, including:

  • Has We Are Atheism always been an official non-profit group?
  • Did the donations go where donors thought they would go?
  • Does We Are Atheism’s website list accurate information about the various fundraising campaigns?

It appears the answer to all those questions is “No.”

I now believe there’s serious mismanagement within the organization that should concern anyone who’s ever given money (or is considering giving money) to them.

I don’t believe in posting something like this without giving the other side a chance to respond. So I informed the Browns of all the major concerns I list below. Their responses are included, with the knowledge that I would be quoting them in this piece.

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Let’s start with a basic question:

Is We Are Atheism a non-profit group?

If you go to their current About page, you will see this message:

We Are Atheism Incorporated is a public non-profit registered in the state of Missouri and tax exempt under the 501(c)3 federal tax code. EIN: 45-5344445 State File ID: N01316599

That’s true. It is a non-profit. Now.

When it was initially created, though, it was not. It wasn’t until April of 2014 that they even filed paperwork to become a non-profit. When the non-profit status became official this past October, it was retroactively applied to May 23, 2013, the day the business was incorporated.

Why is that a big deal?

Because some of the largest fundraisers We Are Atheism held took place before May 23, 2013. In fact, if you look at their earliest fundraiser, in 2012, for people affected by the Sandy Hook shootings, it included this message:

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Your donation is tax deductible (we will be getting our 501C3 status next year)

My guess is a lot of people made sizable contributions because they assumed their donations would be tax-deductible. You can’t blame them for thinking that; it’s what the website said.

But not only was We Are Atheism *not* getting their 501(c)(3) status “next year,” at this point, they hadn’t even applied for it.

Even if you don’t care about that, I promise you the IRS sure as hell does.

Someone was lying to the government. Was it the donors who unknowingly took tax write-offs? Or was it We Are Atheism for claiming donations to them would be tax-deductible even though they weren’t?

(Incidentally, I have worked with other non-profit groups that did fundraising like this, but we didn’t accept any donations until after we were incorporated and had filed for our 501(c)(3) status specifically to avoid problems like this.)

To make matters worse, the donors who gave money before We Are Atheism became a non-profit may not even be aware there’s a problem because the matter is only vaguely mentioned on their website, on their current FAQ page (emphasis mine):

As of 10/1/2014 the IRS finally granted us tax exempt status and it goes back to 5/23/2013. We are working to get our donations covered further back than that but as of 10/1/2014 that is where it stands. If you did deduct your donation to We Are Atheism, Inc. BEFORE 5/23/2013 then you need to make adjustments on your taxes.

So, um, go fix your taxes, donors… even though you already filed them incorrectly and took deductions that you weren’t legally entitled to.

Was this just an innocent (albeit very serious) mistake? Consider this: In January of 2011, long before all the fundraising began, Adam Brown wrote about how he was developing an atheist charity and how “the 501C3 paperwork is being filled out.” He also posted on Reddit in 2011 about how he was forming a different 501(c)(3) group.

Point being: he clearly knew the importance of having a registered non-profit long before the fundraising for WAA began, and he knew how to do it, but it didn’t happen for We Are Atheism until several months after Sandy Hook.

Amanda Brown also wrote about how We Are Atheism was a non-profit group long before they even applied for that status:

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When I raised this issue with the Browns, this was Amanda’s response:

I have spoken to the IRS on the phone and according to them under publication 526 and 577 we have 27 months to file for 501c3 but can operate as one until then. As of yesterday I have 100% verbal confirmation that ALL donations from 9/2012-present are in fact all completely tax deductible.

Also, they will not issue a document pushing back our status to have officially on record. The representative stated that the publication I stated above is sufficient. As well as going against their policy of back dating only until the company is incorporated which didn’t happen officially until 5/23/2013. Again, under the IRS representative’s word, WAA ever telling anyone we are operating as a 501c3 before getting official status is not illegal as long as you get the status approved. If you don’t…. then it’s a nightmare.

Amanda didn’t have the badge number of the person she spoke with, so I’m not sure who told her this… but it’s wrong.

I called the IRS this morning. The agent I spoke with (who gave me her badge number immediately) said that, simply put, they cannot backdate the tax deductions to September of 2012 because the non-profit simply didn’t exist then. It was incorporated on May 23, 2013. That’s when it was technically created. That’s when the tax deductions can begin. Full stop.

Who the heck was giving the Browns all this bad information? Amanda says they hired a lawyer to help them out with all of this:

The lawyer technically wasn’t wrong. He just informed us incorrectly. His name honestly escapes my mind.

