On Philanthropy: Big Cats and Bad Actors

face of a tiger behind metal fenceJoe Exotic reveals the dark side of the non-profit sector

Contributed by AFPSEWI
Milwaukee Business Journal
April 17, 2020 issue

This On Philanthropy column has historically written about the virtues of the nonprofit world. But we have to admit that the nonprofit sector has a dark side. 

Abuse and fraud will follow anywhere money flows, but there is something extra reprehensible about individuals who pervert good causes for bad aims. Individuals who, under the guise of altruism, perpetuate the very injustices they claim to fight against.  Prime examples: Carol Baskin and Joe Exotic from Tiger King, the enthralling Netflix reality series on big cat private zoos.

Baskin and Exotic use their charisma and passion for animals to charm donors into helping to “rescue” tigers, lions and other big cats. With false promises to repopulate endangered species and to care for exotic pets released after they are no longer kitten-cute, these entrepreneurs operate 501(c)3 organizations which in fact are cruel multimillion-dollar business ventures.

So how can you, as a donor, protect yourself from such false prophets?

  • Check the prospective nonprofit’s profile on Guidestar
  • View the nonprofit’s finances as reported in their Form 990
  • Think critically about the organization’s mission and how it aligns with your philanthropic goals

Any legitimate charity will welcome your caution.  Because the bad apples hurt us all.

The next time you see a Go Fund Me for a worthy cause or a non-profit that bewitchingly pulls your heartstrings, duly vet the organization before writing your check. The good people of the nonprofit world will thank you.

On Philanthropy appears monthly in the Milwaukee Business Journal for the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Southeastern Wisconsin Chapter. This month’s column is contributed by Ellen Wilkinson.