Evaluating HSUS

The Humane Society of the United States has come under fire for getting a “D” grade from the charity watchdog American Institute of Philanthropy. AIP finds that HSUS spends up to 50 percent of its budget on overhead and spends up to 48 cents to raise every dollar. HSUS is a “factory fundraiser,” in other words.

Having his organization exposed rankles HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle, who on Friday tried to defend HSUS’s wasteful spending in a blog post riddled with misdirection. His basic argument was that you can’t just rely on one charity rater. He then refers to HSUS’s more positive ratings from the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Navigator, and Worth Magazine, all of whom we’ve written about before.

In theory, having multiple raters is a good thing. But in the case of groups like the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and Charity Navigator, they have serious flaws. The latest is a campaign they’ve signed onto to downplay the use of overhead costs to judge a charity. In short, it seems they’re arguing that it’s A-OK if a charity just plows money into fundraising and other expenses. This provides cover for bad actors like HSUS to create nebulous P.R. statements of “we do something” while diminishing a standard metric showing how efficiently charities use donor money. For Pacelle to tout sterilizing street dogs in Bhutan is a weak comeback to the fact that his group spends as little as half of its $130 million budget on actual programs.

AIP has a good rebuttal as to why overhead ratios are an essential measurement for donors. But here’s a simple solution: If Wayne Pacelle thinks that AIP’s analysis doesn’t matter, then he should have HSUS put a sign at the top of every web page and fundraising letter that says “We are proud to spend up to 50 percent of our budget on overhead.”

We’re pretty sure he won’t do that. And that’s all you need to know. Pacelle can list a few things that HSUS does as a way of distracting people from the real issue—that HSUS is a factory fundraising operation that gives 1 percent of the money it raises to pet shelters—but he can’t deceive all of the people all of the time.