Animal Shelter Philanthropy: Funding Challenges for SPCAs and Humane Societies

Par Katherine Mac Donald , Co-coordonnatrice et chargé des communications du PhiLab
31 janvier 2022
Animal Shelter Philanthropy

A rescued puppy mill dog with Montreal SPCA staff
Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media with the Montreal SPCA (2010)

The COVID-19 quarantine measures provoked a sense of isolation amongst Canadians. One of the many repercussions of this social isolation was an increase in the demand for household pets. Animals are known to help reduce stress and anxiety. As a result, during these trying times, with many finding themselves at home and with more free time, it should come as no surprise that people have sought out the comfort of a pet. At the same time, however, organizations have expressed concern about what will happen to these animals once new pandemic pet owners return to work. Unfortunately, pet abandonment is a common occurrence. With over 80 000 cats and dogs abandoned in animal shelters in 2020 alone[1], it is easy to understand the growing concern coming from these organizations. While studies have shown the therapeutic benefits of animals for humans, it is important to ask a different question: who is looking out for the wellbeing and welfare of the animals themselves? Animal shelter philanthropy is one answer to this question.

Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCAs) and Humane Societies are household names, well known across the country for rehoming unwanted pets and protecting their welfare. In their fight for the prevention of cruelty to animals, has managing animal shelters always been a priority for SPCAs? Also, under whose responsibility does or should funding these groups fall: the state, the public, or philanthropy? This article aims to present the different funding options for animal-focused organizations such as SPCAs and Humane Societies in Canada, and further explores the possibilities and limitations for each of these funding models.

SPCAs in North America: From their British Roots to Today

Animal Shelter Philanthropy

Henry Bergh on Duty. Source:

To better understand the current state and role of animal shelters in Canada, we must look back at the first SPCAs in North America and how they came to be. Inspired by England’s animal protection movements, the first American SPCA (ASPCA) was founded in 1866 by Henry Bergh, a prominent New Yorker from a wealthy family of shipbuilders (Robichaud, 2019). Originally, these societies were more advocacy-oriented than today’s SPCAs, fighting for legislative change to improve the living conditions of animals, and more specifically the countless horses that were the muscle of these growing metropolises. Henry Bergh’s actions were geared towards animals used for transportation and food, such as advocating against the live plucking of fowl and the binding of the legs of live sheep when in transport[2]. The focus on cats and dogs we now associate with the SPCA name appeared with the rise in pet ownership that swept through North America at the turn of the 20th century (Robichaud, 2019).

In Canada, the first SPCA was founded in Montreal in 1869, with a similar focus to its New York counterpart: improving the living conditions of workhorses. Later, the Montreal SPCA would begin working on additional issues, such as cockfighting, wild bird protection, and humane dog control. Today, Canada counts well over 400 animal rescues, of which 174 are Humane Societies and SPCAs. Of the latter, 67% offer humane education programs in their communities and 42% are responsible for the enforcement of animal cruelty laws, reminiscent of Henry Bergh’s patrolling of New York’s streets (CFHS, 2016). However, 93% also operate animal shelters, taking in the thousands of animals that are abandoned each year, a responsibility that once used to fall upon municipalities (CFHS, 2016).

SPCAs and Municipal Animal Control: Government Funding

The city of New York, tired of Henry Bergh’s advocacy efforts, had asked for the ASPCA to take on its municipal animal control mandate. However, from its founding, Bergh was adamant about refusing such contracts from the city, claiming this would force his organization to deal with the overpopulation problem and the “humane” euthanasia of many healthy animals, which would be contrary to their mission. Instead, he remained clear that the ASPCA’s mandate was to reform and enforce animal protection legislation, offer humane education, and speak up in defense of animals. In contrast, the main purpose of municipal animal control is to protect its citizens from animals, such as rabid and aggressive stray dogs, as well as the many nuisances of pet overpopulation[3]. These two missions are contradictory, with one meant to protect animals from the cruelty inflicted by humans and the other to protect humans from the dangers of animals. How did it come to be that, today, SPCAs are known as animal shelters for unwanted pets, with many taking on municipal animal control contracts? A significant reason boils down to funding.

In 1895, the New York SPCA, contrary to Henry Bergh’s wishes, agreed to run the city’s animal control. There were likely many reasons to accept such a contract, but a significant motivation was the steady income that would accompany it[4]. It could be suggested that Henry Bergh, himself from a wealthy family and a known philanthropist, could do his advocacy work without worrying about funding. But the same could not be said of other SPCAs, as well as the larger animal welfare movement. The temptation of stable government funding was too difficult to resist for many organizations. However, given the differences between the city’s priorities and their own, many shelters found themselves faced with a dilemma, as municipal funding was not necessarily helping them accomplish their mission. Many SPCAs became bogged down by their newfound municipal obligations and stopped their other animal protection activities[5]. This was what Henry Bergh had been warning everyone of.

