Charities upset at soundalike operators

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 December, 2007, 12:00am

Established fund-raisers cry foul

Established charities are upset about the registration of a growing number of new groups with similar names which they say is confusing donors and possibly depriving long-standing groups of funds.

The charities say there is little they can do about it with their limited resources while the two government departments responsible for licensing charities and issuing fund-raising permits say they do not take similar-sounding names into account in making decisions.

One of the organisations affected is one of Hong Kong's best-known advocacy groups for the poor, the Society for Community Organisation, or Soco. The Hong Kong Community Services Association, which gained charity status from the Inland Revenue Department in January 2005, has a Chinese name almost identical to Soco's.

Soco director Ho Hei-wah says he is seeking advice from his lawyer but admits there is little he can do about it. 'We are a small group and don't have money to fight lawsuits against questionable groups,' Mr Ho said. 'People's sympathy is being exploited because of a loophole in government control. Those with one or two words different from existing charities shouldn't be allowed to register.'

The Social Welfare Department has admitted there are more new charities operating under names similar to those of established groups. But a spokeswoman said the department, which grants permits for fund-raising in public places, will not reject applications just because of name similarity.

Oxfam fund-raising director Albert Chan Ka-ming said a lot of doubtful charities claimed they helped sick children and mainland youngsters go to school. He said he was worried that if the situation continued, people would not donate, killing off street fund-raising and threatening the survival of small social welfare groups.

The Inland Revenue Department, which grants charitable status to groups, said it did not object to applications from organisations with similar names to existing charities.

Neither department investigates how cash raised by charities is spent.

Another affected charity is the Kwun Tong-based Senior Citizen Home Safety Association, which set up the well-known alarm bell system for elderly people living alone. It says a group with an almost identical name has been raising funds in Shau Kei Wan for three years.

'They claim that they clean elderly people's homes and provide the elderly with subsidised health checks,' executive director Timothy Ma Kam-wah said. 'The elderly pay HK$50 for the health check vouchers. But when they go to the clinic, they sell them other expensive services.'

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Society of the Aged also said another group had posed as the society a few years ago.

The Hong Kong Community Services Association also operates two other groups that are registered as charities and have been granted fund-raising permits - the Hong Kong Community Development Network and the Hong Kong Young Sprout Environmental Protection Association.

The Social Welfare Department has not issued any permits to Young Sprout since a newspaper published pictures showing its fund-raisers allegedly posing as disabled people.

But it issued three permits to the Hong Kong Community Services Association - two last year and one in April. And three permits were given to the Hong Kong Community Development Network last year.

Lung Wai-man, of the Hong Kong Community Development Network said he was the group's only social worker and he helped five communities - ethnic minorities, lonely single people, new arrivals, former prisoners and the disabled.

Mr Lung said he did not see anything wrong in using names similar to those of established charities.

'If we had a problem, the police won't let us register as a society and Inland Revenue wouldn't grant us charitable status,' he said.

He said the Young Sprouts' wheel-chair-using staff who were photographed walking had minor disabilities and could walk around.

Illicit demand

There were 15 cases of illegal fund-raising without a permit in 2004

The number of cases last year: 49

Source: SWD