From the Corner Office: ASPCA

UPDATED: September 3, 2011
PUBLISHED: September 3, 2011

When the economy sputters, consumers go into value hyper-drive, and how that translates into their charitable giving depends entirely on the nonprofit. Gimmicky, churn-and-burn campaigns fizzle and so do the nonprofits that use them. But dovetail donor expectations and tangible results into a fundraising philosophy, and you’ll have a success story like the one at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Ed Sayres leads the ASPCA as its president and CEO. He relies on a simple mantra—“Say what you do, do what you say."

Sayres’ philosophy was born of his fascination with Robert Wright’s Nonzero  concept that win/win always evolves and Jim Collins’ Good to Great hedgehog concept (read more about the hedgehog concept here), which guides companies to be the best by understanding what they can be the best at. 

While other nonprofits struggled during the recession, the ASPCA grew; since Sayres joined America’s oldest animal welfare organization in 2003, revenues have increased from $43 million to $116 million in 2009.

Sayres shifted the ASPCA’s fundraising focus from an annual or semi-annual giving model to a monthly contribution model. He’d seen the positive effects of such a program early in his career and set the ASPCA goal at 150,000 monthly donors within four years. Small annual gifts no longer defined fundraising success. Sayres wanted the ASPCA to cultivate long-term relationships with lifetime value.

For people who donate money to support animal welfare, that dog or cat is top of mind when they write a check. Sayres understood this. “I’ve found it’s not about how wide you are but how focused you are.… I have a very tight, prioritized kind of view,” he says. And it turns out, the ASPCA donors share that view. Today, some 200,000 monthly donors contribute about 60 percent of the ASPCA’s net revenue.

During a 35-year career that’s included mediating a polarizing conversation in the animal welfare industry about the use of euthanasia, Sayres learned the wisdom of building collaborative cultures to get more done. “It’s getting to ‘we.’ You try to move the organization from ‘I’ to ‘we,’ and you see really good outcomes,” he says, citing a favorite strategy from Dave Logan, John King and Halee Fischer-Wright’s book, Tribal Leadership .

Compassion can make that shift easier, and he encouraged it early in his tenure at the ASPCA, telling his staff, “The compassion you show to animals, you could show to each other, and I’d be alright with that.”

When Sayres came to the ASPCA in New York City, he was eager to duplicate a collaborative no-kill shelter model he’d created for the San Francisco SPCA. (That shelter sustains a 75-80 percent live-release rate for cats and dogs, and is a model for no-kill shelters across the country.)

To make The Big Apple a no-kill city and reduce the 74 percent euthanasia rate would take collaboration from stakeholders citywide, including the ASPCA staff and a coalition of 160 animal rescue groups and shelters. “You know mission-based work has a passion and zeal to it, but to get it done effectively and sustainably there has to be a respectful and accountable culture,” Sayres says, even between collaborating partners.

“Collaboration is really the only way to help animals most efficiently. To collaborate truly, you have to be joined at the hip in good times and bad. You have to be very focused and understand that it is about resources, time for animals and competency. The best way to maximize those is through collaboration with everybody in the community,” Sayres says.

The ASPCA has helped save the lives of some 42,000 animals each year. The euthanasia rate now stands at 39 percent, but that figure represents only part of what the effort continues to accomplish. The program sees to it that animals are adopted, spayed, neutered or removed from abusive situations.

“I think as philanthropy has evolved, people ask questions. Define the outcome. How transparent is the work you’re doing?” Sayres explains. So, simply collecting data and filing it away for office use won’t suffice. The ASPCA posts it online. “Sometimes things go faster than we hope, sometimes slower than we hope. But we always keep things in front of people,” he says.

“The story that we’re telling, whether it’s television, mail, whatever the medium, is actually what we are doing. That’s not always the case with charities,” Sayres says. Donors must not only believe in the mission, but also in the path a nonprofit takes to get there. When they see good work getting done, it empowers them to keep writing $20 checks each month, and sometimes it inspires them to dig deeper.

Donor loyalty builds layer by layer, and the ASPCA’s incremental successes on behalf of animals make up those layers. Rolling out no-kill programs across the country, partnering long-term with cities devastated by natural disasters, providing innovative spay/neuter solutions in urban environments—this is the substance the ASPCA donors look for before they donate. By the time a major donor surfaces, he or she is fully engaged.

For instance, news of the 2007 indictment and eventual guilty plea of Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick on felony dog fighting charges triggered one donor to boost the ASPCA’s forensic capabilities. “We explained the value of forensic veterinary medicine, the value of it in the Vick case, the fact we had the only forensic veterinary in the country, and how we used it to affect a search warrant and get evidence that couldn’t be disputed,” Sayres says.

The ASPCA and the donor then collaborated. “We developed this concept of a CSI van, a vehicle that can house animals, treat animals, gather evidence and process evidence,” Sayres says. Donations like these present few opportunities for donor name recognition, but it matters little to the donors. “They just get the fact that this gets the job done, and they could be the one empowering that to happen. It’s hugely satisfying.”

“You know, if you build a track record and say you’re going to do things and actually do them, it begins to build a trust and a belief that I think helps on all fronts,” Sayres says. Sure, there’s risk in making your intentions known, but the right mix of competency and transparency tips the scale in the ASPCA’s favor, even in a staggering economy. “We had people engaged in a deep kind of way. I think it is confidence in what we are doing and the visibility of what we are doing that make us successful.”

Career Smarts

Ed Sayres’ “Say what you do, do what you say” mantra is effective for any leader or organization. He offers these three tips:

♦ Commit to collaboration in good times and bad. It’s the only way to get things done efficiently.

♦ Quantify your successes, and post them for all to see.

♦ Remember, substance cultivates long-term relationships with lifetime value.