July 20, 2007

Discussing Donations Again

Posted in animal advocacy, donations at 4:58 pm by nevavegan

There has been a lot of blog buzz and several recent news stories about donating to non-profits. So I’m going to revisit the topic and share some more of my thoughts. This is meant to be supplemental to my prior entry “Donations as an Investment.”

I really feel like I might be unfairly picking on The Humane Society of the United States, because they are certainly not the only organization to use the kinds of fundraising tactics I want to discuss. However, I will cite them as an example of the kinds of things that worry me.

With all the news attention on Michael Vick’s involvement in dog fighting, dog killing, and dog starving, I got an email alert from HSUS asking me to make “a special donation” to provide care to the dogs rescued from Vick’s property. The email showcased a picture of a single dog with scars and cuts on his face and nose. The photo was not really “staged,” this was in fact one of Vick’s fighting dogs. However, studies have demonstrated that people donate more when shown a picture or told a story about a single animal in need, so this appeal was cleverly designed to elicit donations.

HSUS does not have a shelter and the location of the dogs is currently unknown by the public at large. However HSUS is apparently “overseeing” the care of the dogs.

Shortly after the first email alert I got a second one from HSUS. They said that their servers had crashed due to an overwhelming response to the Vick case, but now the problem was fixed. They asked me again to make a “special donation” for the care of the dogs.

Out of curiosity I clicked on the donate link. What I found there was somewhat disappointing. In fine print at the bottom of the donation page was the standard disclaimer that my donation could be used on other programs, not just to help the dogs rescued from this dog fighting ring.

I find this deceptive because I felt the words “special donation to care for these dogs” indicated that a donation made in this way would be restricted, but instead the small print told a different story. I don’t doubt HSUS will do a great deal to help these dogs, but I also believe donations will exceed the amount needed for the day to day care. I also believe that if there is an excess of money raised in this manner it should go to the actual shelters caring for the dogs, not into HSUS’s larger budget. In other words, if more money than is needed comes in, I would prefer to see it go to improving shelter facilities to better handle future cases like this, than going in Wayne Pacelle’s salary.

But to be fair, this is not just an issue with HSUS. Nearly every organization out there sends very specific fundraisers out, talking about an individual crisis situation, and in the fine print they place a disclaimer to say that they’re under no obligation to spend the donations on that specific situation.

I’ve worked at a number of non-profits through the years, animal related and human related (Please note: I’ve never worked at HSUS and none of the stories below have anything to do with HSUS). I’ve seen things that broke my heart. I’ve seen a fundraising letter go out talking about a tragic animal crisis in another state, only to see the record-breaking donations that came in from that letter go to redecorating the office, not to helping the animals whose terrible stories were told in that letter. Those animals continued to suffer and die. I’ve seen a large donation that the donor intended for direct animal care, but failed to restrict, go into fundraising materials and new computer equipment, while direct animal care was scaled back. And all of that was made possible by the fine print.

This is why when a recent story broke in my own area about a woman who left a one million dollar bequest to the Ann Arundel SPCA I was thrilled to see that the donor knew enough to restrict her donation. She specified her funds must go to direct care for animals. No doubt her bequest will free up other funds to improve the shelter facilities and send out fundraising letters. But if you’re going to leave a bunch of money to an organization, be sure to specify its use. Otherwise, that bequest could be used for anything.

There are other things that I specifically look for when making donation decisions. I don’t really like to donate to organizations whose boards don’t meet basic standards or have only advisory powers. This one is a new one for me, but after having witnessed some bad situations, I’m starting to learn the values of boards. Organizations limit the powers of their boards to make it impossible to ever remove the founders of the organization from positions like CEO or president. While I understand the sentiment behind this, I do feel it’s bad for the animals. There could be a situation where the founder is unable to keep up with the responsibilities of running the organization, or is suffering diminished mental capacity. When a board has powers to address that, they can step in and save the organization and do what’s best for the animals. When the board has no such authority some pretty terrible situations can develop.

So in conclusion: Per the prior entry, consider your donations an investment and choose to support organizations with a clear consistent message, consider salaries and compensation when you make donations. For today’s entry, always read the fine print when making a donation, when making a large donation restrict its use to programs you approve of, and finally consider board and structure of the charity. Is this a charity with all the decision making power vested in one single person? What will happen to this charity if that person is suddenly unable to perform their duties?