Animal Groups Barking At ASPCA

August 1, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

As the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has grown revenue by 50 percent in recent years, some local SPCAs are becoming increasingly upset that donors are confusing it for an umbrella organization for other animal welfare nonprofits.

The local groups say donors believe that by giving to ASPCA they are also giving to aid local animal rescue organizations.

“The misunderstanding of the name is certainly what’s at the core of this current discussion going on,” said Carter Luke, president and CEO the past six years at Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). He added that he often hears from people who confuse the organizations, thanking MSPCA for something ASPCA did.

“The confusion in the minds of the public has been there certainly since the 1860s, I’d guess,” said Luke. ASPCA was founded 1866 while MSPCA was started in 1868. “What’s happened in recent years — what brought it to the forefront anyway – was a noticeable change in marketing and advertising from the ASPCA around the country,” said Luke.

“We hear this story constantly from people who confuse this. If our last name was humane society, it might not be the same confusion. There is no national umbrella organization,” said Luke, adding that the issue has caused confusion elsewhere.

“Sometimes people look at the Red Cross, with local chapters scattered around the country, but they are connected. The public generally understands that model; there’s a national entity with local entities,” Luke said.

There are some who portray the dispute as being about money. Luke disagrees. “It’s important for the public to know where their donations are going and what services are provided by it,” he said. “We’re making sure we tell our story. We recognize there is no parent organization.”

He said, “In some sense, it’s a rising tide raises all ships – the more people involved in helping animals, the better.”

It’s a big issue, said Matt Stanton of Trenton, N.J.-based public affairs firm MBI GluckShaw, a spokesman for the New Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (NJSPCA). He said ASPCA is draining fundraising dollars from the Garden State and funneling it into New York, something he believes is a conscious effort by ASPCA to raise money from other places.

“The sole focus seems to be targeting New Jersey residents to siphon off funds,” said Stanton. “They make it very difficult because a lot of people have given money to the ASPCA thinking they’re operating in New Jersey,” he said, adding that the organization gets calls all the time for the APSCA. “A lot of people believe they are the umbrella organization. We get questions all the time, ‘Aren’t you part of ASPCA?’ It’s like a David-Goliath situation,” Stanton said.

NJSPCA is an all-volunteer organization, with no full-time staff and a budget of barely a half-million dollars while ASPCA spends more than that annually with one of its telemarketing vendors. Volunteers usually don’t even file time sheets to be reimbursed for all their expenses, Stanton said. There’s a misconception that it runs animal shelters, but really it only deals with animal-related law enforcement issues. “We don’t have the resources to market or even brand the NJSPCA. We have volunteers, people who work full-time jobs, then go out running around to handle about 5,000 to 6,000 cases a year,” he said.

Stanton said it’s not like some national organizations where local chapters or affiliates might have a sharing agreement but are connected, with some portion of dollars raised in certain jurisdictions remaining in that area.

If the ASPCA wants to become more aggressive and targeted in its marketing, Stanton said, “more power to them, but there’s enough money in New York to raise.”

The criticisms about ASPCA’s marketing “seem to be a very small minority among the 5,000 community animal shelters nationwide,” said Elizabeth Estroff, vice president of media and communications at ASPCA. “We believe our supporters expect the ASPCA to use our resources and expertise to play a national role in improving the animal welfare landscape and making sure at-risk animals all across the country are protected and cared for,” she said.

For another animal welfare organization, making supporters aware of the differences between them and the ASPCA just wasn’t enough. The State Humane Association of California (SHAC) filed a complaint in May with the state attorney general’s office, claiming that the ASPCA engages in “unfair and deceptive fundraising practices” that harm local humane societies and SPCAs.

SHAC contends that while ASPCA does fund projects in California, the expenditures pale in comparison to its fundraising in the Golden State. According to the association, ASPCA sent less than 0.5 percent of its revenue to California in 2009 while the state represents 13 percent of the economy. ASPCA had total revenue of $116 million, of which California received $352,100.

