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Fundraising in the Face of Uncertainty and Loss

In the face of a national crisis, some shelters try to prevent financial crises on their own home fronts while others watch support and adoptions rise

The outlook on the fundraising horizon was already somewhat bleak: In West Kennebunk, Maine, donations to the Animal Welfare Society had been flat since the beginning of last year. In Greenfield, Massachusetts, anticipated foundation funding for the Greenfield Area Animal Shelter had not come through. And in Los Angeles, California, the scpaLA’s stock portfolio had dropped by nearly half.

And that was before September 11, when terrorist-piloted planes smashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the American psyche. Before there was anything more than peripheral talk of Osama bin Laden or widespread fears of suspicious-looking envelopes, animal shelters around the country were trying to deal with another form of uncertainty and assessing the early warning signs of an economic slowdown.

“In the last seven years that I’ve been the director here, we’ve been riding a pretty good crest of economy, which obviously is reflected in donations to the shelter,” says Steve Jacobsen, executive director of the Animal Welfare Society. “But beginning ... towards the end of last year, with the economy kind of ... leveling off, we certainly started to feel the effects. The net result of that, prior to September 11, was that our income stream was level.”

Meanwhile, Jacobsen says, budgeted expenses for payroll, utilities, and products and services were increasing. In fact, a month before the attacks, the Animal Welfare Society had hired a consultant to help in the formation of a development department that would raise money and garner more long-term support.

It was a prescient move, as the Maine shelter suddenly found it may need a dedicated fundraising department now more than ever. Its annual “Strut Your Mutt” event in late September drew lots of participants but brought in only $22,000–$5,000 less than last year and far short of the anticipated $30,000.

The story was the same in Atlanta, where the Atlanta Humane Society’s Pet Parade at Six Flags attracted the same number of supporters as last year but raised nowhere near the projected figure of $100,000. Whereas the Pet Parade in 2000 had brought in $84,000, the shelter was predicting by mid-October that its final numbers in 2001 would be about $72,000.

“Last year, it was the weather we were worried about,” says Dawn Eischen, the shelter’s public relations manager. “This year, it was the September 11 tragedy. But you know, how do you prepare? Nobody knew that something like this would ever happen.”

Donations Diverted Elsewhere

Even more disconcerting for many nonprofit organizations as they look toward the future is the fact that that future is still so tenuous, with daily terrorist threats continuing against the backdrop of U.S. government warnings of a protracted conflict. With the economy already on the brink of recession before September 11, gifts from wealthy donors who rely heavily on investments were already in jeopardy; the situation turned even bleaker when companies that had been in trouble before the attacks plummeted toward bankruptcy in the aftermath.

But unlike historical associations, art museums, or many other community-based groups that are also facing difficult funding decisions in light of potential decreases in donor dollars, animal shelters aren’t in a position to just trim a service here or cut a program there. Chronically underfunded and constantly in need of more resources to care for living creatures, they are accustomed to stretching every dollar as far as it will go.

“We’re down to a fairly bare-bones staff,” says Dee Boyle-Clapp, executive director of the Greenfield Area Animal Shelter. “I think most of us don’t have a lot of fat in our budgets, and where are we going to cut back?”

At the spcaLA, which has a bit more leeway in its spending, the answer to that question came swiftly. While the organization had already prepared itself for the inevitable correction of a bloated stock market, there was no way to foresee a manmade disaster of such magnitude. Within the first two weeks of the attacks, President Madeline Bernstein had decided to close two of spcaLA’s eight adoptions centers—one a shelter that had already been scaled back because of decreased visitor traffic, and the other a Santa Monica mall center that was so new it was still operating at a deficit. Eight people were also laid off.

“This is hopefully just a temporary response to the fact that a lot of funds are being diverted to the relief efforts, as [they] should be, but in the meantime the stock market’s been crashing, so it doesn’t leave reserves to cover that funding dip,” says Bernstein. “We’ve seen the value of our portfolio drop, we’ve seen our mail drop, we’ve seen the registrations drop for our dog walk, and I can’t take the risk of depleting what reserves we have left. And I have another wave ready if need be, because I’m trying not to cut programs and services.”

In her efforts to keep the organization in good financial stead, Bernstein wasted no time in issuing a plea for help to the community, sending a press release and a letter to the editor to local media outlets. “Please don’t forget us and other local charities, allowing the terrorists to create more innocent victims,” she wrote. “Those who depend on our charities can’t live without them.”

By mid-October, only one month after the attacks, more than $1 billion had been donated to organizations working on recovery and relief efforts in New York and Washington, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. While much of that money was newly generated, some of the donations were inevitably a result of a reallocation of funds that had been destined for local nonprofits.

