Monday, January 28, 2019

Think Local, Give Wisely: Saying No to National Organizations Like the Humane Society of the US Makes Sense

One of the valuable lessons I have learned from serving on the Board of Never Had a Bad Day is that not all charities are alike. Like any organization, charities can be well-managed or mismanaged and either fulfill or fail at their mission. Unfortunately, sometimes what you see in a charity's tear-inducing appeals or slick website is in contradiction with how donations are actually spent.

The Humane Society of the United States – A Case Study for Donor Caution

Robin and I love animals. Whether cats or cockatoos we’re always eager to donate a few dollars or lend a hand when it comes to abandoned, abused or neglected pets. 

Kennedy the cat and Zazu, feathered head of the Holmer household.

We recently viewed a heart-wrenching Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) ad that featured rescuers wearing HSUS t-shirts and jackets carrying shivering dogs and cats off to safety. We were moved by the images of helpless animals and were ready to pledge our financial support so that the organization might continue this type of work.

Having been educated by my service on the Board of Never Had a Bad Day, I decided to do a quick search of the Humane Society of the United States.  My starting point for researching any charity is Charity Navigator, one of the most well-respected rating and review organizations for individual charitable giving.

Just this year Charity Navigator downgraded the Humane Society of the United States to two out of four stars with the lowest rating of one star given for its finances. Charity Navigator’s analysis reveals that only 69.5% of all HSUS funds go to program expenses and fully 27.4% of all revenue goes to fundraising.

What I learned from other sources was even more disheartening. According to Humane Watch[1] and the HSUS IRS 990 submissions, less than 3% of all Humane Society revenue is granted directly to local animal protection and shelter activity. This seems inconsistent to some with their fundraising efforts which feature dogs and cats as the primary beneficiaries of their efforts.[2]  To offer some perspective, the direct grants to local animal shelters is apparently less than the organization reported on Form 990, Schedule C, for Political Campaign and Lobbying Activities in 2017.[3]

By way of comparison, Chicago’s no-kill shelter organization, PAWS Chicago, has a top Four-Star Rating with Charity Navigator.[4]  Over 89.4% of all PAWS revenue goes to program use and only 4.7% of revenue is spent on fundraising. Can you imagine the number of animals that might be saved if donations meant to support local animal shelters was re-directed from the Humane Society to PAWS Chicago?

Local organizations, like PAWS, offer you the opportunity to see your charity dollars at work.

So the question is, when it comes to charities and donations, whom can you trust?

Follow the Money

When looking to support a worthy cause, I think one should focus on the consistency between a charity’s fund-raising and actions, financial transparency, and most importantly, program effectiveness.

As is the case with the Humane Society, some charities are criticized because their outward public appeals are inconsistent with their actions. This is probably the most challenging criteria to research, as large charities can create special interest political organizations, separate fundraising entities and often pass money to other 501(c)(3)’s whose efforts might diverge from the presumed intent of the giving charity.  The result of these large entity tactics is to effectively cloud where dollars are flowing. 

Donating to a local organization where you can see their work goes a long way to insuring that your dollars are used for the intended cause.  For example, rather than donating to the ASPCA national organization, why not drop $20 into the donation box at the Anti-Cruelty Society on Grand Avenue right here in Chicago? Rated four stars by Charity Navigator[5], you can visit the Chicago Anti-Cruelty Society and see first-hand how they fulfill their mission of, “Building a community of caring by helping pets and educating people.”

The Anti-Cruelty Society was founded in Chicago in 1899 and it's first permanent building, pictured above, was on Grand Avenue.

Financial transparency is another measuring stick one should consider when selecting a charity.  Useful financial metrics include how much money goes to administration, fund-raising and most importantly, core operations.  You should also try to find out where financial assets are being invested as they may provide insight into the management of the organization.  For example, the Humane Society of the United States has sheltered over $43 million in financial assets in Central America and the Caribbean. That’s well over 22% of reported investments. (Source: 2017 HSUS Form 990 and related documents.) Some wonder why a US based not-for-profit 501(c)(3) is stashing money in off-shore investment “havens”?  According to the Humane Society, its overseas investments are “Consistent with its responsibilities and its objectives as a social change organization, HSUS invests its funds wisely to get the best returns…”[6] If this sounds like a reasonable answer, consider donating. If the HSUS answers give you pause for concern, there are other organizations that might be a better fit for your charitable donations.

Finally, and most importantly, measure the actual good that the organization does.  Not every dollar spent has the same impact. While the metrics will differ depending upon the organization, look for data that logically indicates success and level of effort.  For example, both PAWS and the Anti-Cruelty Society identify the number of adoptions, surgeries, volunteer hours, etc. These are measures consistent with the stated goals of the organizations, can be compared against one another, and are verifiable. Generalized, and hard-to-verify claims like “100,000 animals helped”, should be a warning.

Follow Your Heart, But Use Your Head

Charitable giving almost always starts with the heart. We’re moved to action because of the needs of other humans, animals or the environment. While not a uniquely American trait, charitable giving in the United States dwarfs that of most other nations.  In 2017, charitable donations surpassed $410 billion.

As we think about the good that these billions can do, so too might we consider how we can leverage the vast sum of money by taking just a moment to insure that the money we donate is both well-intended and well-spent.

