The advertisement running in newspapers nationwide says, "Please send a G.I. Gift Pac. Tell a G.I. in Saudi Arabia you care! . . . Each Gift Pac is filled with cookies and candy, dried fruit, tasty nuts and other delicious treats. And it costs only $15."
What a soldier gets for the $15 from a group called Help Hospitalized Veterans (HHV) of Falls Church is a greeting card and 10 snacks, including three ounces of hard candy, five ounces of roasted nuts and eight ounces of dates.
The organization says it pays $7 for the items, including the cost of packaging and shipping to a U.S. port. Two Washington area food distributors say the snacks would sell for $4.40 to $4.70 wholesale.
"If people knew that what they spent $15 for was actually bought for one-third to one-half of that," they might reconsider the gift or decide to send a package directly themselves, said Joyce Hayes, a Rockville resident who last week mailed two packages of her own to relatives in the Persian Gulf.
The organization so far has received about $3.5 million for some 250,000 Christmas snack gifts, according to its president, Roger Chapin.
How much charities spend on their stated missions and how much they spend on administration and fund-raising often have become an issue.
The organization, which has solicited donations to buy craft kits for veterans in military hospitals since 1971, has had mixed success in meeting the standards set by two watchdog groups for the percentage of a charity's money that should be spent on its stated purpose.
The standard of the Council of Better Business Bureaus is a minimum of 50 percent. The National Charity Information Bureau, an independent watchdog group based in New York, set a guideline of 60 percent.
In 1988, the organization spent 45 percent of the money it raised for veterans' craft kits and spent 53 percent on fund-raising, failing to meet the standard of both groups, the groups said.
Last year, the organization raised $11 million and spent $6.5 million (56 percent) on its programs, including purchase of the craft kits, according to an auditor's report.
About $1 million of the program money was donated to groups called Drug Free America and Citizens for a Drug Free America Foundation, according to the auditor's report. Chapin is president of the anti-drug foundation, which, among other things, advocates mandatory drug testing in high schools.
"It is relevant for contributors to know the record" of the veterans organization, said Kenneth L. Albrecht, president of the Charity Information Bureau, which is reviewing the group's current fund-raising activities.
Chapin maintains that if a donor bought the snacks at retail cost and mailed them to a soldier, it would cost $19.
"I don't know what else we should be required to do," Chapin said. "We have always guaranteed dollar-for-dollar value."
Chapin said the snacks and greeting cards cost $5.47 a package. Including the cost of packaging, handling and transportation to military ships, Chapin said, each gift costs the group about $7. The Defense Department is shipping the packages to the Middle East at no charge.
Lt. Col. Henry Wyatt, a Defense Logistics Agency spokesman, said 100,000 snack packs from the organization "are on the ocean now" being shipped in 40-foot containers.
Most of the difference between the cost and what donors pay is spent on advertising and direct mailing, with less than 1 percent going to administrative costs, organization officials said.
Donors who answer the group's direct-mail appeals and its television, radio and newspaper advertisements pay $15 for a single gift pack, $25 for two and $100 for eight.
Television personality Art Linkletter, who urges "every American family to send at least one G.I. Holiday Gift Pac" in the group's newspaper ads, said that he has been criticized because the gift's contents cost $7. But, he said, "I'm still not sorry I got involved in it. I think it's a good idea."
Linkletter added that "people have got to understand that the business of charities and the business of raising money includes advertising costs."
Another group, the nonprofit Paralyzed Veterans of America, spent 59 percent of its income on program-related services in the budget year ending in September 1989, according to Bennett Weiner, vice president of the Council of Better Business Bureaus.
The United Service Organizations Inc. (USO), which recently sent thousands of donated gift packages to U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf, spent 77 percent of its income on activities directly related to its stated purpose, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus' latest report.
A spokesman for Chapin's group, which has headquarters in San Diego and operates most of the holiday campaign out of its Falls Church offices, said the campaign has been so successful that it is being extended past the holidays for as "long as people are enthusiastic about it."
Chapin said all surplus money from the holiday gift package venture would be funneled to American troops, most likely by buying more gifts for them. He said that his organization has a solid record with the veterans in hospitals who, since 1971, have received 11 million arts and crafts kits bought with the $75 million the group has raised.
Chapin also said he "personally guaranteed" that the holiday gift campaign would meet or better all watchdog group standards.
Other snacks in the the package include 5.5 ounces of assorted cookies, six ounces of potato chips, six ounces of raisins, 11 ounces of oatmeal raisin cookies, six ounces of cheddar cheese goldfish crackers, six ounces of corn snacks and two ounces of Sweetarts candy.
"The bottom line rests with the individual giver," said Weiner, of the Better Business Bureaus. "It's up to the donor to decide whether this or any other charitable activity is worth their support."