In Maine, a couple of corporate donors withheld their regular donations to the Animal Welfare Society’s Strut Your Mutt event, diverting them instead to disaster relief efforts in New York. “I think you have to be very careful not to condemn or challenge a decision that is made like that because obviously it’s something that’s affecting everybody,” Jacobsen says. “And you can never question somebody’s good work in giving towards the disaster, but I feel it’s proper to actively remind people—and I have been—not to make their favorite organization or their favorite not-for-profit a victim of it.”

All Is Not Lost—and Some Has Been Gained

In some communities, there was early evidence that, despite the uncertainty, some supporters were hearing that message and turning their offers of support back to their local communities. One woman donated to the Greenfield Area Animal Shelter “in honor of the rescue dogs in New York City,” giving her money locally but showing her support for the national cause—a contribution that will be reflected in the donations section of the shelter’s newsletter.

She wasn’t the only supporter who came through for the shelter in the most rural community with the lowest median income in Massachusetts: While some of the larger shelters around the country were experiencing drops in event registrations and slower trickles of incoming cash, Greenfield was surprised to discover that its annual fall appeals were not only successful but even outperformed last year’s numbers. Two fundraising mailings that went out on September 17 raised $15,283 in the first week—$11,000 more than the fall appeals garnered during the same period last year.

Across the prairies in Quincy, Illinois, the Quincy Humane Society experienced similar success, netting $22,000 on a Strut Your Mutt event that had brought in only $17,000 the previous year, says executive director Carole Hackett.

“Sometimes it takes a lot longer to affect things in the Midwest,” says Hackett. “It’s kind of a ripple effect; it’s like every other trend—it takes a while to get here.”

Further south in Nashville, Tennessee, Metro/Nashville Animal Services, a government agency that doesn’t actively solicit donations but often receives them anyway, has seen an increase in food supplies and a steady stream of monetary support for its operations. “I think everyone just has the feeling of wanting to help and not knowing what to do,” says Director Judy Ladebauche. “And the impression we’re getting is that because they don’t know what to do in a larger scale and feel their hands are somewhat tied, they’re trying to help out maybe even a little more in their own community.”

“We expected a great decline in adoptions, and we have not witnessed that either,” says Ladebauche. “On September 11 and 12, we had very little foot traffic through the shelter, but by the end of the week, our adoption numbers were the same as they would have been. It was almost like by the third day people were looking for something positive and stable, and more were arriving on a daily basis.”

Ladebauche’s shelter became an unexpected refuge for a canine victim of the attacks, after a New York woman who lost everything when her apartment was destroyed found a puppy with burned paws wandering among the rubble. After searching for weeks for the dog’s owners, she moved to Nashville temporarily to stay with friends while waiting for her insurance claims to come through. Her temporary residence would not allow dogs, so she surrendered the sheltie mix to Metro/Nashville Animal Services.

When a local TV reporter taped a segment on the dog, he stressed that even though her story was a grueling one, the shelter was full of animals with sad tales to tell. “And it’s resulted in several more adoptions of other animals who needed a home,” says Ladebauche.

A Plea to the Public: Please Don’t Forget Us

Integrating animal protection messages with the aftermath of the tragedy in this way is a tricky proposition—but a necessary one, say many shelter directors. “The only way to deal with this is just directly,” says Boyle-Clapp. “We’re still working on the follow-up letter to our fall appeal, but the sense of my board has been to talk about the tragedy and emphasize that despite what has happened, the needs of our animals continue.”

As shock melted into grief in the early days following the attacks, Boyle-Clapp and her colleagues at shelters around the country mulled over the possibility of postponing events, delaying mailings, and otherwise laying low for a while. In the end, however, shelters followed the same course of action that is recommended by the American Association of Fundraising Counsel (AAFRC): Don’t cancel or postpone planned activities or special events; even though it may seem inappropriate, it could result in lost revenue and rob the community of an opportunity to come together. Don’t cancel fall appeals, and don’t stop planning or fundraising to meet critical needs.

“And if your needs are well-presented—if you have engaged your Board and other key stakeholders in identifying and articulating these needs—your program will generate the support it deserves,” the association told its members on its Web site.

Bernstein tested her letter to the editor with some board members “that I knew—even if they got mad at me—wouldn’t leave,” she says. The response was overwhelmingly positive, sparking a surge in donations. “It’s very touchy because you have to weigh the appearance of taking money away from a disaster—to some people, cats and dogs are not important,” says Bernstein. “Everything we [went] out with in the [following] weeks in our plea for help I rewrote a million times and had everybody read first to make sure that there were no nuances I didn’t mean to put in. You have to be extremely careful, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Greenfield’s fall appeal was scheduled to go out on Saturday, September 15, but Boyle-Clapp delayed the mailing until the following Tuesday. “Our fall fund drive is our most important fundraiser of the year,” she says, “but balancing being tactful while addressing our needs was really difficult.”

