An atheism advocacy organization that has enjoyed support from prominent nontheists, including Richard Dawkins, is now mired in a financial scandal.
We Are Atheism, co-founded four years ago by then-University of Kansas student Amanda Brown and her husband, Adam Brown, is facing questions about mismanaged donations and misrepresentation of its tax-exempt status.
The most serious charge involves claims that donations made to the organization before May 2013 would be tax-deductible; the group did not receive its 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service until October 2014.
The organization’s headquarters is listed on its Facebook page as the Browns’ home in Grandview. Contacted there, Amanda Brown told a Kansas City Star reporter that she and the organization have done nothing wrong.
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“We did not do anything illegal,” Brown said. “... I’ve done nothing over the past four years other than try to change the face of atheism.”
Allegations against the group have been percolating for more than a year and were made public in March by Hemant Mehta on his Friendly Atheist blog.
“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,” Mehta wrote.
We Are Atheism is best-known for a series of videos that feature famous as well as rank-and-file atheists “coming out” about their nonbelief in God or religion. Since late 2012, the group has also raised relief money in the wake of natural disasters and tragedies, including the Sandy Hook school shootings in Connecticut and the Boston Marathon bombing.
And that’s where much of the trouble started.
According to Mehta, who examined We Are Atheism’s public financial statements, the organization’s current website and archived copies of the website, the group was not registered as a tax-exempt nonprofit with the IRS when it was soliciting what it said would be tax-deductible donations in 2012 and early 2013.
In reality, the group did not apply for tax-exempt status until 2014. The IRS permitted the tax-exempt status to be retroactive to the group’s date of incorporation in May 2013. But donors who gave gifts to We Are Atheism before then were advised to “make adjustments on your taxes” as those donations are not tax-deductible.
We Are Atheism also stated on its website that all donations — “100%” — would be used for disaster or tragedy relief or go into its general fund. The group listed seven things the general fund would be used for, including marketing and travel expenses. No donation money was to be used for salaries because the group is run entirely by volunteers.
Yet the group’s 2013 financial report shows that $9,500 was paid out in salaries. Brown told Mehta the group’s general fund was used to give her “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.”
Brown told The Star that taking a small salary — which she said was voted on by two board members at that time — “was literally a moment of desperation for me.”
The same report also shows contradictory figures for donations raised and paid out to victims of Sandy Hook, an Oklahoma tornado and a Texas fertilizer explosion, all of which We Are Atheism solicited donations for through its Atheists Giving Aid program.
In some cases, the group’s records indicate that donated funds went to people beyond the disasters or tragedies the money was solicited for. In one case, Brown gave donated money to a homeless family she met at an atheist gathering.
She has stepped down from her position as treasurer of We Are Atheism.
Lee Moore, the group’s president, issued a statement promising greater transparency. He said We Are Atheism has hired an accountant to comb through its financial records.
He said the situation is an opportunity to show how atheists can be a force among charitable organizations.
“I want to know every single mistake that was made,” he said, “and I want to correct it.”
The Star’s Laura Bauer contributed to this report.