How Good Organizations Go Bad
"For the love of money is the root of all evil."
Timothy 6:10 KJV
People who know me know I am not one to go around quoting Bible verses. Timothy 6:10, however, has been running through my head a lot this season. Christianity is not alone in teaching that the soul can get lost in the quest for material possessions. Buddhism takes it even farther in saying that attachment to material things results in suffering. Across nearly all religions and spiritual teachings around the entire globe this is a nearly universal theme, and that is because "money cannot buy happiness" is not just a cliche; it is a fact of life that we are prone to forgetting, particularly in our hyper-materialistic society.
It is worth pointing out that this idea is not just an esoteric concept. Actual research has proven, for example, that as we have acquired more things in our lives, and as we continue to pursue the acquisition of still more things, we have become less happy as a society. One need look no further than their daily news feed to see the corrupting influence the desire for money has on virtually every aspect of our society, from our corporations to our political systems and even our religions and nonprofit institutions.
Just within the animal sheltering field there are countless examples of organizations selling out their missions (and, therefore, their souls) for the almighty dollar. I would argue that it is this phenomenon that caused the entire field of animal sheltering to begin killing healthy animals in the first place. As Nathan Winodgrad described so well in his book Redemption: The Myth of Pet Overpopulation and the No Kill Revolution in America, it was the lure of lucrative municipal contracts that drew otherwise well-meaning animal lovers to run the "euthanasia" chambers across the USA, and caused them to destroy tens of millions of animals annually, and often in cruel and barbaric ways.
Money corrupts animal organizations in smaller ways, too, like when the Humane Society of the United States embraced Michael Vick following multiple large donations from within the football industry, or when the CEO of the ASPCA became a lobbyist for the puppy mill industry. On an even smaller level, it can cause shelters or rescue organizations to do things like take sponsorship money from pet food manufacturers that have documented practices of abusive animal testing, or to be silent as those same pet food manufacturers use rendered shelter animals in their pet foods. The corrupting influence of money can be subtle and sneaky at first, like the addictive nature of opioids: People start popping pills at a doctor's recommendation to manage pain. But, over time, the drugs stop helping with the pain and far too many people end up hooked or worse. The fact is that money is a powerful drug and its corrupting influence is strong.
In my lecture, Fundraising Without Selling Your Soul, I describe a relatively easy system for bringing in needed money without crossing the line. A key thing to be mindful (and suspicious) of is any funding that could or would impact the mission, message or actions of the organization. That is one of the reasons I strongly advocate for healthy and robust grassroots fundraising efforts. One thousand separate donations of $25 each are unlikely to influence any actions, messages or decisions. A single donation of $25,000 from one entity, however, could. Even worse: organizations that routinely take large donations from the same sources nearly always become dependent on those donations. And, much like the pain pills prescribed by too many doctors, they often end up doing more harm than good and end up ruining once great organizations.
This holiday season, as I have been celebrating long-sought successes, I have also, I believe, been seeing unfortunate signs that a beloved No Kill institution, Austin Pets Alive! (APA), is succumbing to the pressure to put "money over mission." I don't say so lightly.
To be clear: APA has done, and continues to do, important and remarkable work in the No Kill movement. Were it not for them (along with others) the City of Austin, Texas would not be a No Kill community and the trajectory of the entire national movement would be different. APA and the other Austin organizations worked tirelessly to make their community a safe place for homeless pets and have been strong and outspoken advocates for shelter reform and transparency ever since. They have even gone on to spread the No Kill gospel via their annual American Pets Alive conference. Unfortunately, it also seems increasingly clear that choices made by APA are now being driven by things other than their mission.
First, there was this blog which called them out for featuring Paula Powell at the upcoming conference. Powell is the director of the El Paso animal shelter, which is not No Kill and which has been embroiled in a gruesome controversy involving serious and well-documented allegations of egregious neglect and abuse at her shelter. The complaints include multiple instances that are too graphic to detail, but include conditions so severe dogs resorted to cannibalizing other dogs.
In the face of this, No Kill advocates have called on APA to remove Powell from the speakers list. Their calls have been ignored. Then, Maddie's Fund, one of APA's funding partners, published a video maligning shelter transparency and attacking one of the cornerstones of he No Kill movement.
In the video, Libby Post, Executive Director of New York State Animal Protection Federation, lists her "Legislative Accomplishments" for the year 2019. In it, she lists "Stopped a bill to mandate shelter reporting." A No Kill Movement blog on the topic says this:
In the video, Post claims that the reporting provision on CAPA would make shelters "look bad."
"It [CAPA] comes out of the 'shelters are bad' groups of people," Post says in the video. She goes on, " 'Shelters are the enemy, shelters only kill, shelters are horrible...' OK. And, that's where this piece of legislation came out of."
What this means is that a funding partner of APA has published a video of someone boasting about killing a bill that would require animal shelters to transparently report their shelter statistics. In the process of doing so, she is maligning No Kill advocates with false accusations and information. It should not have to be said, but reporting animal shelter statistics only makes animal shelters "look bad" when their statistics are bad.
Maddie's Fund is not just a funding partner of APA. They also sponsor the upcoming conference where Powell is scheduled to speak. And, in spite of the fact that Austin became a No Kill community because of an unwavering commitment to stand up and speak out on behalf of animals, a lot of people are noticing how deafeningly silent APA has been.
At least one New York State Senator has been commenting on Maddie's Fund video, a senator who is likely to be instrumental in deciding whether New York animal shelters will be able to keep misleading their donors about the fate of animals in their care. And, still, APA has remained silent.
One thing I feel confident in predicting: people who attend the American Pets Alive conference in 2020 will hear people from Austin talking about the importance of transparent shelter reporting. They will also hear them talk about the importance of advocates finding our voices so that we can stand up and speak on behalf of the animals who cannot speak for themselves. I also know their words will ring hollow if they do not find it in themselves to stand up to and resist the pressure of money when the animals need them to. Refusing to do that is exactly how good organizations go bad.