Kansas City Councilwoman Melba Curls was frustrated.
In mid-April, Curls and her council colleagues were deciding how to spend $1.6 million in the Neighborhood Tourism Development Fund, money the city uses to promote events that draw visitors to the community.
But Curls was concerned that the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus Foundation — a nonprofit established in part by her late husband, Sen. Phil Curls — wouldn’t get any of the $30,000 in city money it wanted for its annual conference, scheduled for June 29 and 30 in Kansas City.
The neighborhood tourism advisory committee had removed the foundation from its funding list because some members thought the conference would politically “enhance” lawmakers who attended, contrary to city rules.
Curls disagreed, however, and said the foundation served an important purpose.
“It gives scholarships to minorities, of whatever race, college scholarships,” she argued. “And they’ve been doing it for years. They have a track record. You can look at the record.”
The foundation does offer scholarships, an effort the group highlights on its website and in its nonprofit tax returns.
But records reviewed by The Kansas City Star show that scholarships are a small part of what the foundation actually does. Instead, the foundation spends most of its donations and government grants on its conferences — not on direct help for students.
In its last tax return, filed about a year ago, the foundation reported raising more than $282,000, including $63,000 in grants and the rest from anonymous private donors.
Of that amount, the group spent just $15,400 on 20 college scholarships, an average of $770 each.
Instead, almost the entire 2010 budget went for the foundation’s annual meeting, which was held in St. Louis, and a summer session for students. Available tax returns from 2006 to 2010 show the foundation spent more than 80 percent of its budget in those years on conferences and meetings, with the rest going for college aid.
A spokeswoman for a national philanthropy watchdog group said that spending ratio appeared reasonable, as long as donors understood the group’s conferences, not scholarships, were its focus.
Missouri Sen. Shalonn “Kiki” Curls, a Democrat who is Melba Curls’ niece, is the current president of the foundation. She served as treasurer when the 2010 conference was held, tax records showed, but was not its president.
“Our mission is to provide educational opportunities,” she said in an email in response to a request for comment, citing the annual conference, the student sessions in the summer and scholarships.
The 2010 St. Louis conference, Kiki Curls said, was meant to celebrate the group’s 25th anniversary. It included speeches from TV personalities Donna Brazile and Roland Martin, which added expenses to the event.
“It was a very good, informative conference,” said Kansas City lawyer Clinton Adams, who attended the session.
But some are worried the foundation’s spending on meetings hurts needy students, who could use all the financial help they can get.
“Any more money they could give (students) would be greatly appreciated, I know that,” said businessman Henry Lyons, head of the Olathe branch of the NAACP and a former college instructor.
The foundation is a separate entity from the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, an organization of African-American lawmakers in the General Assembly, all of them Democrats. The foundation’s board includes some lawmakers, but also representatives of private companies, educators and others.
Missouri Rep. Tishaura Jones, a St. Louis Democrat, is on the foundation’s board. She did not criticize the group’s past spending but said she understood how some might be worried about the relatively small percentage of spending on scholarships.
“It’s a little concerning,” Jones said. “Last year we pared (the conference) down significantly.”
This year’s conference also appears less ambitious than the 2010 gathering. It includes a golf tournament, an evening reception at the American Jazz Museum and conferences at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. The scheduled speaker is Steve Perry, an educator, author and TV contributor.
In her email, Kiki Curls said she hoped to increase the amount of scholarships offered this year.
The foundation also sponsors a summer youth leadership conference, to be held this year at the University of Missouri. Some of the group’s fundraising defrays the costs of that gathering, which includes free transportation, lodging and meetings for more than 200 students over three days.
Susan Miniutti, a spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, said it is important that donors “confirm that the charity’s programs and services are aligned with what the charity says it does.”
“So long as the charity is being clear that its main mission is to host the conference, rather than to give out scholarships, then I don’t see a big issue here,” she wrote in an email after reviewing the foundation’s returns and its website.
In its 2010 tax return, the foundation noted it was created to “provide African-American disadvantaged youths with educational opportunities through scholarships and internships.” In another section, the foundation states it presents an annual conference “to explore issues and solutions to legislative and community issues facing African-Americans.”
The tax returns do not provide detailed breakdowns of the group’s spending at the conferences, such as rent paid, entertainment costs or other expenses. There is no indication from the returns that board members or others receive any compensation from the group.
Because the foundation is a 501(c)(3) charity, donations to it are tax deductible. The identities of its donors are not known.
But the foundation’s website includes a list of corporate sponsors, including QC Holdings, a company involved in the payday loan industry. Several bills affecting payday loans were introduced in the General Assembly this year, although none passed.
A spokesman for QC Holdings would not disclose how much the company has given to the foundation or if it was concerned with the spending level on scholarships.
“QC Holdings contributes to the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus Foundation to support its work in developing future leaders via scholarships and other programs,” said spokesman Tom Linafelt in an email.
Kiki Curls emphasized the foundation’s work is not connected to the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus.
“Contributions in no way influence or compel any action by the Missouri legislature or any other legislative entity,” her email said.
Meanwhile, Melba Curls, who was part of the caucus when she was in the General Assembly, said she thought scholarship aid had dropped because of the difficult economy, which has meant fewer donations to the group. She said she did not lobby the city for the neighborhood tourism funds because she is Kiki Curls’ aunt.
“I feel a certain camaraderie with the caucus because my husband helped found the organization,” she said.