BATTLE OF THE BARKS
Do you know where your pet donation dollars are going?
The battle for donations in Australia’s crowded animal welfare arena, where abandoned dogs and cute kittens tug at the heartstrings, has turned nasty, writes John Flint.
PERTH-based PetRescue operates Australia’s most visited charity website. The charity, which helps find homes for rescued animals around the country, doubled its staff in the past year and raked in more than $1.1 million in donations and corporate sponsorships.
Having moved into bigger offices in Northbridge, the organisation has its sights set on further expansion.
But it’s not happy tails all round. There is mounting resentment among many grassroots rescue organisations and shelters.
Since the charity began pushing hard for public donations, rescue groups complain their own funding has shrunk. And as volunteers, they can’t compete with PetRescue’s slick and professional marketing campaigns.
Most pointedly, they claim many people donate to PetRescue mistakenly thinking they’re donating to the rescue groups, which shoulder the financial burden of feeding, sheltering, de-sexing animals as well as meeting all vet bills.
PetRescue doesn’t house any animals. Its principal function is operating a website which is a free platform for rescue groups all around the country to advertise their animals, many of which have been saved from pounds, abandoned or are simply unwanted.
Adding to the angst of these groups, some are bitter that images of animals they’ve saved have been used by PetRescue to solicit donations, of which they don’t get a cent. And there are claims that fundraising campaigns may have been misleading.
Disenchantment has prompted several groups to sever ties with PetRescue.
Saving Animals From Euthanasia (SAFE) which operates one the biggest networks of animal foster carers in WA, say PetRescue is undoing its once great reputation.
“PetRescue started off as a really great service,” said SAFE president Sue Campbell, who claims there’s now a lot of confusion among people about where donations were going.
“I really think they’re biting the hand that feeds them, because without the rescue groups’ listings they have no content for their website.
“All our volunteers are flat tack, we don’t have someone to sit down and target past adopters and inquirers asking them for donations.”
Adding to the tension is a fall-out between the founders of PetRescue, which started in 2004 as a purely voluntary venture.
Shel Williamson, who came up with the original concept of PetRescue, launched it from her living room in Perth with childhood friend and then partner John Bishop. They were joined in 2005 by Vickie Davy. The trio were passionate about making a difference. PetRescue grew into the nation’s most trafficked charity website.
After 12 years, Ms Williamson resigned in November 2015. She claims she quit in a disagreement over fundraising strategy.
“We were supposed to be corporately funded, accessing funds the rescue groups couldn’t — that was a founding premise,” she said. “I opposed a new focus on direct fundraising as the major revenue stream.
“My belief was that we should leave the donations to the rescue groups because they need it to do the rescuing . . . While we disagreed on strategy, I tried to leave in the least disruptive way I could.”
But there’s now open hostility between Ms Williamson and her former colleagues. She has accused PetRescue of pushing the ethical limits of fundraising.
Ms Davy paints a different picture of Ms Williamson’s departure, saying she’d become “increasingly erratic” in the lead-up.
“Shel continues to troll PetRescue, our partners and supporters and sadly even
Our donation pathway clearly identifies PetRescue as the recipient of the donations at every step.
_ Pet Rescue’s Vickie Davy
members of the public who chose to adopt,” Ms Davy said.
Ms Davy said PetRescue became aware in 2016 that Ms Williamson used donor data from the charity for her own donation drives.
“We sought legal assistance to stop this,” she said.
Ms Williamson denies any wrongdoing. She said she was allowed to take a project on dog pound reform with her when she left.
“I owned all the promotional accounts associated with this and still do,” she said. “I took the project resources, had the PetRescue logos taken off, rebranded and republished them (on savingpets.com.au).”
She said she was ignoring the personal attacks. “It’s a lose-lose situation for me. I don’t gain anything by being in this argument with them,” she said. “It really shouldn’t matter whether I’m a terrible person or not — it’s whether or not what they’re doing is OK.”
She said PetRescue was directly competing with rescue groups for public donations.
“There’s lots of money in donations — it’s dogs and cats which people love,” she said. “Rescue groups are simply outgunned. Most are too busy saving pets (to fundraise). But the rescue groups need those donations.
“It costs them about $1000 per rescued animal. (PetRescue are) using pics of animals that they haven’t met that they have never given any money to, to fundraise . . . I can’t imagine any other charity being allowed to do that.
“They have gone from a team of three people to 15 people since I left. The more staff they have, the better their fundraising is.
“It’s not fair on the little rescue groups. They don’t have strong brands. When Christmas comes around and adopters are looking to give a donation, they probably can’t recall the name of the group who saved the pet, but they’ve been getting 20 emails a year from PetRescue (so they remember them).”
Ms Davy denied PetRescue had been misleading in any way or that it had blurred the lines between them and the 995 groups who use the website.