I asked if she still had his phone number so I could get in touch with him. She told me she didn’t have that, either.

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Where is all this money going?

If you look at the group’s Donate page from 2012 to 2014, you’ll see that all donations fund seven different areas… none of which include salaries. We Are Atheism’s current FAQ even states:

All donations go directly to the disaster being raised for at hand. 100% of the donations raised for the natural disaster or national tragedy goes to those in need.

On a Reddit thread from April 16, 2013, Adam Brown also mentioned how “we don’t take a salary.”

The current donation page says the same thing:

As of 2014 all employees are volunteers but once able we will begin having salaried employees

To summarize: All volunteers. No salaried employees (yet).

However, according to We Are Atheism’s own Income and Expense Report, the group spent $9,428.84 on salaries… in 2013.

That’s a *huge* transparency fail. At worst, they took funds from a pool of money that may have been intended for charity. At best, it’s completely misleading because donors were likely unaware this was part of the overhead costs.

Someone even brought up this problem more than a year ago, asking for documentation of where donation money was going:

Amanda was saying she couldn’t provide documentation because all the money was mixed together. In other words, there was no clear-cut way to distinguish what was supposed to go to victims and what We Are Atheism could keep for itself.

So if you made a donation on their site for tornado victims, but didn’t specify that, there’s a chance it could have been confused with donations to We Are Atheism itself.

Amanda says they did everything in their power to separate money intended for disaster relief from donations to their own group, but by mixing the money together, it made that separation a lot more confusing. Still, even if the money was properly earmarked, it was not clear that donations were going toward anyone’s salary.

When I raised this issue with the Browns, this was Amanda’s response:

As noted in the 2012-2014 Income and Expense report all money that did go out in charity was used for charityThe WAA General fund was used for these [other] expenses and part of that was giving me a smidgen of money to live off of so I could make sure my daughter had a place to live, food to eat, and clothes to wear.

… We did have donors BEFORE 2012 that gave regularly to support the “Out Campaign”. [That’s the “It Gets Better” campaign for atheists I mentioned earlier — Hemant] The “Out Campaign” is how We Are Atheism had money to use for things like the camera, mail chimp, setting up the website etc.

We never said what the money donated to We Are Atheism PRIOR to Sandy Hook would be used for. Most just assumed expenses that helped further the campaign. We did have a section on the website that listed things we needed and that we’d be using the money for that but I hope I never gave the impression that I wouldn’t eventually take a salary from We Are Atheism.

Actually, they did say what “the money donated to We Are Atheism PRIOR to Sandy Hook would be used for.” You can see the list right here. “Salary” isn’t on it.

She added that they had taken precautions since then so that donors would know exactly where their donations would go:

A great example would be the fundraiser we just did for the 3 muslims that were shot by the atheist in Chapel Hill NC. We put a GIANT graphic that links to the PayPal account that has been specifically labeled for that campaign so the money raised goes specifically to that.

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Did the money go where donors thought it would go?

This is where things get really weird, because the bookkeeping is completely out of sync across various websites. The amount of money raised frequently gets smaller over time and the cash doesn’t always go where donors might expect.

So let’s go through some reconstructed timelines of We Are Atheism’s major fundraising events. (All dates on the left represent actual dates we can document via the Internet Archive.)

Sandy Hook Elementary

12/14/2012: The shootings occur and We Are Atheism begins raising money soon after that.

01/04/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $29,562.78 (as of 12/31/12).

01/15/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $29,757.25 (as of 01/04/13).

03/05/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $30,000 (as of 01/15/13).

04/23/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised just under $28,000 (as of 03/16/13). And this is where they say the money went:

(If you do the math, that’s a total of about $25,500… not even $28,000.)

Today: We Are Atheism says they raised $25,000 during the fundraiser. And the money was disbursed this way:

But wait. On their other website, specifically for Atheists Giving Aid, it says they raised $25,000, but the money was disbursed this way:

But wait. On We Are Atheism’s “Income & Expense Report,” which is mentioned on their “Transparency” page, it says the Sandy Hook fundraiser only took in $22,386.45.

Questions that I still have:

  • Why did the amount raised drop from $30,000 to $28,000 to $25,000 to $22,386.45?
  • Why are there discrepancies in the amount given to Newtown Memorial Fund?
  • What happened to the money given to the My Sandy Hook Family Fund? Why was this replaced with the Connecticut PTA (actually PTSA)? And why is neither group mentioned as a recipient anymore?

