Pissing match hits the Chronicle of Philanthropy
ARLINGTON, Virginia––Founded almost literally in a Washington D.C. alley to advocate on behalf for one of the most contentious of species, Alley Cat Allies has for 28 years been embroiled in controversy on a daily basis, but without––until mid-November 2018––itself becoming controversial over management issues.
That was no mean feat.
Formed specifically to promote neuter/return feral cat population control, Alley Cat Allies from the first ran a challenging gantlet among interest groups and aggrieved individuals, some of them significantly far from rational.
Foes from birders to “crazy cat ladies”
Among them were, and are, birders hostile to any presence of cats outdoors; hunters campaigning to add cats at large to their hit lists, especially in Wisconsin, where former Governor Jim Doyle stopped such a proposal in 2005; major conservation organizations hellbent on exterminating any “non-native” species; and ailurophobic cat-shooters and poisoners.
Also complicating life for Alley Cat Allies have been “crazy cat ladies” and animal hoarders resistant to anyone interfering with their practice of feeding cats at large, whether or not those cats are sterilized and vaccinated.
Animal care & control mostly won over
Mostly won over at this point, except for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, have been animal control agencies and mainstream humane societies espousing the traditional view that feral cats are better off euthanized than living as outdoors as wildlife.
This perspective overlooks that most “domestic” cats, and dogs too, for that matter, have always been urban wildlife, from ancient Egyptian times until the post-World War II invention of clay kitty litter encouraged most pet keepers to bring their cats indoors.
Fast-growing movements usually expand through organizational splits, each of which brings more people and resources into the bigger cause.
Alley Cat Allies cofounders Becky Robinson and Louise Holton took largely separate directions after 1997, when Holton formed Alley Cat Rescue, though she remained involved with Alley Cat Allies too until 2000.
That split occasioned some discussion, but not screaming or finger-pointing. It does not even seem to have been mentioned in mass media.
Alley Cat Allies staff and volunteers came and went, as did partnerships with other organizations to carry out specific neuter/return and public education projects here and there, without anything internal to Alley Cat Allies itself appearing to occasion so much as an arched back, puffed fur, and a hiss and spit.
Then, on November 7, 2018 came a pair of exposés by Marc Gunther, 67, an award-winning career journalist who writes often for the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a pricy periodical serving mostly nonprofit executives and fundraisers, and also publishes his own blog, “Nonprofit Chronicles: Journalism about foundations, nonprofits, and their impact.”
One version of the Gunther exposés appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy; the other, more succinct, in a “Nonprofit Chronicles” installment entitled “Alley Cat Allies and the Charity “Watchdogs” that aren’t.”
There, Gunther cited Alley Cat Allies as an example to illustrate the shortcomings of Charity Navigator and Guidestar.
Purporting to do nonprofit accountability monitoring, Charity Navigator and Guidestar in truth do little more than electronically scan IRS Form 990 filings, and assign “stars” based on whether charities meet rigid sets of criteria often having more to do with appearances than with actual fiscal integrity.
The Charity Navigator and Guidestar criteria, in the opinion of ANIMALS 24-7, and those of the much older Wise Giving Alliance, tend to reward the organizations that are most adept at gaming the system, not those that are actually the most transparent and doing the best work.
Animal Charity Evaluators, also mentioned by Gunther, is in our assessment many degrees worse, apparently existing only to direct donors toward a small constellation of organizations associated with the ACES founders, directors, and key personnel. This has been most extensively investigated and exposed by Showing Animals Respect & Kindness.
Alleged Gunther, “Alley Cat Allies is, to be blunt, a mess. Even so, it has been given the best possible scores by both Charity Navigator and GuideStar,” Gunther acknowledged.
“Alley Cat Allies is not a mom-and-pop charity; it brought in nearly $10 million last year,” Gunther continued.
Alley Cat Allies actually raised just over $10 million in fiscal year 2017, according to IRS Form 990. This was up from $4.1 million in 2007, and about $2 million a year in 2002.
Alley Cat Allies “used charitable donations to acquire two residential property in Arlington, Virginia,” Gunther claimed, “including the home next door to the home of its executive director, Becky Robinson.”
ANIMALS 24-7 easily verified that the transaction involving the house next door to Robinson’s had occurred, in 2015, but also found that it had proved to be a very good investment for the organization, diversifying the Alley Cat Allies assets in exactly the manner that financial advisors tend to suggest nonprofits should do as they grow, appreciating rapidly in value and paying rent of $2,750 per month to Alley Cat Allies.
