Guest Post: My New Best Friends: Thoughts and Experiences from the Best Friends National Conference, July 2015

by Mark Penn

OK, I admit it; I’m kind of a conference junkie. A bit of an introvert, so I don’t like to make myself very conspicuous, but I enjoy, in fact I thrive, on being in a room, a stadium, or even a closet with people who have deep convictions that are similar to my own. I’ve found that in the past five years, my convictions are more and more focused on the work of the No Kill movement. And I haven’t found a better place to draw energy from fellow No Kill advocates than the various conferences that are offered by some of our leading organizations.

My perspective on all of this comes from my position as a longtime board member for the Sonoma Humane Society in Northern California. We are a medium-sized private shelter, and our Board is somewhat hands-on, although only in certain areas. I was president of the board through some difficult times, including a transition of Executive Directors, a longterm financial crisis (now resolved, thankfully), and a current LRR of 97%. Now my interests as a board member focus most keenly on Advocacy. With this viewpoint, you might find my experiences to be very different from those of someone in a different capacity with a different organization. But when invited to guest-blog on my own impressions and experiences of the Best Friends National Conference, I was happy to spend the flight back across the country working on this chronicle.

I’ve been to three national No Kill conferences now – the first two were produced by the No Kill Advocacy Center and were held in Washington, DC. To put it bluntly, I fell in love with the movement at these events. Unfortunately Nathan has at least temporarily suspended those yearly events, and I have been feeling the loss – until I became aware of this year’s Best Friends annual conference. It was held in Atlanta this past week (7/15-7/19) and drew just under 1500 folks from around the country.

This conference was divided into several tracks, and we attendees could choose among them, and/or “cross-track” into any sessions from any area that was of interest to us. The track choices included No-Kill Components (I’m paraphrasing the titles here): Rallying the Community (Advocacy), Increasing Adoptions, Resolving Behavior Issues (animals, not people…), Animal Wellness, Fundraising, Marketing, and Leadership. Of course like most conferences, there were exhibits, mixing/networking sessions, ad hoc get-togethers, etc. Technology was running rampant at the conference, like it is most everywhere. One of the most useful tools we had at our disposal was a conference app that was very powerful, including an individual’s session planning, an easy way to keep personal notes which were also shareable if one chose to do so, session evaluation opportunities, messaging to conferees from the organizers and amongst ourselves, maps, and even a listing of nearby “veg-friendly” restaurants. Oh, and perhaps the best piece of all of that was the opportunity to download all of the powerpoints and handouts from any session, whether I attended or not, for my own reference. That part really eased my concern about not being able to get to two or more contemporaneous sessions without possessing the talent of being in two or more places at once. With this app tool, all I had to carry around with me was my smartphone. Very cool.

The conference was well-organized and moved smoothly, at least from my perspective. I heard a few mutterings a couple of times from some others who wished that some of the meeting/breakout rooms were larger, but I’m not entirely sure how conference organizers plan for that, in trying to read 1500 minds and where those minds will want to go every couple of hours. The cadre of volunteers who kept us flowing and timely did a great job, and I had to give kudos, even to the woman who wouldn’t let me in to what was originally a men’s room but had been hijacked for the ladies (since we males were highly outnumbered at the conference). She was nice enough to help me find a “real” men’s room – or perhaps that should be a “real men’s” room – before things became emergent.

Although the conference appeared to kick off with the Thursday afternoon sessions, there was a “pre-conference” talk available in the morning. It seemed at first odd to me that the organizers chose to begin with a session that focused on burnout (“Hearts Larger Than Hands: Creating Balance in Your Life to Save More Animals”) but as it progressed, the light went on for me – it was almost like the Catholic requirement of making confession before taking communion (if you’ll pardon the religious reference) – and I found the session to be cleansing and a great preparation for what was to follow later that afternoon and through the weekend. Clearly, if we don’t take care of ourselves in this bloody battle to stop shelter killing, we will drain ourselves of the juices necessary to save as many animals as possible. It makes sense that we are often in a cyclone of “must-do’s,” but it makes even more sense that giving ourselves a break will, in the long run, lengthen our own worklife and by extension, the number of animal lives that we can save over that longer and more efficient period of time. As a quick shout out to the excellent presentation by the session leaders, I want to mention their latest book, “The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals.” I’m looking forward to reading it.