When I raised the first issue with the Browns, this was Amanda’s response:

Based on the paypal button labels Sandy Hook only raised $22,000. BUT when I sent the money out to the different funds/organizations I decided to go ahead and just give the General Fund donations too. Mainly because I was afraid people got confused and that really the $3k that I was questioning deserved to go to the families that were affected. So I did that. There wasn’t a board at the time to help me make that decision. It was completely my own.

The money didn’t disappear….. I was just horrible at understanding how paypal worked at that time. We didn’t have a way to put in a thermometer or donation counter. All that I could find at the time cost money that we didn’t have. So I just tried to update based on what my phone would tell me when I checked the account. Come to find out that if you don’t download the data or click on each donation individually you have no idea what cause they are donating to. So after I found that out I had to go and recalculate the total.

I’m also dyslexic with numbers so that took me a while to do because I had to check it 3 times myself and then have Adam do it too.

What about the My Sandy Hook Family Fund?

I wanted to send that group the money. And at the time when I put it on the website they agreed to take it. [They] backed out later and until I found someplace else to send the money to I didn’t change it. Then I thought I had updated the website to reflect the change and Todd [Stiefel] pointed out I hadn’t.

This is another area where someone was supposed to be helping me update the website and make sure it was all accurate. Again, I shouldn’t have trusted this person. They ended up putting a lot of misinformation that I have recently completely fixed. So using the “WayBackMachine” [Internet Archive] just doesn’t look good for us b/c of this. But everything that is currently there is correct.

I asked for the name of the person who wrongly updated the website in order to verify this for myself, but Amanda wouldn’t tell me who it was.

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The Boston Marathon Bombings

04/13/2013: The bombings occur and We Are Atheism begins raising money soon after that.

04/30/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $28,321 (as of 04/18/13).

06/23/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $29,000 (as of 04/18/13).

Today: We Are Atheism says they raised $20,718. And the money was sent to One Fund Boston. (This has been confirmed.)

Question that I still have:

  • Why did the number drop from $29,000 to $20,718?

When I raised this issue with the Browns, this was Amanda’s response:

I royally fucked up with PayPal. I hope soon we will have enough money to do our own credit card processing and donation gathering but until then I have to rely on the cheapest route possible and right now that’s me doing all accounting by hand (double checked by a friend who’s studying to be a CPA) and using PayPal and Square to gather donations.

I asked for the name of the soon-to-be CPA who double checked this accounting in order to verify this for myself, but Amanda wouldn’t tell me who it was.

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West, Texas Explosion

04/17/2013: An explosion occurs at the West (Texas) Fertilizer Company facility and We Are Atheism begins raising money soon after that.

04/20/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $620.

06/23/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $1,000.

Today: We Are Atheism says they raised $2,121. (The separate Atheists Giving Aid site says the amount was $2,161.)

All of that money was given to three families. (More on them in a moment.)

None of them were affected by the explosion.

Question that I still have:

  • Why wasn’t this money given to a general fund to help victims of the explosion?

When I raised this issue with the Browns, this was Amanda’s response:

We didn’t give the money to families affected by the explosion because we (the board at the time) decided to reallocate the money because no one was willing to say that they received money from an atheist organization. They didn’t want their Christian donors to disappear because they took money from atheists, even though it was a minute amount…

We knew of people in need so instead of saying no we don’t help out on an individual basis we, the current board at the time, decided to switch from donating to organizations to doing individual aid.

I’ll say more about all of this in the next section.

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Oklahoma Tornado

05/20/2013: The tornado hits Oklahoma and We Are Atheism begins raising money soon after that.

06/08/2013: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised $18,302.

05/31/2014: We Are Atheism says they’ve raised “a little over $16,000.”

Today: We Are Atheism says they raised $14,760. And the money was disbursed this way:

  • $8,615 to DoYourPart.org, which was assisting survivors of the tornado. (This has been confirmed.)
  • $6,145 to three different families: “A homeless family, a couple suffering from identity theft, and Teresa Mitchell.”

About that first donation: Not only does the separate Atheists Giving Aid site say the amount was $8,167, which is incorrect, it also says the money was given to the “Oklahoma Strong Disaster Relief Fund,” which is also not true.

As for the second group of donations: Mitchell, who was unemployed and needed help, received $1,300 (including nearly $500 from We Are Atheism’s general fund), though she was not affected by the Oklahoma tornado.

