Federal employees and military personnel are a generous community — last year, they pledged more than $282 million to charities as part of the Combined Federal Campaign, a new record.
But too much of that money is being wasted in printing, labor and other overhead costs, and the Office of Personnel Management, which manages the CFC, needs to fix that.
The CFC is not a single effort, but a collaboration of more than 200 regional campaigns. Some 25 of those use 20 percent or more of the donations they raise on overhead charges. Not surprisingly, the smaller regions are often the least efficient.
These smaller, more remote regions depend heavily on the U.S. Postal Service — for participation and for free labor from postal staff temporarily reassigned to support the charitable effort.
But recent cutbacks to the Postal Service are affecting these regions disproportionately and many regions are seeing the business case for their small CFCs collapse.
OPM has merged nearly 100 regions over the past two years, but it still has much further to go. With 209 regions still operating, it's time to consolidate to something closer to 50 or 60 — one per state, plus one for each U.S. territory and two or three for the biggest, most populous states like Texas and California.
OPM also should take steps to make the overall program more transparent to both donors and the broader public.
One of the biggest costs for many of the regions is a mandatory audit. But those audits are not publicly posted or published. They should be.
And annual or at least biennial checkups on CFC by an independent agency, such as the Government Accountability Office or the OPM inspector general, should be mandatory to ensure the overall program is well run.
There has been no such review since a 2006 report by GAO found weak controls in place to ensure CFC charities were legitimate and did not owe back taxes. At the time, more than 1,280 charities — 6 percent of the total in the CFC program — had tax debts totaling $36 million.
To prove its point, GAO created a fictitious charity and successfully applied to three large CFC campaigns.
OPM does have tougher controls in place now to ensure charities are legitimate. But it is unclear whether those controls translate down through all of the regions.
OPM deserves credit for keeping overall operating costs for CFC at roughly 10 percent, and for achieving new records for contributions each year.
But it can do better.
Reducing inefficiencies through regional consolidation and an increased use of online technology, coupled with more transparency, will go a long way toward making sure that federal employees' contributions get where they're intended — and don't end up wasted through inefficient management.