Lawyers and academics have brought up legal arguments against nonprofits taking on such municipal services[6]. Should the responsibility of enforcing animal protection laws fall on the shoulders of nonprofits and registered charities? According to the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies: “Less than 50% of the costs of enforcing provincial or federal legislation are covered by government funding.” In sum, there are several issues with SPCAs and similar organizations being stuck as municipal subcontractors for public authorities, with the latter delegating their responsibilities all the while significantly lowering their costs. These include, but are not limited to:

  1. Contradictions between animal control mandates and an organization’s values and mission
  2. Burden of responsibility and cost associated with enforcing legislation
  3. Shift of focus towards dealing with the immediate issue and away from actions that could lead to long-term change including legislative change, education, and advocacy work.

Philanthropic Funding: Can Grantmaking fill the gap?

Animal Shelter Philanthropy

Figure 1
Source: Report – Humane Societies and SPCAs in Canada: A comprehensive look at the sector.

Because municipal funding comes with so many strings attached for SPCAs and Humane Societies, it is worthwhile to look at other sources of funding, such as philanthropic donations. According to a 2016 report from Humane Canada, the majority of SPCA and Humane Society revenue is donation-based (see Figure 1), of which 85% comes from individuals and 15% from corporations, which includes sponsorships. In other words, grantmaking funding is completely nonexistent. If we take the Montreal SPCA as an example, only 3.4% of its revenue came in the form of donations from other charitable organizations or philanthropic foundations. It is difficult to estimate the amount of grants awarded for the animal cause as data on the subject is not easily compiled. While there are most definitely grants made towards animal-focused organizations, in Imagine Canada’s report, they fall under the overly broad category of “environment” or even “other”[7], making it difficult to discern the state of animal grantmaking philanthropy. One of the recommendations from the Advisory Committee on the Charitable Sector (ACCS) is to clarify the definition of charitable purpose, making it easier for organizations and grantmakers alike to understand the sector in which they are working.

A quick search on the CRA charity database reveals 1038 charitable organizations dedicated to animal welfare. Of course, this does not include the many nonprofits working on the issue who do not have charitable status. With this many organizations working for the cause, why is there near silence on the part of grantmaking foundations? I will cover three reasons that can help explain the hesitation for grantmakers to fund this particular subsection of the charitable sector: (1) the definition of charitable actions; (2) the advocacy work inherent to many animal-oriented organizations; and (3) the grantmaking sector’s focus on measurable/quantifiable social impact.

When we consider that the definition of philanthropy can be summed up as “love of humankind,” it comes as no surprise that there is little visibility of philanthropy focused on non-human animals. The CRA’s definition of charitable acts can also lead to confusion when considering non-human-focused work. As with environmental causes, animal welfare organizations often fall under the one-size-fits-all category of “other purposes beneficial to the community that are considered charitable[8]. I will focus on one of the sub-categories that allows for animal shelters to be considered as charitable, which is the promotion of the moral and ethical development of the community, since “the courts have determined that promoting the welfare of animals provides an intangible moral benefit to humanity in general[9], thus satisfying the human-centered definition of philanthropy and charity in Canada. While the CRA makes it clear that animal welfare can be considered charitable if they respect certain requirements, the fact remains that charity, and thus the grantmaking sector, is very anthropocentric. This leaves little room for non-human philanthropy, be it for individual animals, species, or entire ecosystems.

Another factor that comes into play in explaining philanthropic hesitation in getting involved in the animal protection sector is the advocacy work that is inherent to many animal-focused organizations. As the history of the ASPCA demonstrates, lobbying for legislative change is a key component of the organization’s mandate and success. While one of the charitable purposes allowed for animal welfare charities is “upholding the administration and enforcement of the law[10], for charities to uphold animal cruelty laws, those laws must be implemented, and so, advocated for. Up until the recent revision of charity law in 2018, charities were forbidden from engaging in most advocacy work, as it was not considered charitable. Many environmental charities were stripped of their charitable status under the Harper administration, due to their “political” actions. Although the limitation on advocacy was loosened, it is possible that the sector is still reluctant to engage in, and fund, advocacy groups and their actions. This limits the possibility for animal-focused charities to advocate for the legislative changes necessary to prevent cruelty towards animals.

A final argument that can help explain the quasi absence of animal-oriented grantmaking is the sector’s infatuation with the measurement and evaluation of social impact. While it is quite simple to collect data on how many animals were adopted out of a shelter, or how education campaigns have reduced animal abandonment rates and incidents of animal cruelty, these numbers benefit the animals themselves, more so than human society. Also, while the SPCA’s shelter mandate is easier to evaluate and quantify, the broader educational mission of the organization can be more difficult to measure. As with many other organizations fighting inequalities and injustices, the fight must be aimed at the systemic level. Systems change takes time and is exceedingly difficult to measure. Given the many forms of animal exploitation (agriculture, entertainment, clothing, science, etc.) that are still legal, much of the mission of animal protection organizations comes into conflict with human activities. This brings us back to the need for charities to positively impact human societies, when in fact it might go against their mission to prioritize human’s interest in this case.