The homeless family received $1,456.67, though they were not affected by the Oklahoma tornado.

The couple affected by identity theft received $6,000 to replenish their bank account. We are not told anything else about this couple because they asked to remain anonymous, only that “Amanda Brown happened to be talking to this couple while at an atheist group hangout at a restaurant.” Whether they were strangers or friends of hers, we don’t know. They, too, were not affected by the tornado.

To be sure, these stories are all heartbreaking. But the Browns were using money that was earmarked specifically for victims of the tornado (and fertilizer plant explosion) to help an entirely different group of people.

If donors gave money to help victims of the tragedy, they should be aware that their money did not go toward that cause. (I suspect there are donors who would not have given money to WAA at all if they knew this in advance.)

Questions that I still have:

  • Why did the number drop from $18,302 to $14,760?
  • Why was money given to families that were not affected by the Oklahoma tornado, even though people donated for that cause specifically?

When I raised the first issue with the Browns, this was Amanda’s response:

Again…. I was an idiot at paypal but this was around the time that I figured out what was going on. So this is when I was beginning to pay out the money coming in. I downloaded the data from PayPal and realized the mistakes I had made and set out to change the website. Hence the discrepancies.

And why was money given to individuals not affected by the tornado?

The local atheists [in Oklahoma] never found anyone who would be willing to accept our help.

So after that I tried calling contractors, local Orgs, even the city, and all told me to basically die and go to hell.

I asked Amanda if she could name any of these groups refusing money from an atheist organization. (Because I’d love to know who they are…)

She said, “I honestly don’t remember.”

But why not just give all the money to DoYourPart.org, since they were willing to accept it?

Amanda said the rest of the money had already been allocated to the individuals.

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All in all, at least $50,000 (and possibly a lot more) was given to We Are Atheism before they were legally a non-profit organization and before any of the donations were tax-deductible. Quite a bit of it went to people whom donors were likely unaware of when they were making their contributions.

I’m sure many people would’ve given money to help those individuals, for what it’s worth, but the bait-and-switch method (even if unintentional) leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to transparency.

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I’m frustrated and disappointed with how the Browns have handled all this because I supported their work for a long time. I am a board member of Foundation Beyond Belief and I like the idea of groups willing to gather donations from atheists to help those in need. (I should point out that I wrote this story on the basis of tips from multiple sources, not because I see We Are Atheism as competition. The FBB board is unaware of the fact that I’ve been working on this piece.)

I want to believe that this is all a matter of good intentions mixed with a very poor understanding of how to manage and keep track of all this money. I understand the urge to help out in the event of a tragedy and it makes sense that, if you have a platform, you want to use it. But doing so haphazardly, without the proper precautions, is just unacceptable and makes it harder to run these kinds of fundraisers in the future.

Speaking only for myself here, I don’t feel comfortable giving any money to this organization until these problems are straightened out. They have a lot of work to do to regain my trust.

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By the way, I wanted to share the details in this post with “Mark Felt,” so I emailed him several days ago.

The email bounced back. It no longer works.

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***Update*** (10:18p): We Are Atheism’s President Lee Moore has issued a brief statement on the matter here:

It has come to my attention that a recent blog post by Hemant Mehta has brought forth some questions about our founder’s activities during the early years of our organization. This has been of great concern to our board of directors and we are currently investigating the claims and will be issuing our findings and an official statement on them within the next 48 hours.

Let me assure you that since the time I and our board members (Ben Blanchard, Georgina Capetillo, and Justus Cade) signed on with Amanda Brown, there have been no paperwork irregularities and that we are dedicated to total transparency. We are devoted to the mission of We Are Atheism and will do our absolute best to put any concerns you may have about its early days before myself and our current board signed on to rest.

I look forward to seeing what they produce.

***Update 2*** (3/18): Lee Moore has issued a longer statement here. As I said before, I hope they can get to the bottom of any mistakes and get this organization back on track. I want to see more atheist-led charities like WAA, but I also want them all to be well-managed, fully transparent, and always above board.

***Update 3*** (3/22): Former board members of We Are Atheism have spoken out here.

***Update 4*** (3/23): Lee Moore has issued further updates to how We Are Atheism is responding here:

I have retained the services of an independent tax firm to do a full audit on the We Are Atheism books since its inception. Amanda Brown has stepped down from her position on our board of directors until such a time as the audit proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was no foul play.

We are in the process of amending our bylaws to ensure they are compliant with the highest of standards for non profit organizations.


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