The issue isn’t the work that ASPCA does, said SHAC Executive Director Erica Gaudet Hughes, but that it should stop capitalizing on and reinforcing public confusion regarding its relationship with local organizations. The commercials do not explain that the ASPCA is not directly affiliated with any of the thousands of humane societies or SPCAs around the county and is based in New York City – and that’s the problem for Hughes.

“The issue really isn’t how much or how little they give or what they do, it’s really just about their advertising,” said Hughes. Even if ASPCA were to increase the amount of funding to California organizations, she said there still would be donor confusion. “I have no issue with anyone giving to ASPCA. Donors can give to any group they want, but they need to understand what organization it is,” she said, adding that donors often believe that when they contribute to the ASPCA that they’re giving to the local animal shelter.

“Our member SPCAs and humane societies do not wish to stop the ASPCA from fulfilling its mission. They just want the public to understand that when they give to the ASPCA, local SPCAs and humane societies do not receive a direct or significant benefit,” she said.

Funded by membership dues, SHAC serves nearly 140 humane societies, SPCAs, city and county animal control agencies and other animal welfare groups in California.

Hughes said they invited ASPCA officials to a SHAC board meeting a few years ago to discuss concerns, but she described them as “not receptive.” SHAC has the option of filing suit on its own, but Hughes said she’s waiting for the attorney general’s office to complete its review and decide whether it will take action. A spokesperson for the attorney general could not confirm or deny whether an investigation is taking place.

“It’s a national issue, not just a California issue,” said Hughes. “It’s wherever ASPCA is advertising in the entire country,” she said.

Estroff, the ASPCA spokesperson, called the claims “incorrect and completely without merit,” and described numerous activities around the country, from funding programs connected to local shelters nationwide to a range of activities for the care and safety of animals.

“Our strength as a national organization is that we are able to offer essential grant funding, manpower, training and other resources to animal welfare organizations and agencies when we are called upon for assistance and where the help is needed most. The mission of the ASPCA includes granting funds, as well as doing hands-on work in preventing animal cruelty and homelessness across the country,” she said.

Estroff provided examples of ASPCA helping local SPCAs, humane societies and animal welfare organizations in responding to disasters, such as floods in the Midwest and tornadoes in Missouri and Alabama, assisting in emergency rescue and sheltering displaced animals. It launched a national Animal Relocation Initiative for shelter animals that moves animals from areas of oversupply to areas where there are few, if any, similar pets available in shelters for adoption.

ASPCA has been working with the Joplin, Mo. Humane Society and in June hosted a massive pet adopt-a-thon for unclaimed and abandoned pets, where almost 4,000 people from around the country attended, adopting some 750 animals.

Local advertising is a “tiny fraction” of what ASPCA does, said Estroff, and when it’s done, it’s primarily “very targeted” public service announcements (PSAs). “The more we do for animals across the country in terms of direct care and anti-cruelty efforts, the more our members want to hear about it, and we have an obligation to tell and share those stories with them,” she said.

A review of ASPCA’s tax forms indicates that the organization paid cash grants in 2007 of approximately $4.6 million to 129 different organizations around the country; some were SPCAs. The grants ranged from $1,000 to $1.76 million, and another $70,320 in grants were awarded in amounts of less than $1,000. The ASPCA’s 2009 annual report boasts of almost $5 million in grants to more than 300 organizations in all 50 states. The report also indicates ASPCA’s mission is to “provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.”

ASPCA had reported impressive growth in recent years, with about $64 million in gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees received in both 2005 and 2007 (with a dip to $54 million in 2006). In 2008 and 2009, ASPCA reported $112 million and $101 million, respectively, on its Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form 990. Total revenue rose 50 percent, from $85 million in 2007 to $127 million in 2008. Reported revenue for 2009, the most recent year available, was $117 million.

The ASPCA encourages any shelters across the country that may be in need of financial or other assistance to apply regularly for grant funding from the ASPCA each year at www.aspcapro.org NPT