Lawsuit alleged “unfair and deceptive fundraising”
EL CERRITO, California––Alleging “unfair and deceptive fundraising practices which harm local humane societies and SPCAs,” the State Humane Association of California on May 3, 2011 filed a complaint against the American SPCA with the California Office of the Attorney General.
The complaint was dropped after the Better Business Bureau National Advertising Division on April 2, 2013 issued an opinion favoring the ASPCA.
The Better Business Bureau, 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.
Explained State Humane Association of California executive director Erica Gaudet Hughes when the 2011 complaint was made, “The complaint alleges that the 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.
Spending in California “insignificant” compared to funds raised there
“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.
“For example, according to the ASPCA, it received $116.5 million in revenue in 2009. However, [California organizations] in 2010 received a total of only $352,100 from the ASPCA. That is only .03% of the ASPCA income, while California represents 13% of the national economy and undoubtedly donates proportionately to the ASPCA, especially [in response to] targeted ASPCA solicitations.”
Asserted Hughes, “Since such aggressive fundraising by the ASPCA in California began several years ago, humane societies and SPCAs throughout the country have suffered. The State Humane Association of California does not take issue with the work done by the ASPCA,” Hughes said, “and has been involved in cooperative efforts with them. We simply want the ASPCA to stop capitalizing on and reinforcing public confusion regarding its relationship to local SPCAs and humane societies.”
A subsection of the State Humane Association of California web site explains that neither the ASPCA nor the Humane Society of the U.S. is an umbrella organization representing SPCAs or humane societies.
The ASPCA or local SPCA?
“I’ve witnessed the problem firsthand,” wrote 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.
“Here’s hoping that the State Humane Association of California’s complaint results in, at a minimum,” Kerns said, “a disclaimer at the bottom of the ASPCA’s heart-wrenching ads and commercials, letting people know that donations to the ASPCA don’t necessarily benefit animals in their community.”
ASPCA claims national mission
Responded the ASPCA in a May 4, 2011 prepared statement, “While the ASPCA has not seen the actual complaint, based solely on the press release we believe the State Humane Association of California claims are incorrect and completely without merit. The ASPCA is a national organization founded in 1866,” the ASPCA statement explained.
“Our activities include funding programs connected to local shelters nationwide, but also encompass a wide range of other activities that are vital to the care and safety of animals. The ASPCA is among the top three providers of grant funds to local animal welfare organizations in the U.S.
“In California alone,” the ASPCA said, “the ASPCA’s average grant total per year for the past four years will be nearly $1 million by the end of 2011. The ASPCA has already pledged a total of $4.2 million through 230 grants nationwide so far in 2011, including $250,000 in grants to animal shelters and rescue groups in the Los Angeles area.
“While we do not have a formal affiliation with local SPCAs throughout the country,” the ASPCA acknowledged, “we assist SPCAs, humane societies and local shelters around the country.”
“Misconstrues national reach”
Elaborated ASPCA president Ed Sayres to ANIMALS 24-7, “I think the [State Humane Association of California] misconstrues our national reach working with shelters all over the country.”
After meeting with State Humane Association of California representatives in 2009, Sayres said, “we stepped up our promotional messages on helping local shelters. Thank you letters from me to direct mail donors advise donating to local shelters. Our web pages encourage the same. Our national services program is more robust than ever, with partner cities, field investigations, and disaster response.”
[Sayres, however, retired in 2013, succeeded by Matt Bershadker, who has discontinued much of the ASPCA outreach that was done under Sayres.]
“Grants are part of national strategy”
“Grants are also an important part of our national strategy,” Sayres continued. “We will be distributing more than $11 million in grants to local organizations this year. That is almost equal to the Maddie’s Fund annual distribution,” Sayres said, citing the wealthiest grantmaking foundation in the animal welfare field.
“In my discussions with donors,” Sayres added, “they do understand how national organizations help local organizations, and how important it is to contribute to their local organization. We all play a vital role in improving the welfare of animals,” Sayres finished, “and it is disappointing to see this kind of fractious communication.”