Even in pricy Washington D.C., that ain’t just straw for lining feral cat weather shelters.
(By contrast, incidentally, the material assets of ANIMALS 24-7 could be stuffed into a small cardboard box.)
Back yard full of cats?
“I’m told this [the house purchase] helped resolve a dispute with the neighbor over Robinson’s backyard full of cats, but could not confirm this,” Gunther wrote.
ANIMALS 24-7 found no verification that Robinson ever had a back yard full of cats, or any dispute with neighbors about cats. Recent real estate and mapping photos of both Robinson’s house and the house purchased by Alley Cat Allies show no sign of anyone feeding cats outdoors. Both properties back up against a small public park, but if feral cats have ever been an issue at the park, there seems to be no published record of it.
“Amazingly, in neither case did Robinson inform the full board that Alley Cat Allies was buying the properties,” Gunther charged. “One board member learned about the real estate dealing from me!
“The board chair, a woman named Donna Wilcox, for years has been a full-time, paid employee of Alley Cat Allies, which is crazy,” Gunther continued, asking “How can a paid staff member evaluate or provide oversight of her boss?”
What that overlooks is that the overwhelming majority of nonprofit organizations big enough to have any paid stuff––in all branches of charity––which are still headed by the founders are headed by people who are full-time, paid employees of the organizations, and for good reason: the founders are the people tending to be most motivated to fulfill the missions to which they have typically devoted much of their lives, often working for years at minimal compensation, if any, while helping their organizations to grow.
Retired at age 72
Gunther noted that “Wilcox left her job days ago, she wrote on Facebook,” neglecting to mention that Wilcox had retired, at age 72, after 50 years in the Washington D.C. nonprofit workforce.
Recounts Wilcox’s Alley Cat Allies biographical web page, “Donna has been with Alley Cat Allies since the beginning,” initially as a part-time volunteer while serving as full-time office manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council––ironically, one of the major conservation organizations which has long been most prominently and vociferously hostile toward “non-native” wildlife.
Having a degree in biology herself, Wilcox developed a more nuanced view of feral cats, especially those who have been sterilized and vaccinated, and took the opportunity in 1999 to become one of Alley Cat Allies’ first full-time employees.
“Top executives [at Alley Cat Allies] get generous pay,” Gunther observed.
Indeed, president Becky Robinson was paid $224,051 in fiscal 2017, plus $41,258 in benefits; Wilcox was paid $203,795, plus $26,761 in benefits. Chief operating officer Charlene Pedrolie, who headed the New York City animal care and control department in 2008-2009, was paid $178,274, plus $17,066 in benefits.
But the top levels of compensation at Alley Cat Allies have come up more-or-less proportional to the growth of revenue. In 2002, the first year that Alley Cat Allies paid anyone enough that the salary had to be reported on IRS Form 990, Robinson and Wilcox each received $57,000.
By comparison, the American Humane Association, also raising just over $10 million a year in public contributions and also headquartered in the Washington D.C. area, paid president Robin Ganzert $372,607 plus $26,364 in benefits, and paid two other staff members salary and benefit packages in excess of $200,000.
The American Humane Association, however, founded in 1877, had other revenue streams bringing total income up to $16.6 million.
The American Humane Association was, overall, the animal charity closest in size and mission to Alley Cat Allies that ANIMALS 24-7 was able to find in the greater Washington D.C. area. Many others we looked at were either significantly larger or smaller.
“Alley Cat Allies has done nothing wrong”
Responded Wilcox to ANIMALS 24-7’s inquiry about the Gunther allegations, “Alley Cat Allies has done nothing wrong. We’ve worked very hard and sacrificed much over the years to build the organization. Through that time, we’ve undergone independent audits with clean audit results every year. We have nothing to hide.”
Wilcox confirmed that Alley Cat Allies had purchased property “in 2015 and 2018 to diversify our investments, a strategy that is not uncommon for nonprofits. There was no neighbor dispute,” Wilcox further affirmed, “and the [Gunther] article even admits that this is an unsubstantiated claim but includes it anyway.
“Following all proper policies & procedures”
“Furthermore, and despite what the [Gunther] article may infer, “ Wilcox said, “we followed all proper board policies and procedures, and all appropriate actions were taken to make the purchases. As per our policy, these investments were approved by the investment committee, which is made up of three board members.
“We received counsel from outside experts about the purchases. The total growth and net earnings have been excellent,” also as ANIMALS 24-7 had already learned from independent published sources.
So what was Gunther chiefly concerned about?
