Merritt Clifton on Animal Charity Evaluators

For nearly 45 years I have done accountability reporting and donor education about nonprofit organizations.  For more than 30 years I have done accountability reporting specifically focused on animal charities, including 25 years as editor of a series of annual reports initially titled “Who gets the money?”  

The first edition covered two dozen major animal charities.  Within five years it covered about 100.  Retitled "The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities" in 1999,  the report expanded up to the production of 15 editions of a handbook which reviewed the budgets,  assets,  spending patterns,  programs,  policies,  leadership transitions,  and any other controversial issues associated with more than 170 animal charities.

Producing such a comprehensive volume annually eventually became economically unviable,  even with my wife Beth having done much of the preliminary research to produce an electronic edition that we could not complete.  

Bluntly put, insufficient numbers of animal charity donors seemed to give enough of a damn where they throw their money to spend $25 a year making sure it really goes where their donations are most likely to achieve whatever it is they want most to accomplish.


"The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities” always focused on encouraging donors to pick their own goals,  then donate in a manner consistent with achieving those goals,  whatever they were.

Nick Cooney published his book "How To Be Great At Doing Good" in 2015,  two years after the last edition of The Watchdog Report on Animal Charities appeared.  His approach to charity evaluation was not mine, and indeed mirrored the sort of narrow number-crunching done by Charity Navigator,  whose glaring weakness is lack of program verification,  to ensure that the numbers reported by charities to the IRS on Form 990 actually reflect what they are doing.

Form 990,  unfortunately,  is easily “gamed” by unscrupulous organizations to make themselves look better than they really are.  The only way to detect this is to do the sort of line-by-line comparison with other sources of information that I did,  year after year,  with charity after charity.

Cooney’s approach relies on a different but equally misleading type of number-crunching,  basically comparing the amounts of money raised and spent with the numbers of potential beneficiaries.  Because farmed animals far outnumber all other animals (except perhaps fish) suffering through human abuse,  neglect,  and exploitation,  this type of analysis will always favor charities promoting veganism,  meaning complete abstinence from animal use,  above all others.

PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk,  who has done as much as anyone living or dead to promote veganism,  in her keynote address to the Animal Rights 2016 conference in Los Angeles extensively denounced the fallacy that vegan activism is the only sort worth promoting on behalf of animals.  

Nonetheless,  Cooney in "How To Be Great At Doing Good” made a praiseworthy attempt at educating donors about the importance of developing their own criteria for giving and thinking through their donation strategies before blindly tossing money at problems.  I gave "How To Be Great At Doing Good” at favorable review,  in the context of a lengthier discussion of charity evaluation issues:
    
http://www.animals24-7.org/2015/08/29/how-to-be-great-at-doing-good-why-results-are-what-count-and-how-smart-charity-can-change-the-world/

I wondered,  though,  why Cooney and the other people who are (or were) behind the organization Animal Charity Evaluators seemed to take no interest whatever in my many years of accountability reporting and animal charity analysis.  

Then,  through a chance conversation that Beth struck up with an Animal Charity Evaluators employee at AR 2016,  in which I participated, I learned that Animal Charity Evaluators isn’t really about independently evaluating the broad spectrum of animal charities at all.  As the Animal Charity Evaluators employee explained and Newkirk also discussed,  without mentioning Animal Charity Evaluators by name,  it is a “directed giving” organization,  set up to steer donors toward a handful of allied vegan organizations.

This puts Animal Charity Evaluators into approximately the same category as the Pepsi Challenge and the Miller Beer “less filling” vs. “tastes great” face-offs.  It may be entertainment,  and may be profitable for the sponsors,  but regrettably it is not the serious analysis of nonprofit organizations that it purports to be.

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Merritt Clifton, editor
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