Charity Dog Fight

Is animal welfare a legitimate cause for philanthrocapitalists? Are those foundation trustees who don’t think so sexist? These were two big questions raised at a press conference (attended by Matthew) in New York on August 11th by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), the Humane Society and Maddie’s Fund. The three animal welfare charities announced they are launching a lawsuit that, if they succeed, could result in billions of dollars going to improving the care of dogs – money that, they say, would be a “game changer” for animal welfare.

The heart of the issue is a familar one in philanthropic lawsuits: donor intent. In this case, the three animal welfare groups argue that Leona Helmsley, the hotel billionairess, intended a significant chunk of her $5 billion estate to go to “caring for dogs”. By significant, they seem to think 50% is a fair share. Although Helmsley mentioned dogs, alone among charitable causes, as a focus of her foundation, in February of this year a court ruled that the five trustees appointed by Helmsley are free to allocate the money as they see fit.

On the foundation’s website, the trustees have posted a statement including the following: “Did Leona Helmsley intend for this charitable trust to focus on the care and help of dogs, rather than people? Absolutely not. Have the trustees of this vast fortune acted improperly and ignored Mrs. Helmsley’s instructions? Again, absolutely not.” This view is reflected in the initial grants made by the trustees: only $1m of the first $136m has gone to dog-related causes, mostly to provide guide dogs for the blind rather than animal welfare.

Although they describe it as the “most significant financial litigation in the history of animal welfare”, and that a “blatant abuse of the estate forged this alliance,” the three animal charities say that going to court is a last resort. They made strenuous efforts to advise the trustees on how the money could be put to good use to help dogs, but the response, they say, reflected a “disdainful attitude to animal welfare”.

The fact that Helmsley left $12m to care for her pet Maltese, Trouble, did not help get serious consideration of how the money could be used. (A lawsuit reduced this to $2m, of which $100,000 a year reportedly pays for a security detail for the pampered pooch.) Yet, as the three groups pointed out, there are serious issues of dog welfare that need to be addressed, including the 2m dogs “unnecessarily euthanised” each year; the increase of animal cruelty, including illegal dog fights; and the potential for neglected dogs to spread disease. The tough economy is making matters worse, with more dog owners unable to afford to keep their pet, and donations to animal welfare groups falling. 50% of the Helmsley estate could indeed be a “game changer”.

The animal welfare groups reckon that sexism may partly explain the attitude of what they point out are “male trustees”. Around 70% of donations to animal welfare charities come from women, they point out, and Helmsley’s trustees are not the first to ignore (allegedly) a female donor’s wish to support animal charities. The three animal welfare groups say the same thing happened at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Geraldine R Dodge Foundation, which of $16.5m in recent distributions gave only $5,000 to animal welfare (according to lawyers for the three animal welfare groups). Maddie’s Fund is a notable exception to this trend, as we write in Philanthrocapitalism, having been endowed by Dave Duffield, the founder of software firm PeopleSoft, in memory of his inspirational pet miniature schnauzer, Maddie.

These are serious matters. If nothing else, the case highlights the advantages of wealthy people giving while they are alive, when they can ensure their money goes to the causes they want. Alas, giving while living (to dogs or anyone else) did not seem to be Helmsley’s thing. Nor did paying taxes, evasion which earned her a jail sentence, a notorious entry in dictionaries of quotations (“We don’t pay taxes, only the little people pay taxes”), and the nickname, “Queen of Mean”.