Join the Crowd

By Graham Garrison

April 9, 2019



How crowdfunding could reduce the economic barriers to care for pet owners

Image of hands in shape of a heart.

Bear, a 5-month-old Leonberger puppy, was in bad shape. He had traveled from Texas to Project Precious Rescue in Stamford, Connecticut, and was showing some alarming complications – vomiting, severe diarrhea, and extreme dehydration. He was immediately hospitalized and 24 hours later diagnosed with a life-threatening condition called intussusception. The condition occurs when part of the intestine folds into the next section, causing abdominal pain, vomiting, bloat, and bloody stool. 

A few days after his arrival, PPR, a nonprofit organization that relies solely on donations in order to rescue dogs like Bear, faced an unexpected minimum surgery cost of thousands of dollars plus post-operative ICU care. With surgery his prognosis would be good, but without surgery reoccurrence was likely with the potential for small bowel obstruction. 

The organization takes on challenging medical and special needs cases, and relies on donations to fund its work. For this case, it turned to a relatively new concept in fundraising for pets with health issues – crowdfunding. Specifically, the organization Waggle, a crowdfunding platform whose mission is to provide a last-chance safety net for pets in medical crisis by creating a network-based solution to end economic euthanasia of pets.

“Clearly a need”

A couple of years ago, Waggle.org Founder and CEO Steve Mornelli was at a crossroads. He’d built up a successful career in financial services using an analytics background. But he didn’t think he was making a difference giving PowerPoint presentations for Wall Street companies. He wanted to use his skills and experience to do something more meaningful.

One day he came across an article on economic euthanasia of pets. According to a recent study, there are over a half million pets a year euthanized for no other reason than their pet owners can’t afford the cost of care, “and that’s a conservative number,” says Mornelli.

Yet rescues, shelters, local organizations and veterinary hospitals are being called upon every day to do more and more. “I don’t think the general public recognizes how much the industry has already given back and how much we’re asking of veterinary practices. It’s already a financial toll on them.”

However, recent technological changes, and the rise of social media, may have created a mechanism that can help pet owners, local shelters, and veterinary hospitals reduce the economic barriers to care. 

“The technology change has come about so quickly that it affords us the ability to make a big difference in the lives of so many people, at scale, and to help local business and local communities.” 

The technology is crowdfunding. For instance, Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative projects – everything from films, games, and music to art, design, and technology. Kickstarter has helped artists, musicians, filmmakers, designers, and other creators find resources and support. To date, the crowdfunding platform claims tens of thousands of creative projects have come to life with the support of its community.

GoFundMe, launched in 2010, bills itself as the world’s largest social fundraising platform. GoFundMe says it has more than 50 million donors and has helped organizers raise over $5 billion. Fundraising categories include medical, memorial, and charity drives.

Mornelli knew about a company on the human medical side that had created a high impact, low cost way to bridge the gap for the people in need of financial assistance for healthcare and those who could help fund the cost. “I thought, why can’t we take this model and apply it to the veterinary industry? There was clearly a need for this. That was the driver.” 

It’s a game-changer, if done the right way. However, there are several crowdfunding stories gone awry that have made headlines. For instance, a New Jersey couple launched an online fundraiser around Thanksgiving of last year for a homeless veteran that garnered $400,000 in donations, but the story turned out to be a scam. A woman in Nevada faked her son’s terminal illness to raise money for a bucket list adventure. Other scammers have been arrested for a whole host of fabricated stories.

Mornelli says he wanted Waggle to be an effective source of crowdfunding, but also a platform that garnishes trust. “We pay our veterinary practices directly,” he says. One hundred percent of the money the clients raise gets passed to the accounts receivable of the veterinary hospital. Waggle doesn’t pool a donation into a general fund, nor does it use any part of the donation for operating costs. Waggle says its operating expenses are supported by donors who contribute a small fee at checkout along with an optional tip. Veterinary partners may donate a portion of their services, and corporate sponsors and foundations. “No one in the industry is doing that, and that’s the biggest difference between Waggle and other crowdfunding platforms.”

  • 1. Pet guardians seek care for their pets. Owner or rescue brings their pet to the veterinary practice for care but soon finds out that the treatment cost is unaffordable. 
  • 2. Pet owner or rescue/shelter learns about Waggle. The resources are free to individuals and organizations that are committed to sharing their pet campaigns on social media.
  • 3. Pet owner or rescue/shelter submits the pet’s profile to Waggle. Required information includes the veterinarian’s contact info, treatment estimate, and pet guardian’s Facebook page.
  • 4. A team of professional writers creates the pet’s story using information submitted and posts at Waggle.org. Simple and easy to use tools and templates help pet owners and rescue/shelters tell and share their story in a compelling and effective way.
  • 5. Waggle’s network of donors becomes involved.One hundred percent of donations are used to fund the patient’s care.
  • 6. Donors receive patient’s update. The guardian or rescue/shelter submits post-treatment updates on the pet so Waggle can share it with its generous donors. 

Getting started

Mornelli and his team talked to veterinarians from small practices and large hospitals alike. They started the conversation with emergency and referral hospitals, because they wanted Waggle to have a geographic imprint and ability to reach out to the referring veterinarians in local communities.  

