ASPCA chief exec Matt Bershadker is grossly overpaid & ASPCA is not the national umbrella for your local SPCA, among other key points
NEW YORK, N.Y.––“The heartbreaking commercials are almost impossible to ignore: Sarah McLachlan singing to images of suffering animals and making an urgent appeal for donations to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA,” CBS News anchor Jim Axelrod opened on August 2, 2021.
“The ASPCA says the vast majority of donor dollars go directly toward its mission,” Axelroad intoned, “but a CBS News investigation found there are questions about whether the money is going where donors expect.”
The nation-shocking exposé that followed, researched by CBS reporters Megan Towey and Rachel Bailey, was partially informed by information shared by ANIMALS 24-7, and reported many times, over decades, with frequent updates.
Leader in scooping up money
On April 16, 2020, for instance, ANIMALS 24-7 decried “leaders, who despite ‘leading’ the humane cause blindly in the wrong direction time and again, nonetheless take home more money per year than the total annual budget of your local humane society, and remain quite unabashed about asking for even more money through pop-up ads that obstruct just about every online search for anything pertaining to dogs, cats, or the words ‘humane’ and ‘SPCA.’”
On January 10, 2019, ANIMALS 24-7 pointed out that ASPCA president Matthew Bershadker took home $804,372 in pay for the year, including a bonus of $276,000, and received benefits of $47,859, for total compensation of $852,231––more than any two other animal welfare executives in one year ever.
More than the CEO of charities 10 times bigger
The next year, 2018, Bershadker was paid $712,397, plus $57,129 in benefits, for total compensation of $769,526.
“Even after taking a pay cut of $91,975, which happens to be more than the top salary paid by most local humane societies around the U.S.,” ANIMALS 24-7 noted, “Bershadker remained the highest paid person in the history of the humane movement, by a considerable margin.”
Then in 2019 Bershaker’s total compensation rebounded to $843,539.
Seven other ASPCA executives received compensation ranging from more than $300,000 to more than $400,000, in the pay range of the chief executives of the four other most affluent U.S. humane societies.
Bershadker’s compensation is “more than the CEO’s of Feeding America and the American Red Cross, charities that have a budget 10 times the size of the ASPCA,” Jim Axelrod told the CBS News audience, but passed over that issue relatively lightly.
Revenue tripled. Hands-on program didn’t.
“After those iconic [Sarah McLachlan] commercials debuted more than a decade ago,” Axelrod said, “the ASPCA’s revenues tripled — going from $85 million in 2007 to nearly $280 million in 2019.
“With over 1,000 employees,” Axelrod mentioned, “the ASPCA’s mission is to rescue, protect and care for animals in need through a wide range of activities like animal relocation, advocacy, training, legislative and veterinary services.”
What Axelrod did not mention is that Bershadker’s tenure as president began by turning over the original and most iconic ASPCA mission, doing humane law enforcement in New York City, to the city police department.
During the next year, 2014, impoundments of abused and neglected animals nearly tripled, from circa 140 per year to almost 400. Arrests of alleged animal abusers also tripled, from circa 40-45 per year under the ASPCA to more than 130 under the NYPC.
SAFER than what?
Beginning in 2007, the ASPCA led the charge to weaken animal shelter temperament testing in order to rehome more pit bulls, by promoting the so-called SAFER test, which eliminates several components of traditional temperament testing.
The ASPCA still vigorously promotes pit bull adoptions, but after several children were critically injured and even killed by pit bulls who had recently been rehomed after SAFER screening, the ASPCA in December 2015 quit certifying shelter workers trained to use the SAFER test.
Why did 26 dogs die in ASPCA van?
For several years after that an ASPCA “flagship” program was––and remains––cross-country translocation of dogs from southern and rural pounds to northern cities where they might have better chances of adoption. But the ASPCA adoption transport program operates at a fraction of the scale of the North Shore Animal League adoption transport program, begun in 1971, and the PetSmart Charities transport program, which ran from 2004 to 2016.
And at that, the ASPCA adoption transport program in May 2019 had a disaster still inadequately acknowledged, let alone addressed in a transparent manner.
Urged dropping fix-before-adoption rules
The ASPCA under Bershadker has expanded some aspects of program service, with some success, for example taking over the former Humane Alliance national spay/neuter education outreach program in Asheville, North Carolina, operating it as a subsidiary.
The ASPCA, meanwhile, just ahead of April Fool’s Day 2020, urged U.S. animal shelters to sidestep or seek suspension of requirements that dogs and cats be spayed or neutered before adoption, a measure that ANIMALS 24-7 suggested was “likely to result in about half a million additional puppy and kitten litters nationwide during the coming puppy and kitten season.”
Fortunately, most U.S. non-profit animal shelters and spay/neuter clinics appear to have disregarded the ASPCA advice.
The focal issue, however, for Axelrod, Towey, and Bailey of CBS, was that ASPCA fundraising pitches allegedly mislead donors into mistakenly believing that the ASPCA is the fundraising umbrella for all 303 U.S. animal charities incorporated as Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In truth, ASPCA fundraising directly benefits only the ASPCA itself.
Axelrod, Towey, and Bailey introduced former ASPCA executive vice president Jo Sullivan, who helped to create the Sarah McLachlan commercials for the ASPCA.
