Jim Bouderau always liked animals, and as a teenager he worked for a veterinarian and thought about becoming a vet himself. Ultimately, though, he found a career he loved in the hospitality industry. When he moved to Ithaca, New York, in 2005, it was for the purpose of opening and managing a hotel.
Among the people Bouderau met in Ithaca were board members of the SPCA of Tompkins County. The SPCA is a private, open admission shelter that serves the county and the city of Ithaca, as well as most of the other municipalities in the county. Bouderau was impressed by the work the shelter was doing, and joined the SPCA’s board of directors. In early 2011 when former director Abigail Smith left to take over as director of the Austin Animal Center, Bouderau was on the search committee to find a new director.
The committee did some thinking about what they wanted in a new executive director, and decided that the one area where they had the most need going forward was connecting with major donors. The SPCA of Tompkins County had an illustrious history in No Kill dating back to 1999, when the board, impressed by the work that Rich Avanzino had done at the San Francisco SPCA, adopted a resolution to go No Kill. In 1999 and 2000 the shelter’s live release rate was 75%, which was one of the highest in the country at that time for an open admission shelter. When Nathan Winograd became director in 2001 he increased the live release rate to over 90%, and Abigail Smith continued that high save rate during her tenure.
No Kill had come at a cost, however, and the SPCA was spending about twice as much per county resident as it had spent in the days before No Kill. The good news about No Kill is that any increased costs can potentially be offset by increased donations, since residents are usually happy to support a No Kill shelter. By the late 2000s, the SPCA was doing well in fundraising in terms of its annual fund and its direct-mail program, but it was lagging in major gifts.
Once the search committee had identified major gifts as the biggest need for the new director to fill, they decided that they really needed to hire a local person who would have the contacts within the community for that effort. Bouderau ultimately stepped forward for the job, thinking that he would serve as director for a period of one to three years, just long enough to get the major donors program on a firm footing.
That was in May of 2011, and now, more than four years later, Bouderau is still the executive director. He has achieved the goal of putting the SPCA on a solid financial foundation, and the shelter’s income now matches its expenses. He decided to stay on, though, because he “absolutely loves” the job and finds it more fulfilling than anything else he has done.
Bouderau jokes that being a shelter director is similar to running a hotel because he’s still in the business of lodging. Joking aside, there is a great deal of similarity in what is needed for both jobs. Running an animal shelter, like running a business, requires skills in facility management, financial management, and human resources. Bouderau is an example of something that we frequently see in successful No Kill shelters, which is directors who have little or no experience in animal sheltering but are able to succeed because they are good managers. Bouderau’s background is in business, but we have also seen successful shelter directors with backgrounds in marketing and law.
Bouderau attributes a lot of the SPCA’s success to the community of Ithaca. He notes that it is a progressive community with residents who are very receptive to forward-thinking ideas like No Kill. As one example of the support the SPCA gets from the community he points to the SPCA’s relationship with the Cornell shelter medicine program, which was one of the first such programs in the country. In 2012 the shelter formalized a relationship with Cornell in which a team of four veterinarians, including Dr. Elizabeth Berliner, the head of the shelter medicine program, provide veterinary care at much less than market rates for the SPCA. Two of the four veterinarians are interns or residents – graduate veterinarians who want to learn more about shelter medicine – and the benefit for the Cornell program is that the interns and residents get hands-on experience in a working shelter. The program allows the SPCA to save animals who require very complex care. It also provides a 24-hour on-call service for animal control officers to help them triage injured and ill animals in the field and decide if the animals can be cared for at the shelter or need to go straight to the Cornell hospital.
The next big goal that Bouderau wants to tackle, now that he has the shelter on a sustainable financial basis, is to rebuild the old shelter on the SPCA’s 12-acre campus. The original shelter building is very old. In 2004 a new adoption center was completed, and that provides a bright, modern place to welcome people looking for pets. Most of the work of the shelter is still done in the old building, though, and it needs to be replaced.
Tompkins County is a microcosm of what makes for a great shelter system. It has a progressive community that supports the shelter, a private non-profit with a forward-thinking board that contracts for animal control and provides open-admission sheltering, access to the latest in shelter medicine, and last, but far from least, an executive director with the right skills for the job.