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ASPCA Donations

The poignant ads are almost impossible to ignore: Sarah McLachlan sings about images of suffering animals and makes an urgent appeal for donations to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.

Since these popular ads debuted more than a decade ago, the ASPCA's revenue has tripled—from $85 million in 2007 to nearly $280 million in 2019—making the ASPCA one of the world's leading public health charities. the animals in the country.

With more than 1,000 employees, the ASPCA's mission is to rescue, protect and care for animals in need through a wide range of activities such as animal transportation, advocacy, training, legislative and veterinary services. The ASPCA says the vast majority of donor dollars go directly to its mission, but a CBS News investigation found there are questions about whether the money is going where donors expect.

Joe Sullivan was the executive vice president of the ASPCA when the ads came out, and he was part of the team that created them.

"In our minds, the more money we can raise, the more animals we can help. So we were happy," Sullivan told CBS News. "Being at a very large nonprofit now, I see the unintended consequences of having that kind of access to a brand so powerful and big that I don't think any of us ever intended for that to happen."

These days, Sullivan is the chief community and development officer at the Houston SPCA in Texas. Contrary to what many people might think and despite similar names and missions, the Houston SPCA, which operates a local shelter, veterinary clinic and animal clinic among its services, is in no way affiliated with the national ASPCA. There is not a local SPCA in all parts of the country.

"It's frustrating on this side of the scale to realize that most of our time and our staff is spent trying to explain the difference between national and local," Sullivan said. "We need our donors and individuals in our community to know where their money is going."

Founded in 1866 by diplomat and animal welfare activist Henry Berg in New York, the ASPCA is still the organization's headquarters and provides most of the practical services for animals, including shelter, assistance with abuse investigations, and spay/neuter surgeries. About 40 miles from ASPCA headquarters in Manhattan, Gary Rogers is president of the Nassau County SPCA, a local animal charity that investigates abuse and rescues endangered animals.

"The main problems that most counterterrorism agencies have is that the ASPCA doesn't fund these agencies," Rogers told CBS Chief Investigative Correspondent Jim Axelrod. "We don't get any money from them at all."

The ASPCA is not an umbrella organization for local organizations with the SPCA in its name — a fact the ASPCA says donors know. According to a 2017 survey, the ASPCA said 84% of donors also donated to a local animal charity. What this survey did not ask is whether donors know the difference between donating to the ASPCA and donating to other local SPCAs nationwide.

"I would dispute the fact that 84% of people know the difference when your fundraising methods lead you to believe that money given to the ASPCA is flowing into local organizations," said Patty Mercer, president and CEO of the Houston SPCA.

CBS News spoke with more than two dozen local SPCA members across the country. Several countries received several thousand dollars worth of grants from the ASPCA that they applied for. Most of them, like in Nassau County and Houston, got nothing.

Since 2008, the ASPCA has raised more than $2 billion for animal welfare. During that time, it spent $146 million, or about 7% of the total money raised, in grants to local animal welfare groups. But in the same time period, it spent nearly three times that amount, at least $421 million, on fundraising. More than $150 million of that went to Eagle-Com Inc, a Canadian media production company, to produce and air ASPCA ads.

"I don't know how they can put their head on a pillow at night knowing that there are so many animals here that the money could be used for other purposes," Rogers said.

The ASPCA earned nearly $280 million in 2019, according to the nonprofit's tax filings. The nonprofit told CBS News that it spends 77 cents of every dollar on its mission to rescue, protect and care for animals in need, as well as practical services, including mission-related education and public participation costs.

"The devil is in the details when looking at spending," said Brian Mittendorff, an associate professor of accounting at Oaxaca University.