Editorial: Lessons from the Red Cross debacle

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 2001:

 

ANIMAL PEOPLE had planned that this very late November 2001
edition would feature our first-hand investigative report on the
success of the “No homeless animals, no-kill, no shelter” approach
to dog and cat overpopulation taken by the Veterinary Licensing Board
and allied animal welfare groups in Costa Rica. Seeing is believing,
and after nearly two weeks in Costa Rica, counting dogs and cats and
observing how they are faring wherever we went, we can testify that
the Costa Rican animal care community has a lot to teach the world.
But that report will have to wait until our December edition
appears, when it can help to inspire a happy and productive New
Year. We fell behind in May, when ANIMAL PEOPLE publisher Kim
Bartlett contracted pneumonia following two distressful hours of
photographically documenting the sale of dogs and cats for meat at
the Moran Market near Seoul, South Korea. Then we held up
production of our September edition for an extra week to include
coverage of the animal aspects of the terrorist attacks of September
11.


As December approached, aware that we will not be back on
schedule again before January, we realized that what readers want
and need most from us each year at this time is our annual “Who gets
the money?” feature, outlining how funds are used by the animal
protection groups whose holiday season appeals are most likely to
land in your mailbox.
Accordingly, we moved publication of our 12th annual “Who
gets the money?” tables ahead to this edition, to get them out to
you at the same time as usual.
ANIMAL PEOPLE has from our very first editorial emphasized
that donors must carefully screen the charities they support, both
to be sure that they really further the mission they claim to, and
to ensure that resources are not wasted.
We have further emphasized that charities must be
accountable, including accountability to the desire of donors that
their gifts should be spent to alleviate and prevent suffering here
and now. Institutional administrators and estate planners have been
preoccupied with ensuring the “perpetuity” of organizations and
legacies since the Pharoahs built the Pyramids, but people who care
about animals rarely want to build grand monuments, and certainly do
not want the need to fight cruelty to be perpetuated. Given a choice
between securing the existence of humane societies forever and
eradicating animal suffering, animal protection donors would hope to
eradicate cruelty so effectively that humane societies are no longer
needed.
We have pointed out repeatedly that the animal protection
cause, which seeks to extend recognition of the moral importance of
the lives and well-being of other species, cannot afford to be
represented by anyone who behaves in a self-serving manner. Greedy
leaders harm any cause, but most especially they harm a cause that
challenges people to extend their concept of morality in an
unfamiliar direction, because if the messenger is seen as corrupt,
the message is more easily rejected. Neither can animal protection
afford diversions of resources: although nationally about 25% of
households donates to at least one animal protection organization,
the average gift is the smallest given to any major cause, and the
totality of animal protection work is supported by just 1% of all
funds given to charity.
We urge donors yet again to support only the charities they
feel they know well, through direct experience and sources other
than appeal letters. We urge charities to put their mission first,
and to build a well-informed, loyal donor list through their work,
not by endlessly recycling resources into doing high-volume mailings
to people who once donated to a similar cause but may know nothing
about the organization that rented the list.
Now our beliefs about how animal protection charities should
operate have been affirmed by current events.
Animal advocates may remember cardiologist Bernardine Healy,
M.D., as director of the National Institutes of Health from 1991 to
1993. In July 1999, Healy was elected president of the American Red
Cross–but on October 26 of this year she resigned, effective
December 31, amid a storm of public protest and threats of
Congressional investigation brought on by her plans for the $543
million that the Red Cross Liberty Disaster Fund collected in just 60
days after September 11.
Healy no doubt thought she was prudent in proposing to bank
half of the Liberty Disaster Fund against the possibility of another
terrorist attack, and use much of the rest for purposes other than
direct aid to the September 11 victims. But donors made clear that
they had not given to make the Red Cross more secure. Rather, they
wished to help the thousands of families who lost a loved one, a
job, and in some cases a home. They saw the Red Cross as a vehicle
for sending aid to the victims, and rejected the very notion of
hoarding most of it.
Yet even after Healy stepped down, the Red Cross board of
directors seemed to think they could wait out the uproar and go on
about stashing the money. They were wrong. On November 14, the Red
Cross at last agreed to announce by January a plan for helping the
September 11 victims as was expected by the public all along.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy edition of November 1 meanwhile
disclosed the results of a Wise Giving Alliance survey of 2,000
representative Americans. The Wise Giving Alliance was recently
formed by the merger of the Council of Better Business Bureaus
Philanthropic Advisory Service with the National Charities
Information Bureau, and commissioned the survey to help it to
produce new standards for charity management.
If the new standards follow public opinion, they might
closely resemble the recommendations of ANIMAL PEOPLE. Two-thirds
of the respondents said they want charities to quickly spend money on
programs, not hold large sums in reserve. More than half thought
that 80% or more of the spending by charities should be for program
service, and three out of four agreed that at least 70% should go
toward programs.
By contrast, the Council of Better Business Bureaus had
asked only that at least 50% of charitable spending be put toward
program service, and the NCIB recommended that the standard should
be 60%.
The public expectations may be seen as self-contradictory,
in view of present fundraising costs and practices. Few charities
can raise a dollar without spending at least the price of a postage
stamp on solicitation–unless they finance their fundraising with
interest on money in the bank and dividends from investments, as do
the oldest, biggest, and richest charities. For them, raising
the money still costs the postage stamp, but the price of the stamp
does not come out of public support, and the percentage of public
support spent on programs therefore looks better to donors who do not
think to assess the use of reserves.
Further, setting the standard for program spending too high
encourages charities to call direct mailings “program service,” a
practice which tends to debase the concept of public education, or
induces them to do many of their mailings through little-known
subsidiaries, so that the cost does not appear on IRS Form 990 as an
expense of the main organization.
The direct mail blizzard continues in part because the
standards for program spending have been lax enough to encourage many
charities to do huge amounts of blind “prospect” mailings in the name
of “program service,” which at most will only break even. The myth
persists from the early and more profitable years of direct mail
solicitation, back in the 1970s, before donors became overburdened
and cynical, that somewhere out there exist unreached people who
will generously respond, if they can only be found.
In fact, the Wise Giving Alliance learned that 86% of
Americans already donate to their favorite charities at least once a
year, and an April 2001 survey of a similar sample by Marshall
Marketing and Communications discovered that of the 55% of direct
mail recipients who read appeal letters, more than half usually want
to help. If they do not, the Marshall survey found, the only
major stated reason is lack of adequate funds to respond to all
worthy causes. All 15 other stated reasons combined were cited less
often.

