To a casual observer, Alley Cat Allies would seem to be a model charity. A Bethesda, MD-based nonprofit that calls itself “the global engine of change for cats,” Alley Cat Allies has been given a coveted Platinum seal by GuideStar, which has the “the most complete, up-to-date nonprofit data available.” For its part, Charity Navigator has bestowed a four-star rating on Alley Cat Allies, signifying that it is an “exceptional” nonprofit that “exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in its cause.”
Alley Cat Allies is exceptional, all right — exceptionally dysfunctional, exceptionally poorly-governed, and an exceptionally dismal place to work. It is also unwilling to account for the unorthodox behavior of its founder and longtime president, Becky Robinson, its controversial chief operating officer, Charlene Pedrolie, and Donna Wilcox, its former board chair and vice president. Yes, Wilcox served for years both as board chair — a position that obligates her to lead the board’s oversight of the president — and as a paid staff member reporting to the president.
The latest news out of Alley Cat Allies? A couple of lawsuits that describe a catfight, literally, between Charlene Pedrolie, the COO, and Donna Wilcox, the longtime board chair, over the ownership of a pair of formerly feral cats named Charles and Oliver.
According to a civil complaint filed by Pedrolie, Wilcox, aided by her brother Duane, captured Charles and Oliver from the offices of Alley Cat Allies by force. Wilcox and her brother “threatened to hit and physically harm Pedrolie if she did not surrender Charles and Oliver” and then trapped the COO in her office, the lawsuit says. Pedrolie’s lawsuit accuses the Wilcox siblings of assault, battery, false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress. It describes their conduct as “extreme and outrageous and beyond the bounds of decency in society.”
Wilcox, meantime, has sued Alley Cat Allies, claiming that the charity owes her more than $30,000 in back wages, plus vacation pay. She worked for the charity for nearly two decades before Robinson and Pedrolie forced her out, her lawsuit alleges.
None of this would matter much except for what it says about the charity ratings agencies. Millions of Americans turn to Charity Navigator and GuideStar for guidance when vetting nonprofits like Alley Cat Allies. While Charity Navigator and Guidestar, which is now part of Candid, are ably led by thoughtful people, the fact is that they simply aren’t up to the job of monitoring the conduct of thousands of American nonprofits. They rely mostly on self-reported data and IRS tax forms, and they don’t have the staff to do much digging on their own.
As it happens, the problems at Alley Cat Allies have been known to Charity Navigator and Guidestar for months. I covered them in a story headlined The Limits of Nonprofit Oversight, which was published by the Chronicle in November 2018. I followed up with a blogpost in December, pointing to other issues at Alley Cat Allies, which raised nearly $10m last year from unsuspecting donors.
Among the problems:
Questionable real estate dealings. In 2015, Alley Cat Allies bought the home next door to Becky Robinson in Arlington, VA, for $590,000. In 2018, the charity bought a second home in Arlington for $569,000. Neither purchase was approved by the full board, which included a real estate agent at the time. The charity says the Virginia homes are investments and rental-producing properties, but its most recent IRS tax return lists no rental income.
An unhappy workplace: On Glassdoor, Alley Cat Allies has more than a dozen anonymous, harshly negative reviews, assailing Robinson’s leadership and the board’s inaction. Only 19 percent of the employees would recommend working there, and just 23 percent approve of the CEO. When workers can’t stand the boss, an organization cannot function at peak effectiveness.
A history of poor governance: In 2004 and 2012, the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, another charity monitoring organization, pointed to problems with at Alley Cat Allies. See this 2004 story from the Chronicle of Philanthropy and this archived page from 2012. None of this set off alarms at Guidestar or Charity Navigator. BBB Wise Giving Alliance now says that Alley Cat Allies is no longer one of its accredited charities because Alley Cat Allies has not responded to its requests for information. The board of Alley Cat Allies did not meet at all for the first 10 months of 2018, its members told me.
The lawsuit over the catfight adds an element of farce to this sad saga. Interestingly, Pedrolie’s suit was filed on her behalf by an attorney named Donald English, who also represents Alley Cat Allies; it’s unclear whether the nonprofit is funding Pedrolie’s suit with donor dollars.
In its IRS filings, Alley Cat Allies reported spending $200,000 in legal fees during FY 2016–2017 and more than $274,000 in FY 2016–2016. That strikes me as a lot for a cat charity. More than 90 percent of those legal fees were classified as “program service expenses,” meaning that they don’t count towards overhead. It’s in the interest of a charity to classify as much of its spending as possible as program-related because Charity Navigator ratings are partly based on how much a charity spends for overhead and how much for programs.
Michael Thatcher, the president and CEO of Charity Navigator, says its rating for Alley Cat Allies is based on the most recent IRS filing, which covers year ending in July 2017. “We update ratings once a year,” he told me. To its credit, Charity Navigator added a “mild” advisory to its page about Alley Cat Allies after my story ran in The Chronicle. But the advisory doesn’t prevent Alley Cat Allies from touting its four-star rating on its website and in its fundraising appeals and emails.
Alas, Charity Navigator has limited resources. It employs about 23 people who are charged with evaluating more than 9,000 nonprofits. It is reluctant to change a rating because of a blogpost or newspaper story, and probably should be prudent about doing so. “Even charities are innocent until proven guilty,” Thatcher told me, quoting a colleague. It’s up to donors, and especially major donors, he says, to do their own due diligence before giving even to high-rated charities.
And what does Alley Cat Allies say about all this? Repeated efforts to contact Robinson and Pedrolie in the last week proved fruitless. Last year, Alley Cat Allies told me by email that the Virginia real estate purchases were approved by the investment committee of the board. It said that asking a paid employee to serve as board chairman is not unusual. It said that it has tried to settle the lawsuits. More recently, it said in court papers that Donna Wilcox lost her claim to back pay because she refused to cooperate with Alley Cat Allies.
As for the persistent criticisms of Alley Cat Allies’ transparency and governance…..wait for it…the charity cites its top ratings from Charity Navigator and Guidestar. Which would be funny, except it isn’t.