Before becoming ASPCA president in 2003, Sayres headed St. Hubert’s Giralda, a small shelter in New Jersey, within the greater New York City metropolitan area [later absorbed into the ASPCA]; the American Humane Association animal protection division; PetSmart Charities; and the San Francisco SPCA. Each position involved fundraising in possible competition with the
prominence of the ASPCA, but Sayres is not known to have complained about it.
Confusion over names not new
Allegations about the ASPCA “meddling” or “poaching” beyond the actual reach of ASPCA authority and activity are nearly as old as the ASPCA itself.
The original ASPCA activity was enforcing humane legislation in New York state, some of which predated the existence of any enforcement entity. Outreach to other states initially took the form of providing organizational help to the founders of other humane societies.
Recognizing a conflict of interest between doing law enforcement in New York state and serving as a national umbrella for the fast-growing U.S. humane movement, the ASPCA in 1877 participated in forming the American Humane Association to become a national umbrella––albeit somewhat reluctantly, because ASPCA founder Henry Bergh also perceived that the American Humane Association would become a fundraising rival.
Though the ASPCA remained active in federal lobbying, it focused on providing animal sheltering service for New York City from 1895 through 1994.
Post-1994, however, the ASPCA for nearly 20 years expanded activity beyond New York in almost every year, adding legislative offices and field representatives and becoming a leading responder to disasters.
Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA joined lawsuit
The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA, among the oldest and largest in California, is not a member of the State Humane Association of California, but joined the lawsuit against the ASPCA as a co-plaintiff.
“Back in October of last year,” explained Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA president Ken White in a column at SFGate.com, “I posted a piece in response to a fundraising letter sent by ASPCA to families here in the Bay Area. The letter described the abuse of a particular dog named Brutus and asked for donations to help fight animal cruelty.
“My point then and now,” White wrote, quoting the ASPCA appeal, “is that 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.
“My point then and now,” White said, “is that the work of protecting such animals falls to the local SPCA, the local humane society, and/or the local government animal care and control agency.”
Just a month before joining the State Humane Association of California complaint against the ASPCA, White posted a similar column to SFGate.com criticizing an appeal mailed by the North Shore Animal League, of Port Washington, New York.
“My issue with this,” White reiterated, “is about asking for financial support from communities with their own community needs, with animals in communities being rescued by local community-based animal welfare organizations which need local community support to continue to save lives.”
North Shore Animal League senior vice president of operations Joanne Yohannan “called me within a day or two after my posting,” White told ANIMALS 24-7. “She acknowledged that they had not taken any animals from this area, but seemed to feel that their scope,” which includes sponsoring the national Spay USA hotline and the national Pet Adopt-a-thon held each May, and accepting animals for adoption from Los Angeles Animal Services, “did in fact justify their asking for donor support locally. I disagreed,” White said.
“At least North Shore helps real animals”
“At least, unlike with Bide-A-Wee,” White added, citing a shelter which also imports animals for adoption from other states but is more closely focused on New York City and Long Island, “it is real animals being helped. Bide-A-Wee’s [recent] direct mail letter to the Bay Area included the very small print disclosure,” White alleged, “that the stories reported in their request were composites rather than real animals.
“I have no quibble with North Shore nor any doubts of the value of their programs,” White continued. “My only point is that direct mail sent into a community which does not benefit from direct services from that organization should, in my opinion, be clear about that. Donors should of course support the work they choose to support. Whether it is local or not should be entirely their decision.
“However, donors should have it clearly explained to them when they are being asked to support work done for animals outside their own community. I do not believe it is an accident that many groups who fundraise nationally are a bit vague, if not evasive,” White alleged, “about the relationship between the donors being solicited and the location of the animals being served. A direct mail solicitation ought to be very clear about the facts of the program, including the geography. A direct mail piece sent into the Bay Area ought to be clear that the donor is being invited to assist animals in a different location.”
MSPCA vs. ASPCA
Agreed Massachusetts SPCA president Carter Luke, to David Abel of the Boston Globe, “If they wish to do national ads, they should say where they do their work.”
The ASPCA, founded in 1866, and the MSPCA, founded in 1868, have for most of their existence been two of the three most affluent humane societies in the U.S., with few visible policy conflicts and little evident fundraising rivalry.
