“We are here tonight because Brother Wolf is facing a critical time in the organization’s history,” Brother Wolf Executive Director Leah Craig Fieser told a crowd of about 100 people during an April 29 public forum held at Highland Brewing Co. “The reality is that Brother Wolf is facing a $1 million funding gap this year.”
Fieser outlined three reasons for the organization’s instability, which she said started in 2016: straying from Brother Wolf’s core mission of companion animal rescue; expanding programs without sufficient funding; and an inadequate administrative structure and accounting procedures. A capital fundraising campaign, meant to finance the creation of a cutting-edge animal sanctuary, flopped. The overlapping issues caused Brother Wolf to bleed hundreds of thousands of dollars each year and left the organization with a “damaged reputation within the community,” Fieser said.
Failure to launch
In 2015, Brother Wolf announced plans to build an animal sanctuary to house and provide care for up to 1,200 animals after an anonymous donor gifted the organization $500,000 to purchase property in Leicester. The cost for the project was estimated at nearly $5 million, and its first phase was anticipated to be completed by 2016.
In March, Xpress reported that the organization had yet to break ground on the ambitious effort. Fieser announced a plan to sell the property in an April 22 press release. She also said that since 2015, more than $2 million had been raised for and spent toward the sanctuary. While some of the funding covered permitting and care for cows and pigs who lived on the property, she said how the majority of money was spent remains unclear.
“I understand any anger. We’re angry,” Fieser told Xpress, speaking on behalf of the organization, after the meeting. While some major donors expressed disappointment at the news, most appreciated receiving an update about the long-awaited project. “People are really excited to know the truth and people are excited that someone is saying these things out loud. They feel really validated,” she said.
Fieser attributes the financial turmoil to messy accounting practices that lacked a digitized system for organizing and tracking information. She said the organization has contracted with outside auditors to dig into years of information in hopes of shining more light on how money was spent. So far, the auditors’ findings don’t indicate criminal wrongdoing, although the process isn’t yet complete, Fieser said.
“We were really, really hoping that, by the time of all of this truth-telling to the public, we would be able to say exactly how much money came in from [donations to] the sanctuary, exactly how much money was spent — but we’re not there yet,” Fieser said. “When we are, we’ll tell people. We have no reason not to.”
Brother Wolf also announced that it will be stepping away from advocating vegan diets and lifestyles, a move that Fieser said has generated pushback from some members of the vegan community.
“I’m saddened to see Brother Wolf abandoning vegan advocacy,” says local resident Leslie Pardue. “I think there are ways to encourage awareness of the many troubling aspects of animal agriculture that are not polarizing and I wish Brother Wolf would choose that route instead of simply going silent on these important issues.”
“Food choices and animals are very emotional topics for people,” Fieser said. “It’s very emotional for people because it’s very personal and it’s part of their identity.”
Conversations among more than 50 employees led to the decision to change the organization’s on-campus vegan policy, which was implemented in 2015 and barred volunteers and staff from bringing nonvegan food on the premises, according to Fieser.
And while she supports other organizations that promote vegan advocacy, Fieser said that Brother Wolf’s expansion of its original mission to save companion animals polarized some donors and volunteers.
“We in no way are saying that that work is not valuable. There’s a million ways you can help animals, but the way Brother Wolf helps animals is through companion animal rescue,” Fieser explained.
In the face of Brother Wolf’s current upheaval and financial woes, Fieser said that she plans to implement best practices moving forward, including building a volunteer board of directors whose members will include a human resources director, two business bankers, an attorney and a certified public accountant. She also plans to work with an advisory committee consisting of community-based professionals and to strengthen the organization’s relationship with other animal rescues and the Asheville Humane Society.
“Everyone here wants best practices and wants us to do things the right way. Everyone wants every decision to be based on our core mission and for it to feel like there’s a team of people making decisions,” Fieser said.
Despite these efforts, however, Fieser noted that without increased revenue from donors, the community stands to lose the organization which she estimates could help 10,000 animals per year through adoptions, spay and neuter campaigns and foster placement. Those consequences, she said, could threaten Buncombe County’s status as a no-kill community.
“All of this stuff happened in the past, and yes, it is really hard to sit here and think about it and talk about it. It should have gone so differently but it didn’t. The thing that hasn’t changed is that we still have the same need,” Fieser said. “The next two months will determine the future of Brother Wolf.”