Friday, October 26, 2018

The Power of Positivity: Never Had a Bad Day

There are many reasons to love the city of Chicago, but one of the things I love most is the generous nature of those who live here. Each year, Chicagoans donate millions of dollars and countless hours to support their neighbors in need.

Take for example the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. Last year over $61 million was donated to support the work of the hospital with over 50% coming from individual donors. When viewed in the context of an annual budget of nearly a billion dollars, it is obvious that providing world-class oncology care requires financial commitments on a massive scale, including the generosity of others.

Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital

Despite the large number of dollars the system requires, Lurie is extraordinary at keeping the focus on each child’s individual needs.  Each clinician, care-giver and support staff understand that behind the numbers is a young girl or boy who is sick, and a family that is stretched to the limit financially and emotionally.

If you’ve ever had someone close to you require an extended hospital stay you know the stress it can place on the patient’s family. Whether it is lost hours of work because of hospital visits, or missed events for other siblings, each family member shares the burden for the care and recovery of a sick child.

The idea that we could support the less obvious needs of a family battling pediatric cancer became our mission. Now entering our second year, the Never Had a Bad Day foundation is starting to realize the vision of building a broader network of care and understanding around pediatric cancer patients and their families when they need it most.

In the past year NHBD has had the opportunity to help nearly a half-dozen families, serving as their extended network of empathy, resources and positive energy. As a result of our first casino night fund raiser in the summer of 2017 we were able to donate $750 towards the mortgage payment of a family whose child was undergoing an aggressive chemotherapy regimen at Lurie’s. Previously diagnosed with ectopic kidney at 14 weeks, the young cancer patient’s mother said, “he’s an incredible inspiration to the rest of the family!”

The parents of one of our favorites, Sammy, speak at a recent NHBD event.
Another family benefited from the generous donations that evening by allowing NHBD to pay $750 towards the car payment of a family whose young daughter had begun treatment for kidney cancer. Having to worry about car payments can create incredible stress on parents who suddenly rely on that vehicle for daily hospitable visits. Sometimes, a family must stretch their financial thread even further by purchasing a second vehicle so one parent can go to work and the other to visit the child.

These gifts might seem insignificant in the context of the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to battle each case of pediatric cancer, but judging from the smiles of the families we’ve been fortunate enough to help, our small donations are deeply appreciated.

Never Had a Bad Day was founded on the belief that a child’s battle with cancer starts with great care, but full recovery is sustained by the smiles and positive attitude of a family that can focus its attention on the child. At NHBD we have dedicated ourselves to doing much more than sending a check to a family in need. We want to be an extension of the caring network that offers time, love and attention months after the trauma of a hospital stay has passed.

Our goal is to let NHBD families know that their fight is our fight, that we have walked in their shoes and that if they will allow us, we want to be an extension of the network that helps them cope.
We cherish every day that a child lives. When the time comes to say good bye, it's often the surviving parents who give us hope and bring a smile to our faces. Anthony Cervone's son lost his battle with pediatric cancer, but his parents continue to advocate for pediatric cancer research, pictured here with representatives of Family Reach.

In the weeks and months ahead I and others supporting the Never Had a Bad Day mission will share stories of the families facing the challenges of pediatric cancer. We hope you find them as inspiring as we have.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Never Had a Bad Day 2017 Ugly-Sweater Fund Raiser

The holidays are a time for family, friends and reflection and sometimes you can wrap all three together in a lovely bow.  Saturday, December 9th, was the Second Annual Ugly-Sweater Holiday fundraising event for the Never Had a Bad Day Foundation. Inspired by Erik Baylis and his personal fight with cancer, the charity seeks to support pediatric cancer patients and their families as they navigate the costly and often lengthy process associated with cancer treatment.

Here are some rather startling statistics about childhood cancer from Alex’s Lemonade Stand, a foundation for childhood cancer.

Behind every case of pediatric cancer are mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, extended family and friends who help to bear the load of the child in need.  The cost for travel, hotels, meals and even something as forgettable as parking add up quickly, sapping finances and increasing worries.

Imagine a nine-year-old child undergoing treatment for leukemia here in Chicago. Her parents, both of whom work, want to spend as much time with her as possible. As treatment drags on for weeks or months, the parents’ vacation and family days are quickly consumed. Soon the parents are forced into the decision of taking unpaid leave to be with their child. 

In the meantime the cost for gas, meals and lodging to travel back and forth to the hospital pile up.  No family budgets for an extended illness of their child, and within a few months their savings dwindle. The mental and emotional stress from travel, tight finances and uncertainly begin to wear on the husband and wife, making it increasingly difficult for them to stay positive and upbeat in front of their little girl fighting for her life.

This story is retold hundreds of times in pediatric cancer centers here in Chicago and it’s the mission of Never Had a Bad Day to help reduce the stresses these families endure, allowing them to focus their time and positive energy on healing the child.

Through events like the ugly-sweater holiday party we’re able to generate funds to help families with gas cards, groceries, lodging and more. While reducing the financial burden of the family is always welcomed, the Never Had a Bad Day foundation strives to make a personal, lasting connection with the entire family, forging a bond that helps to keep their attitude positive, and spirits high.

As we come close to celebrating our first year, the foundation has begun helping families and their children undergoing cancer treatment at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.  Your generous financial donations lessens the family’s financial worries, and your love and time provide a source of continuing support that money alone cannot provide.

We look forward to sharing the stories of the families whom have let us into their lives.