But the recession that struck the U.S. in 2008 hit the ASPCA and MSPCA to quite different effect. Both organizations suffered serious investment losses. Neither was legally permitted to cover the losses with funds drawn from permanently restricted bequests.
The ASPCA, however, actively soliciting funds nationwide for decades, was able to survive the crisis without sacrificing major programs and without laying off staff.
The MSPCA, whose financial assets had already declined by about a third from peak value, kept four shelters and two animal hospitals open by turning three other shelters over to other animal charities. Thirty-eight staff were laid off.
“Say where the money is being used”
“We have no problem with someone taking ads out,” Luke continued. “We just think they should say where the money is being used and that it doesn’t go to help animals in Massachusetts.”
Even as the MSPCA struggled, the ASPCA raised $10.6 million in Massachusetts in the three years 2007-2009, MSPCA staff told Abel.
“What we’re trying to say,” Luke explained to Abel, “is that the ASPCA does some nice things in Manhattan, but we want everyone to know that they are not our parent organization,” Luke said.
“We just want to make sure they are not leading people to believe that they are the place to go to prevent cruelty to animals in New England.’”
Countered ASPCA spokesperson Alison Jimenez, “How the problem [of animal cruelty] is dealt with is not a local-versus-national issue; it is about effectiveness.”
Founded in 1909, the State Humane Association of California includes nearly 140 humane societies, animal control organizations, and animal advocacy groups operating in California. It has sponsored an annual Animal Law Enforcement Training Academy since 1980, and co-hosts the annual California Animal Care Conference in partnership with the California Animal Control Directors Association and the California Veterinary Medical Association.
The State Humane Association of California complaint against the ASPCA may be the first complaint in half a century by local humane societies against the fundraising practices of national organizations with similar names to take the form of a legal filing.
Filing on behalf of local and regional humane societies, the American Humane Association in 1954 sued the then-newly incorporated National Humane Society for alleged misleading solicitation.
Former AHA employees had founded the National Humane Society after numerous rifts within the AHA over policies.
Among the disagreements, the AHA weakened previous opposition to the use of shelter animals by laboratories and for sport hunting, but remained adamantly opposed to sterilizing pets, a position originally taken more than 30 years earlier in an attempt to be philosophically consistent in opposition to forced sterilization of human female orphans.
In settlement of the 1954 case over names used in solicitation, the original National Humane Society became the Humane Society of the United States in 1956. Two different unrelated organizations now use the name “National Humane Society.”
A parallel case filed in California obliged HSUS to start the long dormant HSUS California Branch Inc. in 1959.
National Humane Education Society
Direct mailings done for the National Humane Education Society drew grumblings from the humane community, beginning in 1986, but apparently did not attract a legal response.
The typical National Humane Education Society appeal format for many years opened, “The National Humane Education Society is now conducting its (year and name of city) Annual Fund Drive.”
When the mailings began, the National Humane Education Society operated only one shelter in Virginia, and the mailings themselves were the only visible NHES national education program.
The only National Humane Education Society shelter currently operating is in West Virginia.
Humane Society of Canada
The Humane Society of the U.S. ran into litigation again over alleged misleading fundraising soon after forming the Humane Society of Canada in 1993.
Founding president Michael O’Sullivan alleged in a 1996 lawsuit that HSUS improperly and illegally claimed $1 million that was raised in Canada.
Ontario Court of Justice Judge Bruce C. Hawkins in January 1997 ordered HSUS to repay $740,000 to the Humane Society of Canada––the only cash award in such a case known to ANIMALS 24-7.
[The Humane Society of Canada was itself stripped of nonprofit status in Canada in 2015 for allegedly making improper use of donated funds, including by purchasing rare comic books. See Holy cow! Humane Society of Canada loses last bid to keep tax-exempt status.]
The Edmonton SPCA & Humane Society, Moose Jaw Humane Society, and Nova Scotia SPCA in December 2006 raised public objections to national mailings by Humane Society of Canada and the Montreal-based Canadian SPCA, which operates a shelter and sterilization clinic in Montreal and is better known as the Montreal SPCA.
Though incorporated as the Canadian SPCA in 1869, the Montreal SPCA has never operated national programs, and has not used the Canadian SPCA name in fundraising since an April 2008 leadership transition.
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