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Charitable giving: Don’t squander your generosity

This is a generous nation but a country with boundless needs. So there is no shortage of worthy causes competing for attention, spare change or unwanted household goods.

While some government funding – too little, often too late – goes to not-for-profits (NPOs) that benefit people, those working with animals get nothing. The plight of the latter is aggravated by most South African corporates also supporting only human welfare.

Consequently, the competition for animal welfare funds is particularly intense, with charities for domestic animals attracting more money than wildlife ones. In turn, among wildlife charities, those with the word ‘rhino’ in the name draw greater support than others that are as important in conservation terms but lack the glamour imbued by constant news exposure.

The travails of my two favourite animal charities illustrate some of these problems.

With 98 branches, SA’s biggest animal charity by far is the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which aside from statutory powers of inspection and prosecution, operates municipal pounds, collects strays, and disposes of carcasses. Recently, however, some municipalities, including Tshwane, have simply stopped paying the agreed fees to their local SPCA.

This blow coincided with National Lottery funding to the SPCA dropping from R20.1-million in 2011 to R8.7-million in 2012. As a result, some branches have had to close or at least trim their operations and retrench staff.

At the other end of the scale is Free Me, a tiny wildlife rehabilitation NPO operating only in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng. Like the SPCA, its sterling work benefits the local authorities where it operates – these are animals and birds which otherwise would be put down – but unlike the SPCA it gets zero municipal funding. So Free Me operates under unrelenting financial pressure, surviving from hand to mouth, month to month.

With the number of sporting, welfare and arts organisations competing for lottery funds more than doubling over the past few years, animal charities will in future have to rely more than they already do on public generosity.

If the international experience serves, the public will become more careful about whom it supports. The watchwords will be transparency and accountability, areas where local animal organisations have a mixed record.

For example, many – including about a third of SPCAs – are not on the government’s national register of 108 000 NPOs. Although this is a voluntary register, it does guarantee the prospective donor that the charity is filing annual financial accounts to certain standards.

Others are just foolhardily secretive. In April I approached four SPCA branches and one branch of Free Me for their annual financial statements to gauge the transparency of their operations.

Cape of Good Hope SPCA deserves to be the benchmark for every NPO in the land. Its accounts were immediately accessible online and are admirably detailed. Free Me KZN, too, supplied the information unhesitatingly.

Tshwane SPCA was helpful but provided limited information because it said it couldn’t email large files. Msunduzi (Pietermaritzburg) SPCA complied but with some reluctance. East London and uMngeni (Howick) SPCAs were also reluctant and have yet to provide accounts, despite further approaches. Any notion of accountability to the public was notably absent – Who are you? Why do you want to see the accounts? How will the information be used?

The National SPCA’s chief executive, Marcelle Meredith, was outraged to hear this and is unequivocal that such recalcitrance on the part of its largely autonomous branches will not be tolerated. The crux of the matter, however, is that this is not solely an SPCA problem. It is more than likely that a similar lack of transparency is widespread, especially among the estimated 50,000 NPOs – mostly engaged in human welfare activities – that are not on the government register.

The solution is in the hands of donors. Whether you want to donate to human or animal charities, it’s your purse strings. Make certain that the recipients are above board, are transparent and accountable, and are not squandering your largesse.