Incorporation, charity status and fundraising

The Puppycide Database Project has grown, as have our operational costs. Should we incorporate as a non-profit, seek 501(c) status and/or begin accepting donations?

As the Puppycide Database Project leaves behind our first year anniversary, we can be proud of what our volunteers have accomplished. Our team has created a robust architecture to power our database, which allows researchers to submit information about Puppycides securely and anonymously from all over the world. Thanks to the vigilant work of those researchers, the Puppycide Database Project has created the largest publicly accessible reference of police use of force incidents involving animals in the United States.

In addition to compiling media reports from across the country about police violence toward animals, the Project has been able to publicize police reports and court documents, 911 call data, puppycide videos and government statistics. In numerous cases Puppycide Database Project publicized such documents for the first time ever; in other instances we worked in concert with journalists and newspapers to make critical documents available. Our database now contains data on acts of violence involving over 2,200 animals, while our archive of documents and supporting literature contains millions of files.

We have also begun to publish analysis of a few of the data points we have uncovered through Puppycide Database Project research. Frequent status updates on our efforts are made available on our blog, while more formal research is published on the Analysis section of our website.

As the accomplishments of Puppycide Database Project volunteers increase, our subsequent reliance on additional infrastructure increases as well. All of the records we have compiled must be stored on secure servers to allow public access. Backups need to be kept as well to make sure the data remains even if something were to happen to our servers. More server resources are required for our website, blog and the applications that power the search engine that allows the public to search through our database.

For the first year of our project, the Puppycide Database Project received free service from Amazon, who provides a substantial amount of our online infrastructure. The services they provided to us were substantial, but by no means unusual for our type of project - if we had paid for that first year, the service would likely have cost several thousands dollars. Unfortunately, the year of free service has now expired. A few of our founding volunteers now pay for all of the attendant costs of running our servers.

There are quite a few companies that would be willing to provide us with free or significantly reduced cost servers. However, nearly all of those companies require that an organization have formal 501(c)(3) status from the IRS, or at least have a pending 501 application, in order to receive this type of assistance. This requirement is in place so that the company providing the resources can receive tax benefits for their contribution. At this time, the Puppycide Database Project has not submitted a 501(c)(3) application with the IRS and does not have any 501 recognition from the IRS.

From the time of our inception, the Puppycide Database Project has declined to accept any contributions or donations. Strict rules regarding how and what gets paid has always been an integral part of our mission, as we have noted in our FAQ:

This website does not now and never will collect information on its users to sell to advertisers. This website does not now and never will host ads. This includes Google Adwords and Google Analytics; neither of which will be used for this site. We will never charge any individual, charity or NGO who requests data. Charges may apply for government organizations requesting the data set, or for news organizations or other companies who wish to purchase tools that have been built in order to research and sort data for this project.

Advertising on our web properties would entail assisting advertising firms with surveilling our volunteers, which would be unethical. Our project depends on our ability to maintain the privacy of our volunteers and sources - responsibilities we take seriously.

Accepting contributions presents its own issues. It would mean that we would begin to devote at least some amount of time to fundraising and the mountain of paperwork that the government requires of non-profits who do that. Fundraising has proved to be the undoing of many projects through penalties due to failure to meet one of the countless rules that go with it and internal conflicts over how to spend the money. When fundraising proves successful, some organizations slowly begin to ignore their initial mission (the Red Cross is a particularly tragic example). There is too much riding on this project for us to fail; no one else is willing to do the work that we do - and despite our successes we have only begun to scratch the surface of bringing transparency to puppycide.

Several of the many rules that comes along specifically with 501(c)(3) organizations would impact our editorial decisions. We would not be able to engage in what the IRS calls "Political Campaign Intervention". While it was never in the cards for the Puppycide Database Project to support specific political candidates in elections, the rules aren't so simple. Take this statement from the IRS for example:

"The prohibition extends beyond candidate endorsements. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made by or on behalf of an organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition on political campaign intervention."

Let's say some miracle occurs and puppycide becomes a campaign issue. Candidate A says that they support a host of law enforcement reforms to prevent puppycide, and Candidate B says that there is no such thing as puppycide. PDB Project would need to keep our mouths shut or risk losing our tax exempt status (which could lose our contributers their tax benefits from their donations). Sheriffs also run for elections. If we publish the number of dogs that a Sheriff's department killed during an election period, would that run us afoul of the rules? The IRS maintains a huge amount of leeway in putting pressue on nonprofits. This move would provide the IRS with the ability to put such pressue on the Puppycide Database Project.

No matter what decision we make, there will be benefits and liabilities. That is why we need feedback from all of our volunteers, partners and sources. The only way to make this choice is to make it together.

For security reasons we have not yet added up comments on our blog, there are many easy ways to let us know your thoughts. Feel free to leave a secure message on our website. You can also drop us a line on Twitter or comment on our Google+ page. We also have a fairly brand-new Google+ Community that makes it easy to chat with other volunteers.

We won't be making any decisions overnight, and we will keep everyone informed. Compelling arguments for or against non-profit status and fundraising can be published here on our blog upon request. Please keep in mind, though, that our founding members are journalists and computer programmers rather than millionaires. The larger we grow the more difficult it becomes to fund day to day operations out of pocket, so we will eventually need to come up with a solution.

As always, the most important thing that you can do to help is to submit a record to our database, which is absolutely free. And just to reiterate, all of our researchers will always be available free to independent researchers upon request. No matter how we fund our expenses, we will continue to shine a light on the problem on police violence toward animals and their owners.