Is Your Donation to that Non-Profit Really Tax Deductible?

Animal Rights, Animal Welfare and Animal Control. What's in a label?

Battery egg farm
Activists oppose the cruel industry standard of keeping egg-laying chickens in tiny cages. Farm Sanctuary/Getty Images

 The ASPCA was the first organization to put animal misery on the radar of humans who, heretofore, were content to regard them as agricultural machines and chattel and treated them as such. It was 1866 and there was little sentimentality towards working animals. The exception was the gaggle of fancy uptown socialites who carried their little foo-foo dogs around for prestige. Kind of like Paris Hilton with her Chihuahua-in-a-purse fashion accessory.

These socialites had pampered pets, but the germ of the idea of ethical treatment for animals was still years away. Other organizations began to spring up around the country, designed to enforce the anti-cruelty laws and assist stray or injured animals. They were concerned with animal welfare. Animal rights, however, the assertion that animals are entitled to rights under the law of the land, was still a germ of an idea. Assemblies of do-gooders and animal lovers formed organizations meant to enforce the new animal welfare laws, but there was a restlessness in the air and as people began to think more about animals in this new light, they wanted to do more. Then, in 1877, The American Humane Association began to unify advocates hell bent on protecting both animals and children, becoming the first organization of its kind. The collective mentality prevailed: it’s fine to use the animals as you wish, just don’t abuse or neglect them.

The terms “abuse” and “neglect” are, of course, subjective.

If you’re finding this complicated, think of it this way: animal welfarists fundamentally believe animals can be used for whatever purpose under the sun for which one might exploit them, but they must be treated reasonably well. Animal rights activists, or ARAs, however, believe animals have a right to live their lives unfettered by humans.

The mere fact that the animals are being slaughtered repudiates the idea they can be treated humanely. It’s just not possible. You can’t be kind while killing, even if the killing is done humanely which, now as it was then, is not the industry standard.

Later came municipality-funded animal control. Whereas the two previous ideals were based on keeping animals safe from humans, animal control’s mission is to keep people safe from animals.

The animal rights movement became stronger during the sixties and seventies, when notable philosophers such as Peter Singer, Tom Regan, Henry Spira and John Robbins pulled back the curtains hiding the truth about how so-called “food animals” and animals in laboratories were mistreated.  “Diet for a Small Planet,” by Frances Moore Lappe introduced mainstream Americans to the idea of a vegetarian diet upon its publication in 1971. Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation,” published in 1979, created a paradigm shift in the way people saw animals and was a catalyst for the first serious animal rights group, the People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals. Many vegetarians were born during that time. Having scholars and philosophers and deep thinkers was of colossal value to the movement and helped Americans see the error of their ways.

“Diet for a New America” by John Robbins, rocked the movement again when it introduced “vegan living” in 1987.  In the 90s, an avalanche of studies proving the health benefits of a vegetarian/vegan diet propelled the movement. To this day, nutritionists cannot defend a meat and dairy based diet against a plant-based diet. Heart diseases and cancers are the result of consuming meat in excess. And Americans, as they do with just about everything else, overeat meat instead of adopting the “all things in moderation” approach. The irony is inescapable: the animals are killing us back through diseases caused by the consumption of high cholesterol meat and dairy products. 

Today, animal welfare organizations and animal rights organizations are sometimes oddly pitted against each other. Apparently, they don’t believe in the “divided we fall” doctrine.

Animal welfare organizations such as the AHA, the ASPCA and the North Shore Animal League, as well as approximately 3500 other local, regional and national animal welfare organizations, are dedicated to rescue, rehabilitation and addressing pet overpopulation. These organizations are primarily concerned with domestic pets. Dogs, cats, rabbits and sometimes horses are their main concern. There is a place for these organizations and for the most part, they do incredibly good work. They don’t necessarily subscribe to animal rights, however, as proven by the fact that many of them serve meat and dairy products at their fundraising events where well-to-do donors sashay in wearing garments made of minks, rabbits and foxes, a criticism shared by many ARAs and groups.

However, animal rights organizations are a different animal altogether (pun intended). They are occupied with activities promoting rights for all animals, especially those affected by industrialized cruelty. According to Animal Charity Evaluator whose job it is to rate the top animal charities, animal rights organizations such as Animal Equality International, Mercy for Animals, Farm Animal Rights Movement, and a host of other like-minded charities, are dedicated to stopping animal cruelty by raising awareness about food animals such as cows, pigs, sheep, chickens, geese and fish. They are also involved in shining light on animal testing for both cosmetics and medical purposes. (For a full list of recommended animal-rights charities, click here.)

The Humane Society of the United States is unique in that it encompasses both animal rights and animal welfare. Its vision is to stop cruelty to all animals. Cats, dogs, horses, wild animals, urban wildlife, marine mammals, laboratory animals, primates, birds and fish are all the beneficiaries of ongoing advocacy activities in the HSUS. The Society’s policies come under fire by self-titled animal rights organizations because they compromise with the “enemy.” For example, they have negotiated and lobbied for better treatment of farm animals, much to the chagrin of animal-rights organizations who prefer these animals be released altogether. The HSUS seal of approval on compliant factory farms could backfire, say critics, because it will give people on the fence about going veg a clearer conscience to go ahead and patronize those companies. Less vegans would set the movement back. The HSUS agrees that people should stop eating meat and dairy products and will continue to work for the abolition of factory farms altogether. But the HSUS believes the animals have the right to be treated fairly as the movement undertakes a slow progression towards a plant-based diet for everyone.

In addition to the animal rights and animal welfare agencies, there are Political Action Committees whose mission it is to lobby on behalf of animal welfare. The Humane Society Legislation Fund  is one such PAC. The HSLF is a necessary, separate institution from the HSUS because the HSUS, being a 501 C-3 non-profit organization, cannot, under its charter, involve itself in influencing legislation.

The IRS dictates “…no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying).  A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.”

Non-profits engaging in lobbying are required to file a pesky 5768 form so the IRS can determine if less than 20 percent of its funding goes towards lobbying efforts. So, in order to avoid IRS problems, organizations must charter a new kind of non-profit, under section 501(c)(4), which does allow lobbying. And while your donation to a non-profit organization is tax-deductible, donations to a 501(c) (4) are not. Some animal advocacy organizations do both, carefully keeping their lobbying efforts under the 20 percent standard.   Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Peta are all involved in influencing animal-friendly legislation simply by empowering their members and encouraging them to help facilitate the passage of animal-friendly laws. By doing so, localized animal sanctuaries such as Best Friends, FARM and Big Cat Rescue not only keep local sanctuary volunteers happy, but actively recruit and engage supporters worldwide.

When deciding what animal organizations you want to support consider the following:

  1. Does the organization’s mission correlate with your own core beliefs?
  2. Does the organization have a favorable rating on Charity Navigator, Animal Charities Evaluator or Guidestar?
  3. Is having your donation tax-deductible important to you?
  4. Are you more concerned about domestic or wild animals?

Keep in mind that any organization with which you become smitten may use methods or take stances to which you are opposed. PeTA is a great example of an organization using confrontational and aggressive actions many of its members may find reprehensible. Loyal members may not approve of tacky tactics but do agree with the majority of Peta’s methods. They just don’t want their friends and business acquaintances to know they support Peta and may even engage in disparaging conversations about Peta at the water cooler or cocktail party. But keep in mind that, just like when organizations disagree, “divided we fall” is a concept that, on a personal level, is just as negative. Sometimes you must sacrifice your own moral high ground for the higher good.

And now you know why the most popular name on any organizations’ list of donors is “Anonymous.”