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Unforgettable—That's What You Are

People often think of the media first when trying to get the word out, but there’s more than one way to reach your public. By mainstreaming your shelter into community life, you can become the resource for all things animal. And it doesn’t have to cost you a fortune. In Part 5 of this year’s series on what it would take to end the need for euthanasia of healthy, behaviorally sound animals, Animal Sheltering will take you all over the country to examine strategies too irresistible to ignore—from the Oregon Humane Society’s “kissing booth” to Seattle Animal Control’s “Get Fit With Fido” program to the North Richland Humane Division’s “Critter Connection.” Be sure to read Parts 1 through 4 of our series—which covered the euthanasia debate, demographic and resource issues, acquisition of more government funding, and media relations.

You know it, we know it—and innovative outreach strategies and great client care can help you let your community know it too

In Seattle, Washington, animal control director Don Jordan has a problem familiar to many in the field of animal protection: He can’t get away from his work.

But although Jordan is a dedicated servant to the cause of ending animal abuse and homelessness, his inability to escape his job isn’t due to spending sleepless nights worrying about that cruelty case or working endless days trying to compensate for a lack of adequate staff and resources. Jordan can’t forget about his work for a wonderful reason: because others in his community aren’t forgetting it either.

“When I went to my last dentist’s appointment, the hygienist who was working on me goes, ‘So you work with animals. ... Well, I’m one of your foster parents,’ ” says Jordan. “I’d never met this person before.”

A visit to the optometrist’s office opened Jordan’s eyes even more when he discovered the technician working on his peepers shares a common vision to help animals; she became a volunteer at the Seattle Animal Shelter after hearing about it from a friend. “And I actually have three or four friends I bumped into over the last couple of years that I didn’t know were volunteers,” says Jordan. “It’s amazing—if I go to a barbecue or something, I’ll run into folks who have heard about us from friends and family.”

The chance meetings are more than just a matter of coincidence. Community awareness of Jordan’s agency didn’t come about overnight: it’s taken years of creative publicizing to expand Seattle’s humane family—a family that includes not only animal control but several humane societies, placement groups, and a network of foster homes and volunteers.

For people who love animals and love working for them, the constant sense of struggling against overwhelming numbers of animals and overwhelming ignorance and apathy can become, well, overwhelming. Having the community support and awareness that Jordan’s agency now enjoys may seem extraordinary, and it is. It may seem challenging—it’s that, too.

But it’s not impossible, and for every organization working toward ending the need for the euthanasia of healthy, behaviorally sound animals, the evolution of Seattle Animal Control can provide an inspirational blueprint for moving toward greater community support and understanding of why euthanasia exists—and what the community itself can do to reduce it.

Until fairly recently, Jordan says, the agency was “sort of doom and gloom,” stuck in the trenches of hard work and little visibility. But when he took over the helm in 1996, he started using the phrase “community-based organization” whenever he could. It wasn’t just a catchy slogan. It was a new way of thinking for the department. And the result has been what all animal protection agencies should be seeking to achieve with their outreach programs: recognition by the public that the shelter is part of the community, and the community is part of the shelter.

The Chance to Make a Difference

When I took over I kind of used [‘community-based organization’], trying to get the staff to really embrace that idea so that people in the greater Seattle community and Puget Sound can see some results,” Jordan says. “They have an opportunity to participate, whether with the 25 different volunteer programs we have or through foster care, or just making donations or helping to fundraise by doing a bake sale, or sometimes kids will do a pet drive.”

Even that phrasing gives away Jordan’s infectious optimism: working with Seattle Animal Control to make a difference for animals is, as he puts it, “an opportunity” for the public. And the public has responded to the department’s new vitality. The volunteer and foster programs that started in 1998 are 600 people strong, Jordan says, and volunteers work on projects from designing license plate frames promoting the shelter to walking dogs to counseling potential adopters. Adoption rates are up 70 percent, and donations to the agency’s Help the Animals Fund have been on the rise for years. By convincing his community of a simple truth—that helping the shelter is personally and socially rewarding—Jordan’s helped himself and his staff remember the truth of it: As difficult as it may be, as rife with grief and suffering, the world of animal protection provides almost endless opportunities for those involved to make a positive difference in the lives of people and animals.

