BAT­TLE OF THE BARKS

Do you know where your pet do­na­tion dol­lars are go­ing?

The Sunday Times - - NEWS -

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.”

RES­CUE GROUPS FIRE UP ON SO­CIAL ME­DIA

SHEL WILLIAMSON JOHN BISHOP

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