AVMF narrows its focus on supporting veterinary profession

Charity hopes to increase its individual donor base
Published on August 31, 2016
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Volunteer firefighters rescued Cocoa the brown Labrador Retriever from a house fire this past March. While the Karafa family was unharmed, only Cocoa among their three dogs survived. He was treated at the Allegheny Veterinary Emergency Trauma & Specialty clinic in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, for smoke inhalation and lung collapse. In the face of such devastating property loss, the family did not have the funds to pay for the treatment Cocoa needed. Fortunately for them, the clinic participates in the American Veterinary Medical Foundation’s Veterinary Care Charitable Fund. It provides veterinarians a way to offer charitable veterinary services to clients facing personal hardships as well as a means to support animals rescued from abuse and neglect. This allows enrolled veterinary hospitals a way to offer low- or no-cost services to clients who may otherwise be forced to surrender or euthanize their pets. In this instance, the VCCF enabled the clinic to help pay the bill for the dog’s care.

“Everybody wins: animals are cared for, and donors feel good about their donations. Donors are also recognized for their tax-deductible gifts. Practitioners can highlight the good work they do in their own communities, which leads to more donations from community members,” said Debborah Harp, AVMF executive director.

The Karafa family did not have the funds to pay for the treatment of their dog, Cocoa, after their house burned down, but the clinic they go to, the Allegheny Veterinary Emergency Trauma & Specialty clinic in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, participates in the American Veterinary Medical Founda­tion’s Veterinary Care Charitable Fund, which helped pay the bill. (Courtesy of the AVMF)

Since the beginning of this year, the VCCF has nearly doubled the number of enrolled practices. It’s just one of a number of programs the AVMF runs that support veterinarians and their clients. Since Harp joined the Foundation staff a year ago, the nonprofit has taken a harder look at its mission and has started to focus more on what it does well.

One of Harp’s goals is to enhance a culture of philanthropy within the AVMA “so that when a member gives to the AVMF, they know those programs and activities are supporting their profession, their future, their clients, and are supporting their communities.”

She continued, “And, unlike giving to other national charities, as an AVMA member, you know who is making the decisions about how your donor dollars are spent. Your fellow members serve on the board, serve on the committees, and spouses and partners serve as volunteers to review scholarship and grant applications, and you can pick up the phone and talk to the people making those decisions. That’s why we say support the foundation that supports you. We are helping veterinarians help animals.”

Programs making a difference

A long-running AVMF program that continues to grow is Our Oath in Action, which gives veterinarians, veterinary students, and veterinary technicians, assistants, and other veterinary staff members the opportunity to connect with the animal-loving public outside the veterinary hospital. Seven community service events are taking place this fall, including pet health education at the New York State Fair, shelter rehabilitation, and spay-neuter surgeries. The Banfield Foundation is supporting the program with a three-year total commitment of $200,000 through 2018. Last year, Our Oath in Action had 143 volunteers, assisted 409 animals, and drew 3,800 attendees at seven events.

The AVMF student scholarship program has also gotten a boost. The Harold Wetterberg Foundation increased its support for scholarships this year with a gift of $80,000. The Foundation got word recently, too, that Merck will continue to fund its scholarship program in 2017 with $185,000. Plus, the Auxiliary to the AVMA Legacy Endowed Scholarship Program awarded its second round of 28 scholarships in 2016.

In 2013, the Auxiliary transferred $2 million to the AVMF to establish the program. Proceeds from the endowment will annually support scholarships in the amount of $1,000 to at least one veterinary student at each of the AVMA Council on Education–accredited veterinary colleges in the U.S.

Coming into focus

While the Auxiliary endowment gift was a boon to the AVMF, it illustrated the dilemma that comes with pursuing restricted funding from major donor sources, a strategy employed by the previous Foundation executive director. He pursued sizable gifts for program spending from sources such as the Auxiliary for scholarships; Zoetis, which awarded $3.625 million from 2009-2014 through the Zoetis/AVMF Veterinary Student Scholarship Program; and Partners for Healthy Pets, a professionwide initiative focused on preventive care. The PHP operates as a committee of the AVMF and at one point spent $5.5 million on a national consumer campaign.

Harp says for smaller nonprofits, “When you have a huge spike in one year on the income side, it’s going to look like subsequent years weren’t as successful,” which, she said, resulted in the charity’s ranking on Charity Navigator dropping from four to three stars. However, on the plus side, the AVMF still has one of the highest percentages of expenses spent on programs (91.6 percent) among similar charities listed on Charity Navigator.

