How to Choose the Right Pet-Related Charity

Donating your dollars to animal-related causes? We're here to help you find the best fit.

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Americans donated more than $410 billion to charity last year, according to Giving USA. When it comes to giving, Americans—and San Diegans—have heart. In fact, Wallet Hub ranked San Diego as number 16 among the most caring cities in the United States. And since San Diego is the fourth most dog-friendly city in the country (per KPBS), guess where a lot of our monetary gifts are going? Yes, we love our pets and care what happens to them.

If you are one of those philanthropic individuals whose heart goes out to animals, you’ll love this interview with Jarrett Bostwick. This attorney who deals in wealth and philanthropy planning and is a pet-charity expert (he’s a board member of the Foundation for Animal Care and Education—FACE) has tips to help you find the organization that might be perfect for you and your dollars.

How do you research a charity for a specific animal? Perhaps a donor has a specific pet—maybe a bunny or parrot—and that is what the donor personally relates to.

I am always surprised at the number of charities that are specific to a particular animal or breed. There are literally thousands of them in the United States, and they all provide some level of care or resources for care. My first starting point would be to run a search on Guidestar using search terms specific to the animal or breed and then research what, exactly, each charity does. Some may be more clinically focused; others may be more quality-of-life and dignity-in-death focused. (For example, there are a number of charities that take horses to ensure they age gracefully.)

There are so many worthy organizations. Do you have any tips on choosing an animal charity?

First and foremost, finding the right charity is about finding the right extension of one’s moral and charitable compass manifested through a legally established organization. Secondly, once an individual has identified their focus and area of interest, they should look for three things: 1. excellent management; 2. transparency with regard to the organization’s financials; and 3. how closely the organization adheres to its mission statement (i.e. not an organization that shifts its purpose based on where funds can be raised, a practice known as “mission creep.”)

Besides “mission creep,” are there other things a person should watch out for?
Yes. Red lights to look for include:

  • An organization that cannot produce financial statements. These statements provide a donor with a clear view of the sources of the organization’s operating budget and how the organization uses the funds.
  • An organization where there has been significant turnover in the senior leadership ranks.
  • An organization that will not agree to an in-person meeting or will not agree to a due-diligence conversation with a donor’s advisor.
  • An organization that has not filed its Federal Form 990 or has a pattern of being delinquent in filing.
  • An organization that will not provide references among their professional providers and, barring some privacy issues (HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], donor confidentiality agreements, etc.), among donors or recipients of the organization’s charitable endeavors.

Are there websites you can recommend for research?

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) website and Guidestar are two database resources to which most professionals turn. The IRS website has an entire database of all approved charities, their status, and some level of information about the charity’s focus. Guidestar is a national database that provides a host of other information, including copies of tax returns. I should also point out that many charities have their own websites that are valuable. Lastly, finding the right professionals can be key to this process. Many attorneys have practices that focus on nonprofit organization law and are dedicated to tax-exempt/charity/nonprofit legal matters. Individuals can find most of this online, including the names and locations of attorneys specializing in this area of the law.

How do you find out if a charity has been in trouble? 

In general, organizations are required to disclose any outstanding issues (litigation, etc.) with their State Attorney General office or, in regard to their tax-exempt status, the IRS. The information is considered a material disclosure that a donor is entitled to receive in the course of determining whether to make a gift. All a donor has to do is ask.

How does a donor find out what percentage of their dollar is going directly to the cause?

Lots of donors focus on the ratio of how much of their donation goes to overhead versus to the cause. This should be a non-issue because some percentage of each donation has to be used to ensure that the charity is responsibly managed. Nonprofit does not mean not run like a business. It is important to make sure that the charity does what it says it does, acts responsibly and has the right financial controls in place in order to be sustainable.

Is the length of time the charity has been registered important?

In my view, the length of time the charity has been registered and in existence is not necessarily a lynch pin issue as much as it goes to show whether the charity has staying power. There are lots of young charities that build momentum over time—FACE (a San Diego nonprofit providing financial assistance for animal medical care) is an example of that. To quote Claude Reins from the movie Lawrence of Arabia, “Big things have small beginnings,” and charities are no exception. While longevity is important, I believe that focusing on the management team, the board and leadership in the early days of an organization’s existence is a better criterion to consider.

Should a donor call and/or visit the charity?

Absolutely! I encourage direct interaction and due diligence. At a minimum it will allow all of us as donors to determine whether we have that “connection” to the charity and to assess the caliber of the management team, etc. Getting confirmation that the executive director, the chairman of the board, and the administration of the organization all have buy-in and commitment to the organization’s focus can only be done by having direct interaction with the charity.

Are there other methods to get to know a charity? 

If you are interested in a particular charity and they are hosting an event or putting on an activity to raise awareness or funds—go volunteer! You learn a lot about the organization when you work alongside the staff and other volunteers to advance the cause. In doing so, it is not only personally rewarding but it also is another way to confirm that the organization—and its leadership—is the right fit for your time and your donation.

In view of everything we’ve just discussed, what would you say are the three most important questions to ask? 

My top three questions revolve around:

  1. Financial responsibility and controls
  2. Turnover in the staff
  3. Statistical information of outcomes for the cause supported

In general, it is important to see the passion, commitment, and business-like execution of the charity, and asking questions that hone in on those items are paramount.

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