Five Reasons Why Government Is Bad At No Kill

If you’ve been in No Kill for very long, you’ve noticed it — the great majority of communities that have achieved sustainable No Kill have done so with a lot of help from the private sector. From Jacksonville to Austin to Kansas City (MO) to Atlanta to Salt Lake City to Charlottesville to Reno, and in a lot of places in between, private 501(c)(3) organizations are creating and sustaining No Kill.

We want to create No Kill in all communities, so it’s important to know why local governments are so bad at creating No Kill on their own. Here are five handicaps that local governments have when they run their shelters themselves. All of these problems are far less likely to affect a private 501(c)(3) organization that is running the municipal shelter by contract or partnering with the municipal shelter.

  1. Lack of flexibility in hiring. Governments need to be fair and impartial in hiring, and in order to achieve this they develop lists of criteria that candidates should meet for each position. These criteria tend to value experience in the subject matter very heavily. A list of criteria for shelter manager, for example, might include x number of years of experience working in a supervisory level at an animal shelter. Some of the best No Kill leaders have been people who took over shelters with no previous experience in the field. Richard Avanzino, for example, the father of No Kill and the legendary director of the San Francisco SPCA, had never worked in a shelter before he was hired as the president of the SPCA. The San Francisco SPCA, as a private organization, was free to take a chance on Avanzino. A large city would not have that flexibility. It’s a good thing that governments have hiring criteria because the criteria help prevent nepotism and good-ole-boy networks. Hiring criteria are a very bad thing for No Kill, though.
  2. Lack of flexibility in firing. Similarly, governments establish procedures that must be completed before an employee can be fired. Successful No Kill directors tend to surround themselves with hard-working people who have can-do attitudes and share a passionate commitment to the goal of No Kill. when directors are reforming a kill shelter they often have to replace a sizable portion of the previous work force. That can be very difficult to accomplish in a government-run shelter. If a private organization is running the shelter, or partnering with the shelter, it is likely to have far more flexibility in firing people.
  3. Lack of ability to fundraise. Government shelters often eschew fundraising. They may have a private organization that raises funds for them, but this type of fundraising in usually ineffectual. People like to donate to the organization that’s doing the work, not an organization that’s raising funds for the organization doing the work. Getting to No Kill requires funds for things like veterinary care, offsite adoption venues, and modern buildings. That means substantial amounts of money must come from somewhere, and private sector organizations that are running a public shelter have a much easier job with this fundraising than municipal-run shelters.
  4. Too many layers of management. I have volunteered at a county shelter where every deviation from established policy, no matter how small, had to be approved by county leadership. And approval was not just a matter of picking up the phone — it took weeks or even months. Multiple layers of management was one of the problems with the Dallas city shelter that was cited in the recent BCG report on the shelter. Layers of government bureaucracy can make it difficult or impossible for the director of a city-run shelter to do things like establishing an adoption venue, hiring a rescue coordinator, hold adoption specials, use social media, or network with other organizations.
  5. Conflicting missions. The primary reason for the existence of local government in our constitutional system is to protect the health and safety of citizens, and domestic pets are not citizens.  Cities and counties tend to see their primary duties in relation to domestic pets as animal control and enforcing animal-related laws and ordinances. Saving the lives of pets is distinctly lower on the list of priorities. A private organization that runs the municipal shelter by contract or partners with the municipal shelter is free to use private funds for lifesaving measures that local governments see as beyond the scope of their duties.

What’s the take-away from all this? When advocates are trying to reform a city or county shelter, they need to think about how they are going to deal with these five barriers. In some progressive towns and smaller cities, the local government may provide enough resources, hire a good director, and give that director free rein. Everywhere else, the private sector is probably going to have to have some pretty extensive boots-on-the-ground involvement in order for No Kill to succeed and be sustainable. That involvement usually comes in the form of a 501(c)(3) organization winning a contract to run the municipal shelter, or entering into a partnership with the shelter to pull all healthy and treatable animals that the municipal shelter can’t save.