Who gets the money? feature is merged into expanded ANIMAL PEOPLE Watchdog Report on Animal Charities
This belated July/August 2007 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE appears soon after publication of the ninth annual ANIMAL PEOPLE Watchdog Report on Animal Charities a 52-page handbook that took nearly three times as long as an edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE to complete.
Now evaluating 150 of the most prominent animal charities worldwide, The Watchdog Report was conceived as a supplementary reference for serious donors that could be assembled between editions of the ANIMAL PEOPLE newspaper, sold separately, at $25 per copy.
But The Watchdog Report long since outgrew that idea. Researching and updating The Watchdog Report has become a year-round project in itself, punctuated by the production phase, when we distill the information into the most compact format possible.
The Watchdog Report evolved out of Who gets the money? , the annual financial page on major animal charities that the ANIMAL PEOPLE team began publishing in early 1991, about 18 months before ANIMAL PEOPLE itself existed.
The first edition of Who gets the money? presented the budgets, assets, and top salaries paid by 24 U.S. animal charities, as abstracted from IRS Form 990 filings. The greater part of the job then was obtaining the Form 990 filings from a variety of sources including the charities themselves, the Internal Revenue Service, and state charities bureaus.
Though IRS Form 990 is supposed to be a public accountability document, many charities did everything they could to keep their filings from coming to light for reasons that became evident in outraged donor response when we published the information.
Eventually most organizations learned that serious donors expect and reward accountability. Many of those we had the most difficulty with in the early years of producing Who gets the money? now post their Form 990 and other financial data on their own web sites, albeit usually after changes of management.
Over time, as well as expanding Who gets the money? to cover more than six times as many charities as we initially did, we added many more categories of data, in order to present more complete and accurate financial summaries. We compared organizations own claims about program spending with our own assessment, using a uniform accounting standard, and explained the standard. We added lines showing the salary norms for key positions, by charity size. We added explanatory text to help readers understand which numbers are most important, and published codes of ethics for charities and fundraisers to help clarify what we look for.
We also added financial data from foreign charities, much of it more difficult to collect and assess than IRS Form 990 filings. Obtaining the foreign data often requires teaching charity directors the whole concept of public accountability and how to categorize expenditures but very few resist providing the numbers, and every year more foreign charities plead to be included.
By the time The Watchdog Report debuted, in 1999, Who gets the money? was already eating nearly half the news space in our December edition each year. Yet readers clamored for more. We were commonly asked for more information, in a more durable physical format, than the ANIMAL PEOPLE newspaper could provide.
The Watchdog Report added to the financial data succinct summaries of programs, policies, and administrative issues, focusing on program verification and policy analysis.
Meanwhile, the advent of the Worldwide Web brought into being <www.Guide-star.com> and equivalent British and Canadian web sites, which enable anyone with an Internet connection to download and inspect the most recent financial filings of any charity.
In the early years of Who gets the money? , merely obtaining and exposing IRS Form 990 data was a unique donor service. Seventeen years later, most serious donors are able to obtain the basic information for themselves if a charity files complete and accurate financial statements.
Donors now most often want help with the evaluative and analytical part of reading a financial statement, including determining whether the programs an organization touts in fundraising appeals are really where most of the money goes.
The original Who gets the money? format, in short, has become obsolete. Producing it and The Watchdog Report at opposite ends of the year tends to involve much redundant effort. Who gets the money? is still quite popular with readers who do not order The Watchdog Report, but we are now selling nearly as many copies of The Watchdog Report as individual subscriptions to ANIMAL PEOPLE, a clear indication that The Watchdog Report is preferred over Who gets the money? by the readers who donate to animal protection organizations at a serious level.
Considerations of time and budget have now forced ANIMAL PEOPLE to make a difficult choice. Recent postal rate hikes raised the cost of mailing each edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE by almost a third. Rather than pass along this whopping increase to subscribers and advertisers, we have elected to reduce publication frequency to nine editions per year, while striving to make each edition more rapidly accessible on our web site, <www.animalpeoplenews.org>, and to make available at the web site an ever-expanding array of information (including video clips) which for various technical reasons does not fit into the newspaper.
To avoid reducing the scope of ANIMAL PEOPLE news coverage, we have merged Who gets the money? into The Watchdog Report. All information formerly included in Who gets the money? is now part of The Watchdog Report entries on individual organizations. Who gets the money? will no longer occupy about half of each December edition of the ANIMAL PEOPLE newspaper, creating a logjam of issues and events to catch up on in January/February.
The bad news is that the relatively few people who are ANIMAL PEOPLE subscribers at $24 a year but do not also order The Watchdog Report, will now have to pay an additional $25/year if they want to receive the Who gets the money? content.
The good news is that practically every donor who comments on The Watchdog Report tells us that it saves its own price many times over in preventing misdirected donations, and in encouraging donations to charities that are doing more of the work that the donors consider most important.
The process of assembling Who gets the money? was chiefly a matter of reading, cross-checking, and abstracting financial statements. That is only the first part of assembling a Watchdog Report entry.
Most Watchdog Report entries and all entries about foreign organizations are based in part on personal visits to projects of the organizations described. While it is not possible to visit every shelter, sanctuary, clinic, conservation program, or organizational headquarters, we have usually personally verified what the organization does and how it operates at some point in recent years.
Researching even the shortest, simplest entries also includes reviewing past ANIMAL PEOPLE coverage of the organization, key personnel, and activities; reviewing file information from other sources about the organization and the major topics it addresses; searching archives of mainstream news coverage for mentions of the organization and its most prominent executives; and examining the organizational web site, including links.
Major program claims are cross-checked against information from independent sources. Often we correspond with the organization to verify or clarify various points.
A very simple entry for an organization with a single program and location and correctly completed current accountability documents can sometimes be put together in an hour. The entry for a large, complex organization may take several days of working time to produce, even though it may be only a few paragraphs long.
Most of the job each year is research. Most of the research involves finding independent confirmation or sometimes refutation of what the organizations tell donors, media, and the public.
Sometimes a donor will read a Watchdog Report entry and say, There is nothing here about this organization that the organization itself did not already tell me.
That should be considered good news, because it means the organization is telling donors the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
The same donor will often have a very different response to several of the other entries. One of the most common donor responses to The Watchdog Report as a whole is to revise estate planning. Another is for the donor to inform a charity why he or she is no longer sending contributions. While some charities respond with outrage or denial, others realize they have a problem, and amend programs, policies, or descriptive literature.
The Watchdog Report does not tell either donors or charities what their priorities, programs or policies should be. The Watchdog Report does insist that donors should be able to base their priorities for giving on an accurate understanding of what the programs and policies of charities are.
Many of the listed charities spend more than $25 per donor trying to persuade supporters to contribute larger amounts, more often. At $25 per copy, we believe The Watchdog Report is worth many times more than its weight in junk mail, and believe you will agree when you order yours.