Pet aid foundations flounder in tight economy

As the U.S. economic climate continues to darken, another unfortunate victim is appearing: the pet health-care financial assistance fund.

There are dozens of these funds, which accept donations to help pet owners pay for veterinary medical bills. Many are state-specific, but there are only a few national organizations that provide money for pet owners in need, and as of this week, five of them are no longer accepting applications for assistance.

“We’re hurting. We’re all out of money,” said Jacki Hadra, founder of In Memory of Magic (IMOM). “We’re getting more applications than ever, but fewer donations.”

Hadra said her organization, funded entirely by private donations, has distributed more than $1 million in its 10 years of operation. IMOM is a volunteer-run nonprofit that provides help to owners of any type of companion animal. But IMOM stopped taking applications for financial aid early in September, due to lack of money in its general fund, and difficulty in getting donations, even for less-expensive procedures.  

The last application IMOM accepted was for a dog named Paddie, who needed $750 for surgery.

“Paddie was the only pet we were trying to raise money for at that time,” Hadra said. “Ordinarily we would be fund-raising for five [or more pets], with none taking more than two weeks to get funding. Paddie only needed $750. It took just over three weeks to raise the $750 she needed.”

In the 10 years it’s been operating, IMOM has only closed once for lack of funds, and then only for a few days, she said.  
Feline Outreach is a relatively new nonprofit organization, founded in 2006 to promote medical care for cats. Last year the organization distributed $7,500 in financial aid to cat owners, as well as feline diabetes testing kits.

But now, an announcement on their website says in large, red letters: “Due to a lack of funds, we unfortunately cannot accept applications for financial assistance at this time.”

Feline Outreach President Lynette Ackman said she has seen a rise in the number of applications, but is not sure if that is due to the economy.

“As were a relatively new organization, its unclear how much of the increase in applications is due to the economy and how much is due to increased awareness of our existence,” Ackman said. “The economy has definitely impacted contributions. Unfortunately, applications for assistance have greatly outweighed donations. … Many view donating to animal welfare organizations as a much lower priority than other causes.” 

The Feline Veterinary Emergency Assistance Program and Orthodogs Silver Lining Foundation have also stopped accepting applications for national assistance.

Orthodogs co-founder Brenda Osbourne said a recent fundraiser only brought in $600, where usually similar events raise $3,000-5,000.

“Our applications have actually increased but our funds have severely decreased so we’re not able to help anybody,” Osbourne said. “Even though we have a notice up on the site, we get requests almost every day from people who need help.  Unfortunately most of the other places that we typically refer people to are not accepting applications either.”

Donations wane in slowdown years
Claire Gaudiani, a professor at New York University’s Heyman Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising said that these organizations can expect to see a drop-off in donations.

“Historically there is a decline in giving that is associated with a decline in wealth-building,” Gaudiani said. “It’s different in different periods; it’s hard to predict how severe this will be.”

Her thoughts are echoed by a report released by the Giving USA Foundation, which keeps track of charitable giving in the United States. The report says that charitable donations increase much slower in years of economic slowdown, and generally fall off in recession years. Between 1967 and 2007, individual giving grew at an average rate of 2.7 percent overall. In years of economic slowdown (years with lower than average rates of change in personal income), individual giving went up by less than half the average rate, at only 1.2 percent. And during recessions (years with two successive quarters of decline in gross domestic product) individual giving decreased by 1.5 percent.

The report also tracks giving based on the type of organizations to which money was donated. In the environment/animals category (for which data was recorded since 1987), the 20-year average rate of giving increased by 6.7 percent per year.

“Rates of change during recession years [6.2 percent] were not very different from the overall average,” the study says. “The average rate of change in ‘slowdown’ years [3.7 percent], however, was just over half of the average rate for the past 20 years.”

American individuals, corporations and foundations gave about $7 billion to the environment/animals in 2007, out of total charitable donations of more than $300 billion, according to the report.

No problem for some
Not all pet assistance funds are having trouble. Carol Smock, of the Brown Dog Foundation, said that even though her foundation’s national fund was depleted in August, they are funding cases for Tennessee residents, and expect to reopen the national fund early next year.

“We have not experienced a decrease in donations at all - we have an amazingly supportive network of givers locally who stand behind our mission and guidelines vehemently,” Smock said. “And we are broadening our reach with some out of state fundraisers scheduled for ‘09.”

The American Animal Hospital Association’s Helping Pets Fund is also financially stable at this time, according to Fund Administrator Tamara Fox. She said although funds are available, she is still seeing the effects of the sour economy.

“Because our funds are available through AAHA-accredited veterinary practices only, and the number of these is limited, we haven’t seen an increase in applications as much as we’ve seen an increase in requests for help from pet owners,” Fox said. “Telephone and e-mail inquiries to our office and to our members have increased in the last year, and appear to be increasing now on a regular basis.”

Veterinarians can help out by making information about these funds available in their offices.

“We would love to supply more veterinarians with information on how to refer their patients to our program,” said Smock, of the Brown Dog Foundation. “Making the information available to everyone who comes into their clinic allows the customer to reach out to us without having to tell the veterinarian that the bills are outside his/her ability to cover.” 

Gaudiani, the NYU professor, said the nation will need a few years to climb out of the economic hole created by people’s “binge living.” But, she was also hopeful about the future.

“People will still give,” she said. “They may not be able to give as much, but they will still give. That is part of our character as Americans.”