“Australians overall are giving less to charities and are much more savvy in choosing organisations which are innovative and successful in their mission,” she said. “I believe that our supporters are exactly that, and I give them credit to understanding that we are a digital animal welfare agency and choose to support us in what we do.
“Our donation pathway clearly identifies PetRescue as the recipient of the donations at every step and everyone who has donated to PetRescue receives regular updates on the programs they donated (to), so it’s very clear what they are supporting.
“PetRescue has achieved amazing things in the past three years and we will continue to grow and expand our programs and services until we reach our goal of every pet safe, respected and loved.
“Our website is the first connection between thousands of adopters and rescue pets every single day, with over 250 searches a minute and 25,000-30,000 visits a day.
“In the three years since Shel left we have transformed our organisation so that as well as continuing to provide all our digital services to rescue members free of charge we have been able to create more amazing programs that have provided additional support to our members, achieving more than $10 million of free products and services for our members.
“It’s frustrating that even after three years Shel still spends her time and energy attacking the work we do. I know I have an amazing team who are creating genuine long-term change in the animal welfare industry.”
According to financial reports lodged with Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission, $834,800 of PetRescue’s $1.4 million revenue went on employee benefits and expenses in 2017-18.
Ms Davy declined to say how much she and Mr Bishop paid themselves as directors, but said it was based on Pro Bono Australia’s Salary Survey benchmarking report.
The charity has significant corporate clout. Major sponsors include Pedigree and Woolworths. Partnerships with Mars Petcare and PETstock allow PetRescue to provide thousands of tonnes of free pet food to rescue groups, shelters and pounds. A partnership with Jetpets enables three free interstate flights per month to help relocate animals for surgery, specialist foster care or rehome.
Nine Lives Cat Rescue in Perth was one of the first to sign up to use PetRescue’s online platform to advertise its cats.
“It was great (at the start),” said the group’s Nat Mason. “Now when somebody replies to your ad as interested (in a cat), PetRescue gets that person’s details. They then send them newsletters. I have no problem with that. But what they do is contact them constantly for donations, which I found misleading when I got them. People might think they’re donating to the rescue group — they’re not.
“We used to have people contacting us saying, ‘We’ve made a donation, we’d like a tax receipt’. We’d go through our bank records and couldn’t find a record of the donations and they’d say, ‘We did it through PetRescue’, and we’d tell them, ‘You donated to PetRescue, you didn’t donate to us’.”
Aimee Dent, general manager of Guardian Angel Animal Rescue in Adelaide, was annoyed when PetRescue used a dog saved by her team as the star of a fundraising push.
“We rescued Luna from a remote community,” she explained. “We had to organise the travel for her to come down from a community 12 hours away. In that trip we saved four dogs and 12 puppies.
“Luna was pregnant with 11 puppies, so we had to help her whelp her pups and get them all vet checked. One needed extra vet attention. We had to spend a lot of money on food. There’s also hours upon hours raising, socialising and training them before they were ready for their new homes.
“The thing that annoyed me was that (PetRescue) didn’t feel the need to approach us and basically went directly to the family (that adopted her) and used her story to bring themselves donations.
“They don’t do any of the hard yards . . . We got nothing at all.”
Katrina Beard, of Such Agreeable Friends Animal Rescue in Victoria, left PetRescue after being an active rescuer for almost a decade. She was concerned the charity was attracting donations away from grassroots organisations.
“They solicit donations very heavily,’’ she said. “If you go to the website to look for an animal the first thing that comes up is their fundraising banners. People would be better off finding out who their local rescue groups are and slinging them some money.
“Nearly all of the rescue groups are run by unpaid volunteers. They often have another job on the side to fund the rescue. I had a full-time job and I spent nearly all of my money on my rescue. . . (plus) fundraising is a whole different skill set.”
PetRescue maintains it is trying to help members via a new online platform for people to donate directly to rescue groups.
The charity raised $38,000 from a Desexmas campaign 12 months ago to pay for it. “Although that wasn’t enough to create the platform we were aiming for, we found a way by forming a partnership with (ANZ donation app) Shout to rollout a first-of-its-kind direct donation platform giving rescue groups an ongoing source of funds,” Ms Davy said.
Ms Williamson said the Desexmas campaign gave an impression the money would go to de-sexing pets. “No pets got desexed,” she claimed.
Ms Davy denied anyone was misled. She couldn’t reveal how many rescue groups were using the new donation platform. Ms Williamson believes it’s fewer than 20.
Samantha McKernan who runs Maneki Neko Cat Rescue in Melbourne said she supported the strategic changes PetRescue had made in the past few years.
“Unlike many rescue groups we understand the value of their work, and the complexity of the IT systems they have in place to be able to provide listings of animals for adoption at no cost to groups,” she said.
“There has clearly been disagreement . . . which is a shame as both Shel and Pet Rescue are working towards the same goal. Our highest priority is ensuring that all cats are not needlessly killed in shelters and pounds, and are happy and healthy in great homes.”
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