Soon after Harp came in September 2015, the Foundation had to make some difficult decisions. Anticipated unrestricted dollars for 2015 did not reach original projections, so the AVMF board of directors decided that November where to spend the limited unrestricted dollars among nearly 20 programs. Ultimately, the AVMF board eliminated its portion of the funding for the AVMA Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams, the AVMF disaster relief and reimbursement grants, and the America’s Favorite Veterinarian contest. The AVMF would also no longer host a fundraising event and the Impact Breakfast at the AVMA Annual Convention. Starting next year, the AVMA will likely take back administering the Association’s awards program.

Debborah Harp (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

“It was a thoughtful process with incredibly dedicated individuals who looked at the value of our programs to AVMA members and the value to the public and the animals served,” Harp said. “It was important for the Foundation to narrow its focus and align its mission with the AVMA’s mission more closely. In doing so, the Foundation has been able to create a strategic plan that is narrow in focus and will help us achieve successful programs and activities in the future.”

Dr. Jan K. Strother of Hartselle, Alabama, was recently installed as chair of the Foundation’s board. She says she’s pleased the AVMF has made positive strides, and she hopes to continue that progress.

“My vision for our Foundation is bright and reflects our veterinary community’s compassion and commitment to help animals in need. We also have a commitment to develop strategic scholarship programs, which will provide financial relief to students and young graduates. Further, I believe that the AVMF’s cornerstone for research programs helps to create an excellent future for our profession (and) one health, and makes our world of animal and human health better,” Dr. Strother said.

“I’d also say our AVMA and our veterinary profession are blessed with generous communities who believe in the vision and mission of our charitable Foundation. We realize that the best way to help ourselves is by helping others.”

Recognizing donors

Harp says one of the keys to a strong foundation is support from its individual donor base. She looks forward to seeing those donor numbers increase for the AVMF, in part by recognizing donors more often in print, online, and at events.

The AVMF’s Count on Me campaign is one of the ways the Foundation will showcase its donor diversity, from students to retired AVMA members. The AVMF is asking that donors send a selfie with a Count on Me sign to add to the Foundation’s website. The AVMF is also looking for past scholarship and grant recipients to send selfies with the sign when they’re out in the field, using captions such as “Count on Me to keep your milk supply safe.”

“What we’re trying to do is make a connection for our donors to see their gifts in action, how the scholarship recipients from years ago have become leaders in the field or award winners who get their research published,” Harp said. “The more stories we can share about how donations have made a difference, the ... more donations will be generated for future programs and activities.”

This includes funding for research initiatives. The AVMF gives $10,000 annually to support the Merial–National Institutes of Health National Veterinary Scholars Symposium along with funding the Young Investigator Awards, given to three graduate veterinarians pursuing advanced research training through doctoral or postdoctoral programs. The AVMA, through the AVMF, supported the Second Opportunity Research Scholarship for five students who have previously conducted a summer research project and are seeking a second summer of research experience.

Veterinarians and their clients

Harp brings to the AVMF 16-plus years of experience as a fun­draiser in both health care and higher education. She began her career in television production but left to do something more altruistic. Harp joined the American Academy of Pediatrics as the director of individual giving, donor relations, and planned giving initiatives. She then served as the director of development operations at the Erikson Institute in Chicago before joining the Radiological Society of North America as the assistant director of fund development. Most recently, Harp was the director of development for the American College of Chest Physicians.

“The one thing that has stood out differently from other medical societies I have worked for is that veterinarians talk about their clients and how important that relationship with them is. Anything the AVMF can do to help foster that relationship and engage those clients in the support of programs and activities that help veterinarians help animals, we look forward to working with our members in that effort,” Harp said.

AVMF/Auxiliary scholarship applications invited

Applications for the Auxiliary to the AVMA Legacy Endowed Scholarship Program are being accepted through Oct. 15.

Application forms, posted Sept. 1, can be found on the Foundation’s website.

A $1,000 scholarship will be awarded at each AVMA Council on Education–accredited school in the U.S. Applicants must be members of the Student AVMA. For a list of the 2016 awardees and more information about the scholarship program, visit avmf.org/programs/auxiliary-scholarship-information.

Related JAVMA content:

Banfield launches foundation with grant to AVMF (Nov. 15, 2015)

AVMF debuts charitable fund, announces $185K in scholarships (Sept. 15, 2015)

New AVMF scholarships created as others end (Oct. 1, 2014)

AVMF adds to its charitable programs (Oct. 1, 2014)

AVMF chair service-oriented (Oct. 1, 2014)