Monday, October 13, 2008

Leadership is the key to No Kill success

Comment from Red

I want to first address a comment I received on my last posting, asking for my personal experience in the areas of business management and shelter management. I have personally supervised and organized others in a large company in the private sector, acted as a managing editor for a busy weekly newspaper that was family owned and operated, and now work for the Department of Defense and have seen how different that level of government operates in the areas of human resources and budget allocation.

However, I have never managed an animal shelter myself, and most of what I write about in this blog is from an activist's point-of-view about a subject I am passionate about on a personal level and which I have studied extensively. All my work in the animal-welfare world has been as a volunteer. I do dedicate much of my free time to this work.

The way I see it, fund expenditure and management of all resources within an animal shelter should directly tie into that facility's mission and vision statements. If you are working hard toward the goal of No Kill, for example, managing all resources and allocating all funds from that perspective will lead you to responsibly manage the budget and avoid any abuse or waste. After all, incorrectly managing both your human resources in staff/volunteers and monetary resources in terms of budget, grants, fee revenues, and fundraising directly ties to how many lives you save or not.

Do I think that I have the professional, organizational, and leadership skills to handle such a high-pressured environment? I personally think that I do and that many other professionals without shelter management experience do as well. Anyone with a business sense and a passion for saving lives would be way ahead of the curve--even more so than directors that come from years of operating shelters in the same old way. At our shelter, we have had directors come here with 20+ years of experience, and we have had the same systemic issues for many years, even when the shelter was operating under contract with a humane society instead of the municipality it is today.

Successful shelter directors of the past decade

Part of the work of my Las Cruces No Kill Study Group is going to be contacting and interviewing some current successful shelter directors to find out how they have achieved their goals. Many of these directors do not have a long history in the sheltering industry.

Richard Avanzino, the father of No Kill and the first to create the most safe place for homeless animals in the U.S. at that time--the San Francisco SPCA in the late 90s--took that shelter over when it was months away from bankruptcy and killing most of the animals entering the building (in 1976). Avanzino is a pharmacist and lawyer by trade, working as a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry at one point and the mayor of his hometown in a different lifetime. He led that humane society to become one of the richest in the nation, and he implemented many new ideas that at the time were unheard of and for which he faced ridicule, roadblocks, and derision at every turn, such as the idea of holding off-site adoptions, altering animals prior to adoption, and trying to save the lives of those deemed "unadoptable". He also turned the shelter around in the eyes of the public by treating people better, offering great customer service, and simply making it easier for people to do the right thing.

When Avanzino departed to become president of Maddie's Fund in the late 90s, the San Francisco SPCA reached further No Kill success under the leadership of Nathan Winograd, Avanzino's protege. That's when they started saving lives of sick and treatable animals, too. Winograd is also a lawyer by trade and hails from Standford Law School, where he was instrumental in their TNR success at the campus. Since Winograd departed the San Francisco SPCA to show No Kill could be duplicated in a rural setting (in 2001), the humane society has been backsliding in recent years in its No Kill success and no longer uses that terminology as well. They have gone from 90+% save rates to low 80% these days, which is happening because some of the programs and services implemented by Avanzino/Winograd have been cut in recent years and because their current management is more old guard. This goes to show how important leadership is in No Kill success.

Winograd went on to show No Kill success at the Tompkins SPCA in New York, which is still No Kill today under new leadership. When Winograd left Tompkins, he went back home to California to found the No Kill Advocacy Center and write and publish "Redemption". In just over one year, the impact of his book and work has been phenomenal. He has toured hundreds of shelters in the past year, and he helped create plans of action for the Charlottesville SPCA and the Nevada Humane Society, both which have been very successful. Other areas that have hired his No Kill Solutions to review their shetlers have not followed the No Kill Equation, and they are not having much success at this time (such as in Philadelphia).

At the Charlottesville SPCA, which has saved more than 90% of its dogs and cats for years now, Susanne Kogut is another director that was a lawyer in her previous life. At the Nevada Humane Society, director Bonney Brown has a varied background as well. She was first in the retail industry, and then was COO at Best Friends Animal Society, and worked in 2005 with Alley Cat Allies, personally leading a team to rescue cats and reunite them with their owners after hurricane Katrina.

What all these successful directors have in common is none operate out of false assumptions and the culture of defeatism that plagues the animal sheltering industry across this country, with our area being no exception. What these communities have in common is that they, too, were once failing their homeless animals but looked to new, progressive ideas for change instead of accepting their high levels of killing as them simply doing the public's dirty work. Some did bring in Winograd to do a full review of their shelters and help search for a new director and create a detailed plan for how to start working toward No Kill from Day 1. However, the key is not simply getting an assessment; it is following through with the suggested plan, and again, this cannot happen without strong leadership in that direction.

Some of the other communities the No Kill Study Group are going to contact are in the beginning stages of the No Kill transformation. It will be interesting to hear that perspective as well. And, I will be writing a full report on what our research yields and will present it to our City and County leaders as well as make copies available from this blog.

I think the most important element of No Kill success is not whether the leaders in charge of animal welfare hail from a long history in the animal-welfare industry or not ... it all hinges on the ability to look critically at your operations and realize that it makes sense to change if you are failing at the most important aspect of your job, which should be saving as many lives as you possibly can. It makes sense, too, to implement many lifesaving efforts and programs at the same time in order to save more lives and enrich the lives of companion animals and their guardians.

For more reading about what makes an ideal shelter director, follow this link:

For Bonney Brown's "How We Did It" report, follow this link:

A good question any leader should ask themselves

When I was watching one of the presidential candidate debates recently, one of the questions posed was deceptively simple: "What don't you know, and how will you learn it?"

Neither Senator Obama nor Senator McCain answered this question very well, and I cannot think of a harder, more challenging position than to be the leader of the most powerful nation on Earth. There must be so much neither of these men knows, and that applies to any of us.

I think the answer to this question can be posed to any leader in a difficult industry, and social services of any kind definitely apply.

If it were me, I would admit to what I don't know and actively look for the things I don't know so I can learn all I can to get up to speed quickly, and it would be my responsibility to keep up with my own industry. Also, I strongly believe in a protege/mentor model.

Usually, we think of mentors as those rare people we happen upon in our professional lives that take us under their wing and teach us everything they know so they can move onto other challenges. However, in the absence of a mentor, it is incumbent on any leader to seek them out and proactively learn what they need to know (as an active protege, in other words).

I can see where this applies very much to the animal sheltering industry, which is ever-changing. The more we want to save and enrich lives, the more we have to learn.