Animal work has high public trust

Animal welfare charities should feel encouraged that the Wise
Giving Alliance found them the fourth most credible, as a class,
among 13 major branches of charity. Religious organizations were
“highly trusted” by 47% of the survey respondents; police and
firefighters charities came in at 41%; veterans groups were third,
at 39%; and animal welfare organizations were right behind at 38%,
just ahead of social service charities (37%) and educational
institutions (35%). Environmental organizations were next to last,
at 19%, and civil rights and community action organizations scored
just 16%.
The causes of animals, the environment, and disadvantaged
minorities each have roots in the missions of the first humane
societies, and remain intertwined, but public confidence in the
environmental and civil rights sectors has fallen during the past
decade while confidence in animal welfare charities has increased,
reflected in the rapid economic growth of the no-kill movement.
Donors trust people who help hurt or abandoned animals–which is why
acquisition mailings by hunter/conservationist groups including
Defenders of Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy describe their
activities in terms associated with animal sheltering, and why
direct mail hucksters seek out struggling shelters and sanctuaries to
represent with “acquisition” campaigns that pay the mailers sixty to
eighty cents out of each dollar raised.
We hope that the ANIMAL PEOPLE “Watchdog” can also be
credited to helping animal welfare to maintain public trust, by
remaining ever vigilant and barking at as many scams as possible.
Though we reach only a small part of the total animal protection
donor base, just one alert mutt can set off a chorus heard around
the world. We are continually frustrated that we have not yet
managed to roust every thief from our street, but the Wise Giving
Alliance findings are nonetheless a welcome reminder that we may be
deterring some of the thieves who afflict other streets from coming
here instead.

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