But she found a way to personalize the mailing to her large donors, purchasing beautiful paper, cutting it into small cards, and handwriting a heartfelt message. “I found asking people for cash during that week extremely difficult,” Boyle-Clapp says. “Animals are important to me, and they're critical to my life, but it is hard to know if the people you are writing to share that same sentiment, or if asking for help would appear tasteless at that particular moment.”

Shortly after the attacks, the Potter League for Animals in Rhode Island had thank-you notes to mail; the notes told donors their support was more important than ever because Potter League dogs actually help boost security—several had been placed with U.S. Customs the previous year. At the same time, the organization used its weekly column in the local newspaper to describe the work of search and rescue dogs, keep readers updated about efforts to help pets displaced by the disaster, and tell donors where to go if they wanted to give to animal organizations involved in the relief efforts. “We said, ‘Contact us and we’ll get you some addresses,’ ” says Executive Director Christie Smith. “Why shouldn’t we kind of all do that? People need to hear that. They need to hear, I think, that this is a ‘United We Stand.’ ”

The Champaign County Humane Society devoted most of its home page to the disaster, featuring stories of heroic search and rescue dogs and linking to news accounts of animal victims. “Our Web site has been receiving, since the attack, about 400 hits a day,” says Executive Director Steve Notaro. “Our normal traffic before that was about 140 hits a day, so we’ve had almost triple the activity on our Web site, with a single-day high mark of about 800 hits in one day. And when people have been asking us how they can help and what they can do, we’ve got the links on our Web site to The HSUS, the ASPCA, and other places where people can give to help out the animal relief funds.”

Mission Possible—With a Little Help from Loyal Friends

According to the AAFRC, donors and volunteers will appreciate acknowledgement of their desire to give money toward the relief efforts—and their activism in their local community will still remain strong: “These same donors will continue to support your organization, as they have in the past, because they care deeply about the work you do.”

The AAFRC Trust for Philanthropy recently asked the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University to identify historical trends in giving by examining 13 major events that involved terrorism, acts of war, or political or economic crises since 1940. Researchers found that the total amount of giving increased every year but one—1987, when a financial panic actually caused giving to drop by 1.3 percent. Interpreters of the research caution, however, that the events of September 11 are so different from other crises and catastrophes that past behavior may not serve as accurate indicators.

Still, while some predict that the coffers of religious organizations and other such groups with loyal followings will remain unaffected by the events of New York and Washington, many of those in the animal protection field believe that animal lovers are among the most faithful of all. “I happen to think that animal people who support animal causes are very generous,” says Jacobsen, “and obviously it’s probably one of the easier not-for-profits to get money for. And that doesn’t minimize the challenges that we have, but other nonprofits such as arts organizations and historical societies can be very challenged by what’s going on right now.”

Education advocacy organizations may also experience a downturn, say some analysts. That certainly seemed to be the case in San Diego, where a San Diego Union-Tribune article a month after the attacks reported losses for the Boys and Girls Clubs, the San Diego Oceans Foundation, and the Senior Community Centers of San Diego. Meanwhile, however, the San Diego Humane Society and SPCA held its most successful Fur Ball dinner ever; at $100,000 in donations, the shelter raised twice the amount it had in 2000.

Whatever the financial fallout might be, many animal shelters are looking at this as an opportunity to reexamine their missions. Some talk of limiting cell phone calls, combining car trips to save gas, and trimming the extras that may make life more convenient in the shelter but aren’t necessarily crucial; for instance, Smith says, keeping many extra sets of gloves in different parts of the building helps save time but isn’t always a crucial practice. “You don’t want to be pennywise and pound foolish, but I think if you’re pennywise and monitoring the larger pounds, you can be more sensible,” says Smith. “It’s like, what do you have to do at home? What do you give up? So maybe you don’t order out pizza three nights a week and go to the movies two nights. That doesn’t seem like it just paid off the mortgage, but I think it’s the little steps that you start with first.”

Adds Jacobsen, a former businessman: “It’s just a matter of doing the best we can with the assets available, and if we have to amend those, then we’ve got to make sure we continue to do a good job for the core of business. This society—the Animal Welfare Society—was formed firstly to have a shelter for homeless animals. When all is said and done and everything else is considered, we’ve got to keep making sure we do that the best we can.”

 

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