Concluded the Gunther discussion of Alley Cat Allies, “The organization pursued a costly copyright lawsuit against a former freelance photographer and his wife, for what appears to me to be no good reason. Employees say it’s an awful place to work.”
“Unfortunately,” Wilcox responded, Gunther omitted “many of the most important details that we shared [with him] and instead relied largely on anonymous comments and incomplete reporting from a complicated lawsuit filed against Alley Cat Allies. We reached a binding settlement in 2016 with the plaintiff that resolved all disputes between us.
Sued again after settlement
“Despite the settlement,” Wilcox alleged, “the plaintiff [allegedly] breached the settlement and sued us again. This is an incredibly important part of the story that was left out. Because it is pending litigation, we can’t tell you or other reporters more than that, but we do have to defend ourselves and enforce the legally binding settlement agreement.
“The article also refers,” Wilcox said, “to anonymous and unverifiable comments on the Internet from people claiming to be former employees. We told the writer that we take employee feedback seriously, and have encouraged employees to share any concerns they have with leadership of the organization.”
ANIMALS 24-7 found quite a lot more about the lawsuit online, including a GoFundMe page posted by the plaintiffs to raise funds toward pursuing it.
Paul W. Grimm, U.S. District Judge for the Maryland Southern Division, on February 8, 2018 issued a case summary with legal authority behind it, in ruling on a long series of motions in connection with the post-settlement litigation.
Wrote Judge Grimm, “Jason Putsche is a photographer doing business as Jason Putsche Photography. He entered into an agreement in 2008 with Alley Cat Allies, under which Mr. Putsche took photographs and video footage of cats for Alley Cat Allies.
Employee married photographer
“Alley Cat Allies employee Elizabeth Parowski arranged for the contract between Putsche and Alley Cat Allies,” Judge Grimm continued. “She later entered into a professional and personal relationship with Mr. Putsche, worked for Jason Putsche Photography, married Mr. Putsche, and became Mrs. Elizabeth Putsche. She left her employment with Alley Cat Allies, but continued to work for the company [Alley Cat Allies] as an independent contractor.
“Eventually,” Judge Grimm summarized further, “disputes arose between Mrs. Putsche and Alley Cat Allies regarding her compensation, and Alley Cat Allies also disagreed with the Putsches and Jason Putsche Photography about copyright ownership” for the photographs and videos produced by the Putsches, as well as over “the terms under which the parties could use the works.
“Continue to nourish animosity”
“Mrs. Putsche and Alley Cat Allies litigated their claims against each other in Maryland state court,” Judge Grimm explained, “while Alley Cat Allies pursued claims against the Putsche parties in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey. The State Court action resulted in a settlement agreement that addressed compensation as well as copyright ownership and usage rights; the Federal Action was dismissed without prejudice,” meaning that it could be refiled at a future point.
“Unfortunately, the resolution of the Federal Action and the State Court Action did little to resolve the differences between the Putsches and Alley Cat Allies,” Judge Grimm finished his summary, “and they continue to nourish their animosity towards one another in this litigation.”
“Both parties offer plausible claim to copyright”
Judge Grimm also noted, later in his string of rulings on related motions, that “Both parties offer a plausible allegation that they hold the copyright, based on the parties’ purported agreement.”
Both parties would appear to have substantial material interests in the outcome.
Usually, a photographer, or any artist, writer, or musician, prefers to retain all rights to his/her work other than those specifically assigned to a purchaser as part of a compensated sale.
Under this circumstance, the person creating the work would be additionally compensated each time the work is published in a different format or context, and the work would not be used in any format or context without the creator’s permission.
However, publishers often prefer to pay a photographer, artist, writer, or musician a set fee for “all rights,” which allows a publisher to use material repeatedly, in a variety of formats and contexts as opportunity and need arise, without constantly having to track down the creator and renegotiate terms.
Typical publishing contracts from companies in the fulltime publishing business are careful to stipulate exactly which rights are being purchased, what royalties will be paid in event of further use or re-use of material, what uses will require further permissions, and what rights will be reassigned to creators, under what circumstances.
Case still before the courts
Jason Putsche Photography and Alley Cat Allies appear to have had no such formal agreement in effect.
Meanwhile, having already used the photographs and video in question in a variety of contexts, Alley Cat Allies apparently could not simply stop using the disputed material to avoid running afoul of conflicting copyright claims, without having to replace a considerable amount of printed and otherwise published literature, at great expense.
This is a common problem in comparable cases
ANIMALS 24-7 verified that the litigation in question remains before the courts.