The plastic bags are now orange instead of pink, but they’ve hung on doorknobs of residences across Hall County in recent weeks asking for the same donations as always: used clothing, kitchenware, electronics, small appliances, shoes, belts and purses.
The goods are ostensibly used to support programs for the homeless and victims of domestic violence, but the presence of the orange bags has reignited hard feelings about the organization behind the collection.
“I would not personally contribute anything to them,” Flowery Branch Police Chief David Spillers told The Times last week.
A few years ago, Spillers made waves when he took to social media to warn residents about NSPIRE Outreach, a tax-exempt charitable organization based in Lawrenceville that collects the donations under the auspices of HOPE for Domestic Violence and ClothingPickupAtl.com.
At that time, Spillers personally visited and investigated NSPIRE, he said, which has also come under the heavy glare of the Georgia secretary of state and other government watchdogs across the Southeast.
Spillers said he found an empty office space that reminded him of a front for a drug peddling operation.
“Perhaps we need to change the way the government looks at (tax-exempt organizations),” Spillers said. “This outfit preys upon the benevolence of good people. I’m not comfortable with the situation at all.”
A few residents have complained to The Times in recent weeks about the presence of the orange bags and a constant barrage of phone calls for donations from NSPIRE employees.
Their suspicions were matched by residents in other states. For example, in December 2014, the Tennessee secretary of state imposed a $45,000 civil penalty for “soliciting contributions using false or misleading practices.”
And Charity Navigator, which tracks how well nonprofits are meeting their stated missions, has issued a “moderate” warning about NSPIRE based on news reports and investigations dating most recently to 2016.
Gregg Kennard, founder of NSPIRE, disputed accusations of impropriety lodged against his organization in an interview with The Times last week.
Kennard said he has cooperated with state investigators and that no punitive action has been taken in Georgia.
“We gave them … everything they wanted,” he said, referring to the secretary of state’s office. “Of course, sometimes a phone call happening at a poor time can be annoying. Let’s keep it in perspective. It’s a phone call and it’s a bag. We’re not asking for money.”
The secretary of state’s office did not respond to a request from The Times for comment.
In Tennessee, Kennard denied that the organization will have to pay the fine after further due diligence was completed and that a donation of some kind will be made instead as some form of settlement.
“In my opinion, there was a quick reflex to try to fine us,” he added. “We satisfied some of the questions they had.”
Kennard said the donation drive is used to support education, counseling and housing needs for “marginalized” persons and that NSPIRE has assisted about 1,000 individuals throughout the Southeast over the course of 10 years.
It is unclear what impact the organization has had locally, though Kennard said that “we have definitely been serving Hall County …”
“We’re the real thing,” he added. “If you really look under the hood, you’re going to see a lot of great things happening.”
Jessica Butler, executive director of the Gateway Domestic Violence Center, which is the only service of its kind established and known to be working in Hall County, said all of the funds raised by her organization stay local and support Gateway's operations.
“We do not solicit donations from the community by placing bags on mailboxes,” she added. “All of the items donated to Gateway are dropped off at our stores.”
Gateway operates two thrift stores that generate money to operate its shelter. One store is on Dawsonville Highway and the other is on Park Hill Drive.
“These stores also provide a place where we can send clients to get items they need with a voucher,” Butler said.
Gateway is also opening an outreach office in South Hall.
“We'll have someone there who can work with people in Flowery Branch, Braselton and Oakwood who do not need residential services,” Butler said. “We are keeping residential services in Gainesville.”
Spillers said he wants local residents to know who is who and that he encourages them to support Gateway’s efforts.
“I’m the first one to admit that (NSPIRE has) probably helped somebody somewhere along the way,” Spillers said. But, “if people want to contribute to something that is meaningful and makes a difference, (Gateway) is the best opportunity to do so in Hall County.”