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NewsChannel 5 Investigates what happened to the millions donated after the 2020 tornadoes

March 2020 tornadoes
Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee
Amy Fair, Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee
Jennifer Kraus interviews Amy Fair, Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee
Posted at 5:53 PM, Jun 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-13 19:20:38-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It's been more than two years since devastating tornadoes tore through Middle Tennessee in March 2020, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses.

Almost immediately, millions of dollars in donations began to roll in to help the victims.

But what happened to that money?

NewsChannel 5 Investigates has been digging for weeks now, trying to find out.

It was one of the worst tornado outbreaks in Tennessee history. Twenty-five people died when powerful tornadoes slammed into Nashville and then Wilson and Putnam Counties in the early morning hours of March 3, 2020. And as word of the disaster spread, donations started pouring in.

And, all of the money went to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

Amy Fair with the Foundation said people were very generous.

"We took in about $12.5 million total. And it came from all over the world," Fair said.

But what happened to that money? The Community Foundation — believe it or not — wouldn't say.

"We feel confident in our level of transparency to this point," Fair said.

Fair oversees disaster relief at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee.

A 2012 agreement with the city of Nashville put the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee in charge of "the collection and distribution" of donations in Nashville after disasters. The money is not supposed to go directly to individuals, but to nonprofits and churches that work with survivors and identify who needs what.

"We distribute the money to organizations that we have relationships with, that we walk with alongside in disaster," Fair said.

The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee describes on its website how "transparency is a critical component in disaster grant-making."

But when NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked to see a breakdown of how donors' dollars were spent, the organization said no.

Laurie Styron is the executive director of Charity Watch, a national group that investigates charities and how efficiently they raise and spend the money entrusted to them.

"It’s always a concern when the public asks for a reasonable amount of accountability about how their donations were spent and they don’t get an adequate response," Styron said.

She added that it's best when charities are transparent.

"If I give you X amount of money, what will you accomplish with it?" she said.

The Community Foundation told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that if we wanted information, to look at their tornado response website.

"And you think what’s on the website is enough?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Fair.

"Yes, I do," she said.

Fair pointed to a series of posts on the website featuring "stories" as she called them, which essentially are profile pieces on some of the organizations that received tornado relief money and the people who were helped.

But Styron said what's missing there are specifics.

"It is really inadequate," Styron said. "(What's missing is...) What did they accomplish and it can’t be something vague like we built houses or we helped pay mortgages. It has to be quantifiable. How many houses did you build? How many people did you help?"

The website does have a list of all tornado grant recipients and how much each got.

But under the heading of "details," most of the early grants simply say they were used "to support relief efforts in the aftermath of the March 2020 tornadoes."

"That doesn’t tell people anything," NewsChannel 5 Investigates said to Amy Fair.

"Right, we’ll get more granular in that final report," she replied.

Fair said she plans to put together that final report once all of the tornado relief work is done, hopefully by the end of this year.

So we asked her: "Do you think you’re sharing enough information?"

"I do," Fair said. "For the time right now, I mean, we provide the information on the website. We’re not required to. But we do."

Fair told us if we wanted specifics we should ask the grant recipients themselves. So we did.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates reached out to many of the groups that got money, including those that got multiple grants, totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.

What we wanted to know was where did the money go and how they spent it. But from a lot of these groups, we got nothing.

More than half of the nonprofits did not respond to us, or they provided few if any specifics, including the Community Resource Center, which got more than half a million dollars in tornado relief money; Inspiritus, which got nearly one and a half million dollars; and the Crosspoint Church in Mt. Juliet which got $219,000 and told us they did not wish to participate in our story.

There were plenty of others that got money but wouldn't tell us specifically where it went or how they spent it.

That includes the US Bartenders Guild National Charity Foundation, Broken, Restored, Redeemed Ministries, Project Connect, Hands On Nashville, Legal Aid Society, Mother to Mother, Successful Survivors, Elijah's Heart, Family Affair Ministries, MusiCares, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church, Conexion Americas, Bridge Ministry, Greater Heights Missionary Baptist Church, Matthew Walker Health Center and HeartStrings.

"Well, they told us, who they are responsible to, who received the money. We know how all of them used the money," Fair said.

"If a charity is not excited to tell you about what it has accomplished with your donations, if it's not excited to account for how it used your money, that should be a red flag for you," Styron.

And Styron warned donors may not be so generous the next time disaster strikes.

"When people stop trusting that charities are going to be accountable for their donations then they stop donating."

We also discovered that at least three organizations did not use all of the money they were given, including Operation Standdown, which gave back $40,000. But, none of that is reflected in the Community Foundation's online reporting.

But there is more that is not shown.

We discovered that the Community Foundation took more than a million dollars out of the tornado fund and used it last year after the flooding in Nashville and later in Waverly. But there is no breakdown anywhere on their website of how that money was used or where it went.

Here's what else we found. As we were reaching out to the groups that got tornado money, we found at least one of them had no idea they'd even received any money and they'd never asked for it. And it turns out, neither did many others that got money.

And we discovered the Community Foundation did not track or account for all of the money it sent out.

That part of the story on NewsChannel 5 at 6 p.m. Tuesday night.

In the interest of transparency, it is worth mentioning that we - along with every media outlet in town - have partnered with the Community Foundation for years to raise money for these disaster relief funds.