Thursday afternoon’s sessions allowed us to dive right in to the subjects at hand, and I chose to attend the sessions titled “Advocacy 101: Successful Lobbying for Community Cats,” followed by “Working the System: Understanding Good Policies and How to Get Them in Your Community.” My thirst for Advocacy was getting a good slaking right off the bat. I also have to tip my hat to the presenters. All of the sessions that I attended were well-prepared and the presenters knew their subjects while managing their audiences as well as they handled their material. I did not attend the after-hours social and networking events that were offered, as I needed an occasional recharge to absorb as much of the session information as possible, and as I said, I’m not exactly the type that bounces around the ballroom anyway.

Friday began with an all-conference and enthusiastic welcome session which might have been a bit too rah-rah (from my curmudgeonly perspective), but did include interesting commentaries from several Best Friends bigwigs and ended with an engaging talk by a woman named Asha Curran, director of the Center for Innovation and Social Impact for the 92Y institution in New York. We heard about the importance of innovation and keeping up with current trends – even keeping ahead of them. The late morning session allowed us to choose one of eight highlighted No Kill communities and learn about how they achieved their success, along with some of the lessons they learned along the way. Boy, it was hard to choose – and if I had any complaint at all about the conference, it would be that I would have loved to hear several of these presentations, rather than have them presented all at the same time. After lunch there were two more sessions with several options; I selected “The Data Dance: Your No Kill Best Friend” and “Rallying the Troops: How to Engage Your Community to Save More Lives.”

Saturday morning’s first event was basically a send-off and salute to Rich Avenzino, the retiring president of Maddie’s Fund, who will step down this summer. It was an informative and touching tribute to someone who clearly was behind the No Kill movement’s birth and development. The second morning session’s choice for me was “Engaged: Effective Community Messaging,” and after lunch I hit “Special Delivery: Transporting Pets to New Homes” (I’m an avid transporter; there’s nothing like having a pair of puppy eyes – or 20 pairs of them – staring at you while making a beeline down the freeway… oh yes, along with the smell of lots of poop). I confess that I missed the big “Save Them All Celebration” in the late afternoon, in favor of a little of that recharging I mentioned earlier.

Sunday was a half-day affair, as the conference was officially ending before lunchtime, although it was followed in the afternoon by a separate Animal Law Symposium. As an advocate I was sorry to miss the symposium, but my airline seat was beckoning me to get home to my own fur family. I did squeeze two final sessions in on Sunday morning though: “It’s a Win-Win: Friends of Animals Programs” and “Committed Partner Outreach: The Power of Best Friends Network Partners.” As I exited that final session, of course sorry to leave the fountain of information and inspiration, the mood around the conference center was definitely more quiet and unwinding, but understandably so, and it actually gave those of us who were there until lunchtime a little bit of reflection and perhaps the beginning of a gentle letdown for our journey back to the reality of home.

Now, the challenge is to take all of this terrific stuff and figure out how to use it locally. My shelter and my community would use it very differently than one somewhere else. But that, I think, is part of the beauty of all of this – the 1500 of us who descended on Atlanta leave that one single place, on 1500 different roads home, that will all hopefully bring us to one single destination: a No Kill nation. As Best Friends would say, we truly can “Save Them All.”

Along with all of this “serious” stuff, I noticed that No Kill conferences must be THE most fertile ground for the collection of fascinating T-shirts. The number of organizations represented at these conferences, combined with the innovation, creativity, and convictions/missions that they bring with them, have produced some great mottos, missions, and T-shirts!

Next years’ Best Friends Annual Conference will be held in Salt Lake City, July 14-17, 2016. If you are a No Kill enthusiast, or even questioning the meaning of it, and you enjoy the camaraderie of hundreds of other committed warriors, I highly recommend these endeavors. There’s nothing like a fully charged battery when it comes to this work that so often drains us of so much. Do it for yourself and for your community’s animals.

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