North Dakota AG Investigating The Grant Institute

The North Dakota Attorney General’s office has issued a warning to nonprofits dealing with Los Angeles-based The Grant Institute and has launched a formal investigation into the company’s seminars in the state. Meanwhile, some of the organization’s former instructors are initiating their own inquiries into the company’s deals.

As reported in the June 15, 2008, issue of The NonProfit Times, there have been allegations by former instructors of non-payment and of attendees not receiving what was promised.

“I am highly concerned about this company. I believe The Grant Institute previously has violated North Dakota law, and now it is not responding to requests for information from my Consumer Protection Division,” North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said in a written statement warning residents not to conduct business with the company. “The business has not obtained a Transient Merchant’s License and now it is representing it will hold a seminar that would again be in violation of the law,” according to the statement. The Consumer Protection Division denied a request by The NonProfit Times for further comment due to the pending formal investigation.

The investigation stems from sales activity in the state from 2007 and a consumer complaint against The Grant Institute. The Grant Institute planned a two-day seminar at North Dakota State University (NSDU) in Fargo this past August. The company took registration for the seminar, even though NSDU said that it didn’t have The Grant Institute registered to give a presentation at the college. NDSU contacted The Grant Institute to remove NDSU references from its Web site, according to the attorney general’s office.

North Dakota requires that any business that conducts temporary business in the state have a Transient Merchant’s license filed with the attorney general’s office and that the license be carried while performing any business-related activities. Businesses must complete an application, including detailed information about each business representative, to obtain a license for one year.

The Texas Workforce Commission in Austin, Texas included The Grant Institute, and its umbrella company Institute for Communication Improvement, LLC, on a list of schools ordered to cease and desist operation in Texas. The list included The Grant Institute on Feb. 1 for operating in Texas without proper certification required by the Texas Education Code and also listed owner Anthony Jones.

More complaints have surfaced about The Grant Institute from unpaid instructors and dissatisfied clients since the June 15 story in The NonProfit Times. The Grant Institute ignored repeated requests from The NonProfit Times for further comment. Jones admitted during an interview with The NonProfit Times for the June 15 story there were some business problems the company was working on, but said: “I have a lot of faith in our program. I’m still committed to its improvement.” The company has maintained its “F” rating from the Better Business Bureau, which has 68 complaints on file about changing workshop venues, instructors failing to show up and unauthorized credit card charges.

And, the complaints aren’t limited to the continental United States. Comments are coming from as far as Alaska and Australia.

Shane Bowering, director of Red Tape Busters in Australia, was emailed in May by Patchree Patchrint, The Grant Institute senior program coordinator, and agreed to teach a course from June 23-25. “I sort of smelled a rat initially when they sent me the presentation they wanted delivered. It was simply a disgrace – all U.S.-based and nothing that any participant in Australia could benefit from,” said Bowering. “I flatly refused to deliver their presentation and asked them why they didn’t have an Australian presentation given they had delivered workshops here before. Patchree made some excuse, which in hindsight was feeble, and I swallowed the bait. I was lucky with my experience that all my participants left very happy with the course I delivered.”

The three-day Australian course cost participants $997, and some participants are asking for full refunds. “Contrary to what they lead you to believe, they do not run the courses, they contract local people to do it. They don’t know these people Ð they just do a Google search,” said Stella Koritsas, research fellow at the Monash University Centre For Developmental Disability Health in Notting Hill, Victoria, Australia.

Koritsas said that she was disappointed with the small venue, which changed less than a week before the seminar, and teaching accommodations for nearly 90 people split in two rooms. “Participants are seeking a refund for false advertising. Half of the participants were so outraged they left before the end of day one,” said Koritsas, who filed a complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. Nick Jerrat, another instructor at the Australian conference, created his own Web site, http://the-grant-institute.com, connecting other Web sites that mention The Grant Institute.

“After conducting research on The Grant Institute after the first day of our course, I felt that myself and the participants had been conned,” said Jerrat. “It was highly embarrassing and damaging to me as the presenter to operate the course under such woeful conditions. I feel that the grant institute have a lot to answer for and should be held accountable for their business practices.”

A seminar at Alaska Pacific University was supposed to last from June 11-13, but the instructor hired by The Grant Institute informed the participants, who traveled to Anchorage from all over the state, that he was only presenting for two of the days. Deborah Mole, assistant professor and librarian from the University of Alaska Anchorage/Alaska Pacific University (UAA/APU) Consortium Library, said that she wrangled speakers for the last day and let participants talk and research grant writing in the library in place of the seminar’s last day.

“In spite of the fact that the air circulating system had been turned off due to the new tar on the library’s roof, folks stuck around to craft a joint letter of complaint and request for refund to be sent to The Grant Institute,” said Mole, who said she plans to set up her own grant writing workshop for Alaskan nonprofits. “This situation really connected folks.”

Don Roberts, who attended the Alaskan conference, said he “didn’t even think of double checking the organization,” because The Grant Institute looked professional from its Web site, was advertised in several list-serves and that people “don’t have energy and they aren’t paranoid enough” to vet organizations. But Roberts said he could have learned the presented information from books or Web sites, and started researching The Grant Institute after his experience.

“It’s kind of disheartening – you want to think it’s a glitch. But it started looking like that’s how they do business,” said Roberts, who said he wasn’t “wasting his energy” on requesting a refund. “It’s clear The Grant Institute doesn’t care.” NPT