Words of Wisdom

I’ve interviewed lots of No Kill shelter directors over the last few years, and many of them have told me about the mottoes they use to guide their organizations. Some of those mottoes, at first glance, can seem rather anodyne, but on closer inspection they reveal important truths about successful animal sheltering.

One of my favorite mottoes is the one Richard Avanzino and his team lived by when they were running the San Francisco SPCA: “Do a good job, tell people about it, and ask for their help.” When I first heard this I thought “what could be more obvious?” But on closer inspection, this motto turns out to have a very pertinent meaning for No Kill. Notice the placement of “do a good job.” It’s first, not last. In other words, before a shelter director can go to the community and ask for help, the director has to do a good job.

I’ve often heard people say things like “we could have a neonatal kitten program if only we had the money,” or “we could have a giant adoptathon if only we had the volunteers,” or “we could keep animals healthy if we had a new shelter building.” In other words, they are saying that they could do a good job if only someone outside of their organization would first supply them with the resources they need.

As Avanzino’s motto says, that’s backward. The fact is that no one wants to donate to or volunteer with an organization that is not proving that it has value. An organization that wants community support has to show that it can do a good job first, before it asks for money or volunteers or other resources.

When Avanzino started working for the San Francisco SPCA in April of 1976, one of the first things that happened was that the city said it was going to cancel the contract that provided over half of the SPCA’s funding. Avanzino persuaded the city to continue with the contract, but the SPCA was still in dire financial shape. And it was doing a lousy job of animal sheltering. Avanzino did not go to the public and say “please give us money so we can do a better job.” Instead, in his first six months with the SPCA he started a low-income spay-neuter clinic, extended shelter hours to seven days a week from three, stopped accepting feral cats for euthanasia, started vaccinating animals on intake, painted the shelter, junked the SPCA’s decompression chamber, and made many other positive changes. Only then did he go to the public, tell them what the SPCA was doing to save lives, and ask for their help. The rest is history.

Another notable thing about Avanzino’s motto was that it challenged the idea that was ingrained in the traditional shelter industry that the public did not care about homeless pets. The core of the San Francisco SPCA No Kill ethos was that the American people loved their pets, thought of them as family members, and would come to their rescue when they needed it the most. All the shelter had to do was to provide a framework to make it possible for the public to help.

Some might ask how shelter workers are supposed to do a good job before they get the resources needed to do a good job. It seems like saying they should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. That’s where another of my favorite mottoes comes in – “solutions, not excuses,” which is the motto of Teresa Johnson, director of Kansas City Pet Project (KCPP).

This is another motto that seems somewhat obvious at first glance, but when you look at it more closely it gets at one of the core issues that shelters encounter. Every shelter director faces problems. The key when confronted with a problem is not to use the problem as an excuse. Almost every shelter director in the United States has faced a shortage of resources. The difference between successful and unsuccessful directors is how they react.

Johnson put her motto into action in the early days of KCPP’s existence, when she faced the problem that their shelter building was in an out-of-the-way location with little visibility. They needed a new shelter in a better location, but the city had no interest at the time in building a new shelter. Johnson solved the problem by setting up an offsite adoption venue that she outfitted with donated equipment. This was only one of many innovations she made by looking for solutions, not excuses. Now, when KCPP asks the public for help, they have a track record that makes the public want to support them.

Another motto that expresses this same goal-oriented outlook is attributed to Caroline Earle White, who founded the first animal shelter in the United States in Philadelphia in 1870. White was one of the three great leaders of the post-Civil-War humane movement. One of her colleagues said of her that she “regarded defeat as but one of the steps to accomplishment.” White carried out that motto in her work. When she was barred by her gender from taking any active role with the first SPCA she founded, she founded a second one for women only. She faced a threat from medical school researchers who wanted to take dogs from her shelter for experimentation, but she outmaneuvered them. She had to deal with hostility and ridicule from reporters who thought that concern for “worthless curs” was silly. It took decades, but they gradually changed their views and their reporting. White did not allow any of these challenges or setbacks to throw her off course.

We hear a lot about how important leadership is to No Kill, and that’s certainly true, right down to the mottoes. So don’t make the mistake I did in brushing off these words of wisdom as obvious or unimportant. They can be keys to success.

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