Fans of Mark Twain will recognize what might be called the Tom Sawyer Theory of Community Outreach. When Tom misbehaves, his aunt punishes him with a difficult task: Whitewash the dingy six-foot-tall fence behind the house until it looks like new. Tom sets out reluctantly, trying unsuccessfully to bribe another boy to do the work for him, and the work seems interminable. But when neighborhood boys with time to play come by to mock his punishment, instead of groaning about the work and displaying his envy of their freedom, Tom tells them how much he’s enjoying it. “Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” he asks rhetorically. Soon the boys are begging for a chance with the brush, and Tom starts charging the kids to do his work for him. Before he knows it, the fence is painted with three coats of whitewash and his pockets are full of marbles and candy and other treasures. He’s discovered a core truth: Often all it takes is making the work look cool—like a privilege and an opportunity—and you can get more help than you need. And Tom didn’t have a task nearly as fun and rewarding as helping homeless animals.

Jordan’s organization and many others are getting the Tom Sawyer approach down pat. Gone are the days of shocking the public with photos of trash cans full of euthanized animals. Not gone, but much diminished, are fundraisers and outreach programs that focus on the animal abuse, cruelty, and suffering that shelters face every day. In the place of those grim approaches, there are agencies like Seattle Animal Control, which sends runners with adoptable dogs out to local hangouts on the weekend, tempting families back to the shelter to find the perfect pooch. There’s the Maryland SPCA in Baltimore, which sends its 36-foot-long, brightly colored “Neuter Scooter” bus out to those people who can’t come in to the shelter to have their animals sterilized. There’s the Humane Division of North Richland Hills, Texas, which has set up off-site adoptions in a local mall, complete with cute animal merchandise and a popcorn machine. There’s AnimalKind, which is promoting pet sterilization to thousands of people through compelling and professionally produced ads focusing on the health benefits of the surgeries, designed to inspire those pet owners who love their animals but haven’t been exposed to all the reasons for spay/neuter.

This wave of feel-good outreach strategies may be part of a new, more inclusive approach to charitable work frequently referred to as “venture philanthropy,” the charitable face of the “venture capital” buzz of the Internet boom. Donors, supporters, and volunteers who believe in “venture philanthropy” want to invest in organizations that are progressive, positive, community-based, and successful. In other words, they want to see a return on their investment. And in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks, people are tired of feeling powerless. They want to feel hopeful and empowered to make change within their communities—and successful, progressive organizations are taking advantage of that desire, helping people feel good by letting the people help them.

Shelters and animal care and control agencies frequently find themselves in almost constant crisis management, and outreach to the community can seem less important than the everyday challenges of maintaining the health and happiness of the animals and the sanity of shelter staff. The idea of reaching out to the very public that’s helped create the suffering and neglect shelter folks see daily can be discouraging, too—it’s so easy to look around at all the wonderful animals within a shelter’s walls and think that the general community is just never going to get it.

But it’s the public that’s created the problem of animal homelessness, and for better or for worse, it’s by reaching that same community that the ultimate end to the need for euthanasia of healthy, behaviorally sound animals will be found. If the community isn’t familiar with the mission of animal shelters, animal protection organizations will have a constant uphill battle to reduce animal abuse and homelessness. Plans to decrease intake, increase adoptions, and reduce euthanasia will founder in the face of the harsh reality: If people don’t know what you do, they can’t be expected to care about your issues.

It all boils down to numbers; try as they might want to, the enlightened folks who already work for, volunteer at, and support their local animal shelters can’t take all the animals home with them; the average living space of a shelter supporter already looks like a giant wall-to-wall hairball (with purrs and barks and confused human voices emanating from somewhere in the center).

What’s more, those aren’t the folks who are contributing to the problem. It’s the rest of the world—the people who picture “the pound” when they hear the words “animal shelter,” the people who think all shelter animals are sick or aggressive, the people who react to the idea of neutering by unconsciously protecting their own genitalia, the people who respond to the bells and whistles of the retail pet industry, the people who know they should sterilize their animals but just don’t view it as a priority—that animal protection organizations must reach.

Making Your Messages Count

While public service announcements and ad campaigns can play an important role in increasing community knowledge of shelters and their issues, paid advertising is only one method of outreach. Word of mouth, in-house publications, community events, t-shirts—all those little strands have their place in the tapestry of outreach strategy. Whether you’re trying to solicit volunteers, increase donations, or encourage people to do something specific such as adopt an animal or spay and neuter their own pets, the campaign has to be seen or heard by your audience. The goal is to achieve message saturation—to become impossible to ignore or overlook. A great new slogan or logo seen only by the supporters who read your newsletter will go to waste. A tiny black and white ad placed among larger full-color pieces may get lost. A bumper sticker with lettering too small to read isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

In Utah, a coalition of organizations faces some marketing challenges in trying to reach the goal of eliminating the need for euthanasia of adoptable animals. No More Homeless Pets has taken on a state where 80 percent of the area is rural and populations are spread thinly over large stretches of land.