Animal shelter philanthropy

Photo Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / #MakeFurHistory / We Animals Media (2014)
On a tip that the animals were being treated poorly, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the SPCA were granted a warrant to perform an inspection and seize animals from a fur farm in Quebec. This seizure led to the first ever criminal charges against a fur farmer in Canada.


Conclusion: How to face these funding challenges?

Bolstering funding for animal charities such as SPCAs and Humane Societies is not a simple feat, with most still depending on individual donations and income from their services. The strength of these organizations lies in their capacity to mobilize individuals on such a large scale. For example, SPCAs and Humane Societies collected over $85 million in donations in 2016 alone[11]. While municipal funding provides them with a certain degree of financial stability, it also burdens them with responsibilities that can impede their mission. Philanthropic grantmaking could help replace this governmental dependency, but comes with its own difficulties and potential limitations, most of which have to do with the philanthropic sector’s anthropocentrism, both in terms of legislation and ideology. However, human society does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of a greater system, which includes sentient, non-human animals, as well as the broader environmental ecosystem. For instance, some organizations, such as the Massachusetts SPCA, originally saw their mission further intertwined with broader social issues, such as “the prevention of crime, unnecessary wars, and forms of violence” (Robichaud, 2019, p.137). If the sector were to broaden the definition and scope of charitable purposes to include not only human society, but the ecosystems in which humans find themselves, there would be more room for grantmaking philanthropy to become involved in funding the changes necessary to shift towards a more just, and compassionate world for all.

A special thank you to We Animals. Two of the photos included in this edition were provided by the We Animals Stock Image Initiative to help facilitate education and awareness campaigns around animal cruelty. 

Cet article fait partie de l’édition spéciale de Janvier 2022 : Philanthropie et la cause animale. Vous pouvez trouver plus d’informations ici

Philanthropie et la cause animale


Canadian Federation of Humane Societies (CFHS). (2016). Humane Societies and SPCAs in Canada: A comprehensive look at the sector.

Robichaud, A. A. (2019). Animal City: The Domestication of America. United Kingdom: Harvard University Press.

Winograd, N. J. (2009). Irreconcilable Differences: The Battle for the Heart & Soul of America’s Animal Shelters. United States: N. Winograd.

Notes de bas de page

[1] These numbers come from a survey of only 48% of Canadian shelters and does not include private shelters, rescues, or municipal animal services. The actual number of total animal abandonments is unknown but could be hypothesized to be as much as double. Source:

[2] For a more complete history of the evolution of animal shelters in America, consult Irreconcilable differences: The battle for the heart and soul of America’s animal shelters by Nathan J. Winograd.

[3] The exact responsibilities of municipal animal control vary from one municipality to the next. These can range from offering a euthanasia service, the intake of animals considered as dangerous to the public, enforcing animal cruelty laws to stopping the sale of pets to curb overpopulation. For more information:

[4] Another important motivation is the fear of for-profit pounds taking on the contracts, with no care for animal welfare. The case of the Berger Blanc in Montreal is a perfect example of the cruelty and neglect that could arise in such a situation.

[5] Through my own personal experience working at the Montreal SPCA for five years, I remember countless situations where municipal obligations came into conflict with the mission. The management of abandoned animals took up the majority of the SPCA’s time and resources, often leading to the shelter being at full capacity, leading to higher euthanasia rates. Since then, things have begun to change, with a shift in management, where more focus has been placed on education and a move towards a system’s change approach, focused on getting at the roots of the animal cruelty issue. For more information on their new strategy and approach, listen to PhiLab’s podcast:

[6] This is the case for example for Jodi Lazare, professor at the Schulich School of Law. According to this expert: “The SPCA’s provision of animal control services, as well as the enforcement of criminal regulations which that role often entails, also raises public law issues relative to the delegation of powers and the private enforcement of public laws.”Source:, page 157

[7] In Imagine Canada’s report, there is no mention of a category for animal welfare, with donations to the cause compiled under either Environment or Other.

[8] The CRA’s Promotion of animal welfare and charitable registration guide also mentions how some animal welfare charities can fall under the second category of Education, however, the activities listed related more to wildlife protection, animal welfare law education as well as research related to animals in scientific experimentation.

[9] Canada Revenue Agency, Promotion of animal welfare and charitable registration

[10] Canada Revenue Agency, Promotion of animal welfare and charitable registration

[11] The numbers included in this report include data from organizations that responded to the survey combined with publicly available information, which covers 77% of the total number of SPCAs and Humane Societies. It could be hypothesized that the total amount fundraised be higher than 85 M$.