“These days,” Axelrod explained, “Sullivan is the chief community and development officer at the Houston SPCA in Texas. Contrary to what many people might think and despite the similar names and missions, the Houston SPCA, which operates a local shelter, a veterinary clinic and an animal ambulance amongst its services, isn’t in any way affiliated with the national ASPCA. Neither is any local SPCA across the country.
“We receive no money from them at all”
Said Sullivan, “It is frustrating on this side of the table to realize that the bulk of our time and our staff time is spent trying to explain the difference between national and local. We need our donors and the people in our community to know where their money is going.”
Agreed Gary Rogers, president of the Nassau County SPCA on Long Island, “The major problem that most SPCAs have is that the ASPCA does not fund these agencies. We receive no money from them at all.”
Emphasized Axelrod, “The ASPCA is not an umbrella organization for local organizations with SPCA in their names — a fact the ASPCA says donors know. According to its own 2017 survey, ASPCA said 84% of its donors also donated to a local animal charity. What that survey did not ask was whether donors knew the difference between giving to the ASPCA and giving to other local SPCAs nationwide.”
“A few received grants worth a few thousand dollars from the ASPCA”
Countered 30-year Houston SPCA president Patti Mercer, “I would challenge the fact that 84% of people know the difference when the fundraising tactics would lead you to believe that money given to the ASPCA trickles down into local organizations.”
Continued Axelrod, “CBS News spoke to more than two dozen local SPCA’s across the country. A few had received grants worth a few thousand dollars from the ASPCA, which they had applied for. Most, like in Nassau County and Houston, had gotten nothing.
“Since 2008, the ASPCA has raised more than $2 billion for animal welfare,” Axelrod summarized. “In that time, it has spent $146 million, or about 7% of the total money raised, in grants to local animal welfare groups. But during that same time period it spent nearly three times that, at least $421 million, on fundraising.”
41¢ of each dollar goes to hands-on care
“According to the nonprofit’s tax returns, the ASPCA took in nearly $280 million in 2019,” Axelrod detailed. “The nonprofit told CBS News it spends 77 cents of every dollar on its mission to rescue, protect and care for animals in need, which, in addition to hands-on services, includes expenditures on mission-related public education and engagement.”
However, warned Ohio State University professor of accounting Brian Mittendorft, “If we just look at how much of the spending goes toward shelter and veterinary services, and toward grants to local humane societies, it’s hovering around 40%.”
Axelrod, Towey, and Bailey affirmed that assessment. Their breakdown showed that about 41 cents of each dollar donated to the ASPCA goes “toward hands-on help with animals across the country.”
The rest goes toward fundraising, image-building, fundraising and image-building done in the name of public education, and management expense.
CBS News also “found that the ASPCA has been building up its net assets, going from just under $62 million in net assets in 2000 to over $340 million in 2019.
“The ASPCA says $192 million of the current net assets is properly held in reserve for 9-months operating expenses, in case of emergencies. It says the remaining $148 million is tied up in fixed assets, restricted donations and multiyear pledges,” Axelrod acknowledged.
State Humane Association of California challenged ASPCA ads in 2011
The focal issue, that the ASPCA not only competes with local organizations for funds but also misleads donors into believing it supports the locals, has come up many times before.
Alleging “unfair and deceptive fundraising practices which harm local humane societies and SPCAs,” the State Humane Association of California in May 2011 filed a consumer protection complaint against the ASPCA with the California Office of the Attorney General, then headed by current U.S. vice president Kamala Harris.
The State Humane Association of California complaint was dropped after the Better Business Bureau National Advertising Division in April 2013 issued an opinion favoring the ASPCA.
The National Advertising Division, however, “recommended that ASPCA modify its website to more clearly explain that the organization is not directly affiliated with local SPCAS or local humane associations,” a National Advertising Division media release said.
The State Humane Association of California, founded in 1909, merged with the California Animal Control Directors Association in 2018 to become the California Animal Welfare Association.
“The ASPCA operates only one animal shelter”
Explained State Humane Association of California executive director Erica Gaudet Hughes when the 2011 case was filed, “The complaint alleges that ASPCA capitalizes on, and intentionally reinforces, the widely held mistaken belief that it is a parent or umbrella organization to the thousands of humane societies and SPCAs across the country. In reality,” Hughes said, “the ASPCA operates only one animal shelter, in New York City.
“While it does fund projects in California, such expenditure is insignificant in comparison to the amount of money the organization raises in this state,” Hughes charged.
Agreed Whole Dog Journal editor Nancy Kerns. “As a volunteer at the North West SPCA,” in Oroville, California, “I’ve frequently had people tell me, ‘I give money to you guys all the time. The ASPCA loves me!’ When I inquire, gently, whether they gave money to the NW/SPCA or the ASPCA, they are always confused as to the difference—and dismayed, and sometimes angry, when I explain that none of any money they sent to the ASPCA has ever made its way to the shelter they are standing in.”
The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, among the largest in California, founded in 1950, is not a member of the State Humane Association of California, but joined the case against the ASPCA as a co-plaintiff.
Explained Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA president Ken White, “It is not honest to say to people who live in the San Francisco Bay Area that sending ‘the largest gift you can manage to help the ASPCA’ in Manhattan is the best way for them to help ‘protect an innocent and helpless animal,’ a ‘particular animal,’ an animal ‘not far from’ where that donor lives.”