How can a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization refuse to supply services they promote on their website?
I reached out to a national organization to obtain a service dog and was told there would be a current wait time of four to seven years for me because I am not a veteran or a first responder. They said the vast majority of their donors and sponsors request that their dollars specifically go to disabled veterans and first responders, and, although I could apply, I should be aware of the wait time. They suggested that I contact another dog organization in my area or get a dog myself and take it to their training classes. Can they really do this?
This is the second question in our Week of Great Nonprofit Questions - December 18-22
Nonprofits, like for-profit businesses, are usually considered places of public accommodation under our civil rights laws, and are allowed to pick and choose their customers on any grounds they want so long as it does not constitute discrimination against a legally protected class, such as race, creed, sex, or national origin. Giving preference to veterans or first responders would not be a violation of civil rights laws, especially in view of the increase in the number of women who are veterans and first responders.
Not every organization has the capacity to handle all of the requests for its services (think selective colleges and universities, for example) and they have to set the ground rules for selection. It could be first-come first-served, but giving preference to veterans and first responders, who some would think are particularly deserving because of their record of service to others, is not an irrational or illegal standard for them or their donors.
I suspect that if you read the organization’s website closely you will find some reference to their preferential policy. And I think it is admirable that they didn’t mislead you when you sought to apply. Unfortunately for those who can’t be served, if they don’t have the resources to help everyone who applies, there is no legal requirement that they do so.