In addressing this challenge through its “Big Fix” program, No More Homeless Pets travels around the state performing sterilizations in its mobile spay/neuter clinic. But before the organization can even publicize upcoming dates and locations of Big Fix events, it needs to first figure out where people in a given community get their information, says Greg Castle, president of No More Homeless Pets in Utah.

“We’ve done quite a bit of research into what media local communities use most,” Castle says. “You get into situations where, in one small town, everyone reads the county newspaper, which may be something that’s published every two weeks and is very small, but that’s what everyone reads. In another place, they listen to the radio station. Other places, the only thing that works is the statewide TV. But usually, there is some local form of media which is more effective. ... Sometimes it even comes down to putting a flier up in a particular gas station where everyone goes.”

By finding out where people turn for information, No More Homeless Pets has been able to reach out to members of traditionally hard-to-reach communities; in the second year of the program, the Big Fix sterilized over 3,000 animals in rural areas.

A sign by the side of the road near a cow pasture in rural Utah might be equivalent to a flashing neon billboard in downtown Detroit, where the Michigan Humane Society has put on its marketing hat to conduct a new advertising campaign. A major component of the image overhaul is a slogan and graphic that conveys a single message: the words Somebody here needs you, accompanied by the furry faces of canine and feline guests and the humane society’s logo.

But executive director Cal Morgan knows that an image alone does not an outreach program make, and so the shelter is putting the new logo into every bit of empty space it can get its hands on. Banners of the slogan appear in each of the society’s three shelters, on every page of its website, on donated billboard space above major roadways around Detroit, on donated commercials during the television program that recently featured the society’s work, and at every community event the organization sponsors or attends. The messages are so friendly and catchy, Morgan says, that the Detroit Tigers now play the ads with the logo on their ballpark’s Jumbo-Tron screens, and they’ve given the shelter space in their program books. “So the consumer continues to see these really warm images of animals and people, and the reminder, ‘Somebody here needs you,’ ” says Morgan.

That sort of frequency is important, says Joan Williams, whose organization, AnimalKind, has designed ads encouraging spay/neuter and placed them in major daily papers in North Carolina. The group raises money to pay for the ads to appear twice a week for six months—the repetition, says Williams, is absolutely crucial: “[You need] to talk to the same person over and over again, to cut through that clutter. Because nobody’s waiting for a message about pet overpopulation.”

The clutter of information that gluts mass media markets is forcing corporations to come up with some innovative ways of promoting their products. Sony recently decided to try a new form of “covert marketing”—the corporation is hiring fake tourists to loiter near famous American landmarks and ask passersby to take their pictures. The posers are not really interested in getting snapped with Mount Rushmore—the whole strategy is designed to get people to notice the flashy and expensive cameras the “tourists” will be handing to them.

It’s sneaky, and getting sneakier all the time. But nonprofits can take a page from their moneymaking counterparts and learn how to insinuate themselves and their messages into their communities—without even a hint of deviousness. Seattle Animal Control has found a way to make adoptable dogs part of the mainstream but didn’t have to stoop to tricky tactics or subliminal messages.

Mindful of the fact that Americans are a culture born to channel-surf, Jordan has learned he can’t expect the Seattle community to “stay tuned for these important messages”; instead, his department has developed messages that run alongside people. As part of the agency’s “Get Fit With Fido” program, local teams of runners come into the agency and take dogs who are up for adoption out for runs; the dogs wear banners with the agency’s logo saying they’re available for adoption. Jordan even pays the registration fees for runners who want to enter marathons, as long as they bring an adoptable dog to run with. It’s a cheap method of advertising the shelter and promoting the animals there, and the media loves the runners, Jordan says; the teams are frequently featured in local papers and news programs.

Whatever outreach methods shelters are using, all of them are trying to make every dollar stretch as far as possible. When Coca-Cola runs an ad campaign that flops, the company may lose a few million, but what’s a few million to a corporation so rich and powerful it already has seemingly half the world paying to advertise for it in the form of Coke t-shirts, Coke collectibles, and Coke “home d¦rdquo;?

In the world of animal care and control, on the other hand, tight budgets make planning and strategy even more important, says Valerie Holford, senior vice president at Fenton Communications, a firm that does marketing and public relations for nonprofit and advocacy groups. “With nonprofits and community campaigns, because resources are limited both in time and money, what’s important is not to try to do everything,” says Holford. “Do a few things well, rather than trying to do everything and not getting much accomplished ... so that every dollar and moment you’re spending is well-spent.”

