The Salvation Army's $4 Billion Real Estate Bonanza

Salvation ArmyLike many others, most years I give a small donation to the Salvation Army, often in the form of clothing. Little did I know, however, that the organization that runs the ubiquitous thrift shops is a real estate powerhouse, and should probably be donating money to me each Christmas! In fact, reports the Los Angeles Times, the Salvation Army's U.S. real estate holdings came to about $4 billion as late as 2008 -- and that's only about a third of its real estate assets scattered around the globe.

Four billion dollars can buy a hell of a lot of those red-kettles folks toss money into on street corners.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy tells the paper, "It creates an appearance issue because John Public thinks, 'I give the Salvation Army my hard-earned 50 bucks and it's going to go to this fancy home I can't afford to live in.' "

He's apparently referring to some of the rather, er, large homes owned by the SA that some of its low paid employees get to live in rent free as part of their compensation package.

The Times introduces us to Henry Graciani who, along with his wife, are long time Salvation Army officers. They reportedly only get paid $25,000 per year -- that's for BOTH of them! -- but get to live in a $1.3 million home in Santa Monica,California.

The SA, for its part, claims that this is a good thing because, by owning lots and lots of property, it can better afford moving its people around at much reduced cost to the organization.

However, a truly amazing figure is this, according to the Times: In Los Angeles and Orange Counties alone, the organization owns 87 homes and condominiums with an estimated 2010 value of about $52 million.

Now to be fair, as the article points out, the Salvation Army has a reputation of being careful with the money it receives from donations, spending something like 80 percent on actual services for the poor and needy, including the homeless. That's a whole lot better than most charitable organizations, with little doubt.

And, the notion of supplying rent-free housing to its high ranking employees in some of the nation's finest, even tony, neighborhoods, probably does make some sense, especially since the same employees are practically paid minimum wage.

Still, as is always the case -- and especially with real estate holdings -- perception and appearance do matter.

I must admit that the next time I reach into my pocket to toss a five dollar bill into one of those collection kettles, I'm going to have this mental image of the uniformed bell ringer standing there, driving home at the end of the day -- home to a large house overlooking the deep blue Pacific, a home that is both rent and tax free!


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Charles Feldman is a journalist, media consultant and co-author of the book, "No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle." He has written about real estate related issues for several years.
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