If you've ever considered donating to your local SPCA only to confuse it with the ASPCA and think "whatever, it's the same thing," you're not alone.
Despite similar-sounding names and missions, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is not affiliated with any local SPCA, including Houston SPCA.
And turns out that's a very good thing, after CBS News released a report showing that the ASPCA's fundraising and spending don't exactly match up. The charity says it spends 77 cents of every dollar on its mission to rescue, protect, and care for animals in need, but in reality it's more like 40 cents — a far cry from the urgent, grassroots message it puts out through the iconic commercials backed by Sarah McLachlan's 1997 hit "Angel."
"Since 2008, CBS New reports, "the ASPCA has raised more than $2 billion for animal welfare. In that time, it has spent $146 million, or about 7 percent 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. Over $150 million of that went to Eagle-Com Inc, a Canadian media production company, to produce and place ASPCA's ads."
"I don't know how they can put their head on a pillow at night," says Gary Rogers, president of Nassau SPCA, "knowing that there are so many animals out here that that money could be used for, for other things."
Houston SPCA's own chief community and development officer, Jo Sullivan, was an executive vice president at the ASPCA when the commercials came out and was part of the team that created them.
"In our minds, the more money we could raise, the more animals we could help. So we were happy," Sullivan told CBS News. "Being in a very large nonprofit now, I see the unintended consequences of having such access to such a powerful, large brand that I don't believe any of us ever intended for that to happen at all."
Now, Sullivan says the bulk of Houston SPCA's — and, really, any local SPCA's — time is spent explaining to donors that they are a separate entity from the ASPCA, and that no money trickles down to the local level.
"It is frustrating on this side of the table to realize that a bulk of our time and our staff time is spent trying to explain the difference between national and local," Sullivan says. "We need our donors and the people in our community to know where their money is going."
According to its own 2017 survey, ASPCA said 84 percent 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.
"I would challenge the fact that 84 percent 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," says Patti Mercer, president and CEO of the Houston SPCA.
According to the nonprofit's tax returns, the ASPCA took in nearly $280 million in 2019.
"The devil is in the details when one looks at spending," says Brian Mittendorf, the Fisher designated professor of accounting at The Ohio State University and a nonprofit tax expert. "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 percent."
According to information from the ASPCA's 2019 tax forms, $7.75 of each $19 donation went toward hands-on help with animals across the country, and $6.88 went toward public education, communication, policy, response, and engagement.
This includes appeals for donations like telemarketing and direct mailings. Another $3.65 went toward membership development and other kinds of fundraising. The remainder, about 75 cents, was spent on management.
CBS News found something else that donors might not be expecting. In its commercials, the ASPCA implores "we urgently need 3,000 new donors so we can rescue more animals who are still out there suffering." But more than $28 million of the total money raised in 2019 was not reflected in spending that year.
CBS News discovered 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 nine-months operating expenses, in case of emergencies. It says the remaining $148 million is tied up in fixed assets, restricted donations, and multiyear pledges.
Mittendorf says that strategy isn't wrong, but it all comes down to expectations.
"The big, big question here really is what sense of urgency in spending the resources does the organization have?" he asks. "If the donors feel that there's an urgent need, and they must donate today so that they can meet that urgent need, and the organization isn't exhibiting that urgency, that's again, where a disconnect can cause a problem."
Another thing the ASPCA is not totally upfront about is how it uses donors' info. While it is a common enough practice for nonprofits to sell or rent donor lists, Charity Navigator deducts points for the practice. Between 2009 and 2019, the ASPCA made more than $3.2 million selling donor lists.
One way the ASPCA gets donors to add to its list is through hiring third-party contractors to canvas, or solicit, donations in front of stores or in public places. According to a 2019 national contract with Ascenta Group US, each solicitor was paid $40 a day by Ascenta to solicit donations on behalf of the ASPCA. Additionally, for each monthly donor signed up by a canvasser, Ascenta Group US would receive a one-time fee of $285.
The total amount a donor recruited this way who paid $19 a month would spend in the first year is $228, less than the ASPCA paid its contractor to obtain that donation.
Mercer says she believes that type of fundraising could be deceiving donors, when those canvassers are set up in communities, like hers, where the ASPCA doesn't offer local services.
"The organization benefits greatly," Mercer said of the ASPCA. "I wish that they could do some soul searching within the organization and understand that their massive efforts to draw support from around the country to support their own efforts and the issues that they wish to focus on, does hinder the ability for local organizations like ourselves to do the good work that we do."
The Houston SPCA serves as one of the leading animal rescue and protection organizations in the country, with more than a dozen programs and services including cruelty investigations and rescue, disaster response, adoptions, and so much more.
Visit its website to see how you can donate, get involved, and make a difference for animals in Houston.