“We made the process extremely easy,” Mornelli says. “We did not want to burden the front office and put any more work on them.” 

One of the tangible benefits is easing the burden of charity care and pro bono expenses that can often tax veterinary practices. Veterinarians often give away a lot of free services throughout the year. “We wanted to give back to the veterinary practices from a financial perspective, but we also learned very early on that compassion fatigue was extremely important to address.” Having to put down pets takes an emotional toll on veterinarians and staff. “A lot of practices, even if you reduce by a quarter the number of pets being put down, that alone is worth it.”

Mornelli says they hope that hospitals partnering with Waggle will join and participate in the crowdfunding campaigns, “but we know they are busy, so we don’t put any burden on them whatsoever.”

Currently, there is a $2,000 cap per campaign. “We might raise that in the months ahead, but nothing significantly,” Mornelli says. Waggle’s board and veterinary partners thought they could do the greatest amount of good for veterinary practices and local communities by keeping that number somewhat low. Waggle might also accommodate corporate sponsorships. For example, to support a case, half of the funds might be raised from the public, and then matched by corporate sponsors. 

“We want to encourage responsible pet ownership,” Mornelli says. “We hope people will actually have pet insurance. We didn’t want to have cases where someone was trying to raise an exorbitant amount of money for an individual case.”

Recent study identifies the need for better solutions that allow more people to obtain veterinary care.

In the past two years, nearly 28 percent of households experienced barriers to veterinary care, according to a national population survey conducted by the Access to Veterinary Care Coalition, a partnership of for-profit and nonprofit veterinary service providers, animal welfare and social service professionals, and educators, working in collaboration with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s College of Social Work.

The study was commissioned through a grant from Maddie’s Fund, a national family foundation created by Dave and Cheryl Duffield to revolutionize the status and well-being of companion animals, to better understand the barriers faced by pet owners across the socioeconomic spectrum. 

The coalition’s report, Access to Veterinary Care: Barriers, Current Practices, and Public Policy, identifies the need for better solutions that allow more people to obtain veterinary care. The study also sought to understand the knowledge, attitudes, and practices veterinarians have regarding access to care. 

Among the report’s findings:

• Dogs and cats living in lower-income households and with younger pet owners are most at risk for not receiving recommended care. 

• The overwhelming barrier for all groups of pet owners and all types of care is financial, with 80 percent unable to obtain preventative care due to financial constraints, 74 percent for sick care, and 56 percent for emergency care.

• Veterinary service providers recognize the severity of the problem and feel a commitment to explore ways to address it. The highest level of agreement expressed by veterinarians in the survey was in response to the statement: “All pets deserve some level of veterinary care.” Almost all respondents – 95 percent – either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. 

• Nearly nine out of 10 respondents indicated they agreed or strongly agreed that owned pets are a member of the family. Similarly, 87 percent agreed that not being able to obtain needed veterinary care impacts the owner’s mental and emotional health.

“Lack of access to veterinary care is a complex societal problem with many causes,” said Michael Blackwell, chairman of the coalition, veterinarian, former dean of UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and director of the Program for Pet Health Equity. “This report furthers our understanding of these complex and interrelated issues and can guide stakeholders in the development of solutions to reach underserved families with pets. Barriers to veterinary care can be mitigated through determined effort and better alignment of existing resources to achieve this outcome.”

For more information or to download the study, visit https://avcc.utk.edu/

Industry backing

Waggle has the backing of companies such as Trupanion, Maddie’s Fund, Fear Free and MightyVet and Eli’s Fund. The company anticipates crowdfunding over a 1,000 cases within the year. Currently, more than 100 veterinary practices have joined in the United States and Canada, and the number is growing. “It’s because of the way in which our model has changed,” Mornelli says. The general public or local shelters are now starting many of the individual campaigns, and they are inviting their hospitals. “That process is resulting in a lot of signups.”

Waggle wants to grow the number of partnerships with hospitals and the rescue shelters that they already support. “We found as we went into hospitals by community, every hospital typically helps 3-5 local rescue shelters, and the hospitals are already discounting their services,” Mornelli says. The hospitals, shelters, and Waggle are forming a sort of symbiotic relationship that benefits all parties.

“Shelters are very socially aware, passionate and good at grass roots fundraising. They’re already built for this. Our platform has made it really easy for those animal welfare agencies to participate on Waggle. Hospitals like it because the money raised goes directly to accounts receivable. It fosters that benefit for those two groups, because sometimes the hospitals will actually extend more credit to the shelters knowing that we are behind the team helping raise these funds.”

Mornelli says Waggle offers a soft landing spot for organizations and local charities that are getting inundated with requests for funding veterinary care. “By supporting Waggle, they can direct these requests to us and we can support the pets directly. Waggle becomes a lifeline for organizations that they can offer as an alternative.”

Oftentimes local charities are stressed, “and we know that veterinarians are stressed,” Mornelli says. “We’re very effective at raising funds when people participate. That’s key to this. We want to encourage responsible pet ownership and that’s one of the reasons Waggle is resonating at the practice level”

And Bear? He’s doing great. The crowdfunding project was a success, and he is in good health. In fact, he found a forever home through the process. Watch his success story at https://waggle.org/bear-success-story/

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