Saturday, April 21, 2012

Follow the money at the Great Ape Trust and Bonobo Hope Sanctuary… if you can

Follow the money. Deep Throat told the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward to “follow the money” when he was investigating the scandal that would become Watergate. The death today of Chuck Colson, the "evil genius" of the Nixon administration, reminded me to follow the money if I wanted to understand the impending implosion at the Great Ape Trust (aka Bonobo Hope, aka Iowa Primate Learning Sanctuary).
As the Trust’s executive director, Dr. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, explained in a fundraising letter she sent on March 16, “we lack sufficient funds to allow us to survive through the first year.”
That seems to be an improvement on the notice that Board chairperson Kenneth Schweller gave the staff a few months earlier. “The night before the meeting Carl informed us that, basically, the Trust would be out of money by the end of January and unless something drastic were done we would all be out of our jobs real soon and the Trust would cease to exist,” Schweller informed the staff on December 14. “It's lights out in a month unless we raise a TON of money immediately.”
The mere fact that the Trust is still going seems to indicate that they raised money. Or did they just reduce their overhead? An organization can sure conserve money when the entire staff walks out, en masse. Or, as Savage-Rumbaugh describes it in her fundraising letter, after they went through a “precipitous organizational shift.” Let’s see, by my count, eight caregivers, one accountant, three public safety officers, two directors, and all the interns walked out in December. Within two weeks, the long-time PR consultant quit the account. Yep, that’s precipitous all right. Not having a staff will certainly save some bucks.
Sue’s letter said they need to raise “this year’s operating budget of $240,000.” So now we get the news from Associated Press that, according to Schweller, they’ve raised half their immediate goal of $50,000, and if they don’t get the other $25,000 by May 15, they will move their seven bonobos. Somewhere. Don’t know where, but by God we’re going.
So, I have a couple of questions.
If they’ve only raised $25,000 – about 10 percent of the amount they say they need to keep afloat ‒ what are they going to do differently to raise the other 90%?
Savage-Rumbaugh with a young Kanzi
My second question is about “their” seven bonobos. Who owns those bonobos? We know that two of the bonobos were sent to the Great Ape Trust on loan from Zoo Atlanta. Subsequently, when Zoo Atlanta requested that they be transferred to another AZA zoo in accordance with the recommendations of the Bonobo Species Survival Plan, the Trust refused to honor the terms of the loan agreement. Given what I’ve heard about Savage-Rumbaugh’s personal obsession with the bonobos, it doesn’t surprise me that she would fight the transfer.
It also doesn’t surprise me that the Great Ape Trust Board of Directors evidently won't meet their legal obligations. Heck, they don’t even know how to run a 501(c)(3) organization. Why do I say that? Because they don’t know it’s smart to be transparent about the money when you’re asking people to save your ass…
I recently had an email exchange with Schweller. I noted that the Great Ape Trust is not listed in Charity Navigator. “Are your financials (under any name for your organization) available for public view? If so, where can I find them? If not, will you make them available?” I asked.
“We will make our financials available at some point in the future, we are still very much in a transition phase,” Schweller told me. “Thanks for pointing out Charity Navigator. Sounds like something we should try to register with.”
Really? REALLY? The chairman of the board of directors of a major research/sanctuary/amusement park facility and charity is asking for a quarter of a million dollars from donors, and he will let them know about the Trust’s actual financials “at some point in the future”? And he doesn’t know about Charity Navigator? Or, presumably, Guidestar?
People, please investigate any charity before you give. But we have a problem. Follow the money at Great Ape Trust Bonobo Hope Sanctuary? This is a job for Woodward and Bernstein.

Update 4/22/2012: Following my own advice, I searched the IRS Charity site for Bonobo Hope, which Savage-Rumbaugh said is a tax exempt charity. I cannot find it, under any listing for any state. Is it legal to claim tax exempt status in fundraising letters when you don't have it? Or am I missing something in the IRS search function? Hellooooo, can a tax attorney help me out here?

Update 8/15/2012: Obeying the requirements of U.S. tax law, the lawyer for Bonobo Trust sent me copies of the last three years of tax returns for the Great Ape Trust, after I made a formal written request. I'll be blogging about it soon. They help explain why this organization is in so much trouble now, after living high on the hog with multiple employees receiving six-figure salaries.

Update 9/6/2012: The tax returns reveal why the organization is such a financial mess, and can't seem to find its footing. I blogged about some of the insights gained from reviewing their returns. (Bonobo Hope needs vision, not gimmicks)

For more information see our Bonobo Hope post.


  1. The financial shenanigans predate the current administration. Staff benefits and hours were slashed nearly two years ago, while executive compensation remained high. One of those previous directors was asked to leave.

  2. Yes to previous comment, the financial issues,or at least inappropriate use of funds, goes far back

  3. Help me out here. What is "inappropriate use of funds"?

  4. Please stay on this story; it's getting stranger and stranger by the minute:

    I found it interesting that the last $25,000 was raised within the last few weeks prior to May 15. $50,000 is not enough to sustain this "sanctuary." I would say more, but I do not have to as this tragedy continues to unfold. Hopefully the truth about this place is finally revealed to the public at some point.