While the humane community’s dreams of placing a 30-second spay/neuter commercial spot during the Super Bowl’s halftime may long remain a pipe dream, even agencies with limited budgets can find new ways to shout their messages from the rooftops—and get the community to stand up and pay attention. And all of the people who have been to your shelter and know about your good work are your first and best ally in reaching the rest of them.

The Power of the People

There’s a resistance ingrained in the nonprofit world to learning from retailers—after all, it’s the money-making machinery of the retail pet industry that’s helped keep shelters caring for the pet industry’s “returns.”

But many of the strategies of the retail world can be applied to animal care and control agencies; organizations can use the power of corporate-think for the greater good rather than for personal profit. Retail policies and practices in advertising, customer support, and customer service can all be extrapolated to apply to the world of animal sheltering.

Take a local business you frequent. If your neighborhood is like most, at the Megachain video store down the street, two different clerks are doing their best every day to cancel each other out.

Joan, who works on weekdays after 4, is 17 and hates her job; when a customer asks for help, she sighs extravagantly. An aspiring film student, she makes condescending comments to people when their choice of movies doesn’t impress her and has been known to recommend Tarantino movies to families with young children.

Jane, the mother of two school-age kids, works mornings and finds conversation with the usually adult customers a nice respite from her young rascals. Always polite and helpful, she’ll call nearby stores to track down a video a customer wants, and tries to factor in what she hears from them when making recommendations. She’s become so good at pegging what customers will like that many of them thank her when they come back in for another recommendation.

Imagine the confusion that will ensue when your shelter manager, who tends to rent videos on his lunch break and thinks the clerks at the store are the nicest he’s ever dealt with, and your volunteer coordinator, who likes to stop for a movie on her way home but will now go out of her way to avoid “Lackluster Video,” get in a conversation about the customer service at the video store. One imagines surly, snotty Joan as the icon of service at the company; the other swears it’s Jane. And no matter how many brightly colored circulars the retailer sends out, no matter how many cute TV spots they run, with the continued assistance of Joan and Jane, Megachain video store #3453 ensures that customer opinion will continue to hover in a state of perpetual ambivalence, bringing in new patrons no faster than it drives away old ones.

While the “stock” an animal shelter carries is infinitely more important and meaningful than the local video store’s, there are some commonalities between the two entities: Just like any business, a shelter presents multiple faces to the public, and every person who comes in may see a different one. They may see animal control officers upset from a recent run-in with the angry owner of a chained dog, or they may see new volunteers excited about painting a mural on the shelter wall, kennel care staff cleaning out kennels, and front desk personnel greeting people. Every one of those faces will stick in their minds when they leave your shelter to talk about their experiences. And every interaction in an animal shelter has the power to shape the future—to break down previous fears and apprehensions about “the pound,” to encourage adopters, to intervene in potential relinquishments, to let people know that shelters are a good place, not just to get a pet but to get an open ear and a helping hand. So are visitors seeing Joan or Jane when they come in?

The key to good client service can be summed up in three words: Just be cool. Be friendly, even when the shelter’s busy. Be helpful, even when you’re not sure you can help. The messages you send out into the community—we’re here, we’re great, come visit us!—must be reflected by your staff when people come in. As the saying goes, you must be the change you wish to see in the world.

It was that simple precept that brought Pam Burney’s agency in North Richland Hills, Texas, a surprise windfall, in one of those happy incidents that helps the staff remember that every contact with the public matters, says Burney.

A woman from out of town came into the Humane Division on a day when everything was happening at once. “They were really swamped. ... Somebody was bringing their dogs, somebody was taking one home; they even had a guy who was upset, and they were really slammed and helping all these people,” says Burney, director of the city’s Environmental Services, which oversees the agency. But her staff kept their cool and continued their polite, friendly interactions with each customer in turn, Burney says, making sure to acknowledge each new visitor with a smile and eye contact, and telling them they’d help them as soon as possible. “So, [the woman] stood there for a few minutes and kind of walked around,” says Barney, “and walked out and came back in and handed her credit card to one of the guys at the stand and said, ‘I want to donate $1,000 because I like the way you handle people and I like the way you handle animals.’ ”

The Customer is Always:
a) Irresponsible, b) Stupid, or c) Right?

Great client service wins people over; unfriendly or dismissive service sends people running—often to tell their friends about the lousy way they were treated at the shelter. Unfortunately, staffers’ frustrations over the carelessness of many relinquishers and other daily challenges can imbue their speaking tones and body language with an unfriendliness that can be off-putting for those good people who come to the shelter to adopt an animal.

While it’s absolutely necessary to do screening and counseling to make sure potential adopters are prepared for the commitment of pet ownership, a shelter with staff who unconsciously assume every visitor is irresponsible or stupid, and treat them accordingly, should not be surprised when those visitors respond in kind. In the world of the retailer, the saying is “The customer is always right.” In sheltering, it’s perhaps a little different: “The customer is always worth listening to.”

