Posted on | July 19, 2010 | 2 Comments
Bad, ASPCA! Bad!
Ecra Creative Group
1. Aggressive direct marketing seems a bit out of character for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).
2. Part of the perceived need inside the organization to boost efforts could be driven by the successful publicity strategies of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).
3. The ASPCA would be wise to promote its numerous assets, most notably the significant direct efforts to support its mission, than resort to direct marketing trickery.
I am not a pet hater.
From from it. I would categorize myself as a “pet can’t haver”. Both of my kids are allergic, and anything with fur is banned from the house.
So it surprised me last week to open my mail and find a letter from the ASPCA (the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). No problem, of course, I get a lot of charity pitch mail. I guess being a supporter of Minnesota Public Radio somehow predisposes me to support other not-for-profits. The beauty of statistical correlations.
But this letter was different. I didn’t just get a pitch letter. I got a member card. With my name on it. And an assigned member identification. And stickers for my car window. And, without fail, a pretty strong pitch to send a fat check.
Like I said, I see a lot of charity pitches, and this one struck me as way off the charts into the “aggressive” category. In fact, it reminded me of the uninterrupted stream of printed garbage that comes courtesy of Capital One, whom my shredder has come to loathe.
I opt in to becoming a member of a charity, I do not opt out, thank you very much.
Forgive me if I seem a bit frustrated, but in an age of rampant identity theft, I am simply not comfortable being “signed up” even if the cause seems benign. Is this just an ASPCA marketing technique? (Probably) Am I now counted as a member? (Probably not, but even so) Will the ASPCA publish my name somewhere? (They had better not)
But before this little gem hit the shredder, I took a minute to step back and think about from the organization’s perspective. When an organization begins to get unnecessarily aggressive, it often is a signal that some problem is afoot.
And I think something bigger is going on. Let me share a bit of what I learned.
In the past 15 to 20 years, the ASPCA has grown alongside changing American attitudes regarding pets. What was once akin to a “kid’s toy” in the family has become an integral part of that family. Not everyone feels this way, certainly, but enough to create a market for advanced veterinary surgery centers, pet health insurance, pet trust funds, and pet memorial services.
The research (and a couple of clients I’ve worked with over my career) have told me it is the empty-nester baby boomer cohort that is driving much of the change. Once the children leave the home, the pets become a powerful emotional replacement.
We can see that popularity extend to an entire cable network (Animal Planet) and the proliferation of mainstream companion animal programming.
The ASPCA, founded in 1866 (surprised me!), is one of the nation’s largest not-for-profits with over 1 million members and revenue of more than $127 million in 2008. With a focus on animal cruelty prevention efforts, the ASPCA funds a significant number of “boots on the ground” operations – law enforcement efforts, pet insurance, poison control, adoption, and behaviorist assistance.
According to its three star rating on Charity Navigator, you could do much worse with your philanthropic dollars.
But there is also another side to “animal rights” organizations: Political activism. And that’s where I think the problem lies.
Other organizations – most notably the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) – have stolen the animal rights “banner” from their more conservative and long-standing neighbor and have been driving the lion’s share of media attention and new membership.
Whether one agrees with the strategies of HSUS and PETA or not, it’s easy to see why the techniques work – vivid political and media displays drive up the emotion level, drive up membership, and drive up contributions. HSUS boasts somewhere in the neighborhood of 11 million members. PETA tops 2 million.
Please understand, I am not passing judgment on any of the aforementioned organizations, but I think it’s safe to say HSUS and PETA are significantly more politically active than the ASPCA. As a consequence of that activity, they drive polarization.
From the ASPCA’s perspective, the problem is simple: HSUS and PETA are stealing the thunder. Charity research tells us that people get “donation burnout” when peppered from multiple, similar, organizations. They’ll support the one the best identify with, and that identification often comes from what publicity the organization has been able to get. When most people want to support a cause, they’ll support the organization they think best aligns with that cause. And if they don’t look into it too hard (the majority of donors don’t), they are likely to support the organization they’ve heard of.
Hence, part of the rational for the HSUS and PETA strategies.
But let’s take a look – objectively – at what the ASPCA has to offer from an operational perspective in order to make a case for it being the strongest advocate for animals.
Again, we can look to Charity Navigator for help.
As we can see, while the HSUS and PETA boast many more members, but are significantly smaller than the ASPCA. As a further reminder, for those dollars, the ASCPA maintains infrastructure for a law enforcement arm, a behavioral counseling service, pet adoptions, poison control center, and a pet insurance agency (to name just a few). The HSUS and PETA – by stark contrast – are primarily grassroots political organizations.
Again, please understand, I am not claiming one strategy is correct/good/moral/effective and the other is not, but rather, I am suggesting the basis on which the ASPCA should be making its case to prospective donors and members as the best option for a sustainable focus on direct, demonstrated efforts to accomplish its mission.
I had to do a couple hours of research to discover that.
I would have preferred the ASPCA told me, rather than trying a direct marketing gimmick.