That goes for interactions with people who are giving up their pets, too. Studies have repeatedly shown that the reasons people relinquish animals are frequently far more complicated than the ones they write down on the forms at the shelter front desk. While the old despicable reason of “He doesn’t match the carpet” may continue to live in the minds of disgusted shelter workers across the country, the total selfishness it symbolizes is far from typical; many people who have reached the point of surrender have been struggling with the decision for months.

In Baltimore, the Maryland SPCA recently dealt with just such a case. A man called, terribly upset because his beloved mutt had attacked his fiancfrsquo;s child. He’d had the dog for several years and had worked with a trainer after he’d adopted him, but since the two hadn’t been around young children in the past, the dog’s aggression towards kids wasn’t apparent until the man moved in with his fianc`and her daughter. When he called the SPCA, the organization responded with compassion. They said he could bring his dog to the shelter, where a professional trainer could evaluate him. While the shelter and the trainer ended up agreeing that the dog shouldn’t be placed, their helpfulness and compassion may have saved the reputations of shelters everywhere in the mind of the grief-stricken owner—especially since the staff at another organization he’d called had told him coldly, “You’re not going to get any sympathy from us.”

Making a positive impression is so important, says Anne Irwin, executive director of the Pennsylvania SPCA in Bucks County, because many potential adopters coming into a shelter are there for the first time. Maybe they’ve heard something good about your organization, maybe they’re just curious, maybe they have negative beliefs and they’re there to confirm them. But whatever brought them in, make sure they know they’re welcome there—and give them reasons to come back. “They may be giving the shelter a chance. And if they have a bad experience, they may be polite about it, but they may never come back to a shelter,” Irwin says. “So you may be hurting more than just ... one animal.”

And one good experience—whether it’s with a shelter animal or a shelter staffer or program—can benefit the shelter for years to come. The visual equation on so many posters in animal care agencies across the country, the one that diagrams the multiplication effect of one unsterilized animal giving birth to six, and those six giving birth to thirty six, can also diagram a more positive branching out: that of one person telling another about her great experience at your facility, and that person telling two more, and so on.

If you’re sending out the message We’re here, we’re great, come visit us, the best way to make sure that message sticks is to make sure it’s true; evaluating and improving your programs, facility, and services regularly will help you live up to your own expectations—and to the image your campaigns seek to project. Shopping malls hire “secret shoppers” to cruise retail outlets and provide feedback about customer service and impressions of the stores; they use this data to analyze what can be improved. If you’re finding that years of working in the same facility has given you “blinders” to the first impressions it might make on strangers, you can “secret shop” your own facility. Get some friends, both those from other animal protection organizations and those who don’t work in the sheltering field at all, to drop by and visit the public areas of your shelter. Have them write down their impressions—how long were they there before a staff person talked to them? Did they feel comfortable? What physical features did they notice, and were they pleasing?

It often doesn’t take major renovations to improve those first impressions—shelters can recruit local artists or students to do a mural in the lobby or have customer service specialists from local businesses drop by to observe and make suggestions. When the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania expanded its facility, one of the major goals was making the building more people-friendly and welcoming—making it brighter, airier, less smelly, less loud.

“It’s just like the retailer,” says executive director Peter Casella. “You have to be able to move traffic through. People can’t get frustrated. People can’t just leave because they have little kids and it’s too loud [or because] they can’t hear anything because these dogs are barking. You want to make it a place where people like to hang out, [so] if they don’t see what they want, they say, ‘Well, that was a neat experience. We’ll go back next week. There will be some new animals there.’ You want to make it a place where people can come.” Casella’s staff even puts out coffee and donuts to welcome people on Saturdays, and the new air system ensures that the stinky factor has been much reduced.

Everything and everyone plays a part, and everyone connected with the organization should have the resources to educate at the drop of a hat—whether those resources are internal, such as simply knowing how to answer a question like, “Why did those mean cops take all those cats from that nice lady up the street?” to knowing where to find educational materials on sterilization, behavior, and shelter policies and procedures for people who may need them. It’s not so much a matter of simply firing all the condescending, unhelpful Joans of the sheltering world; it’s giving everyone connected to the shelter the resources and abilities to be a Jane.

Internal education—of staff, volunteers, and board members—is just as important as educating the public; sometimes the two go hand in hand, says Jim Tedford, executive director of the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm in Fairport, New York. “When we send out our newsletter, which is now going out to about 15,000 households every other month, we talk about all the fluffy, happy stuff, but I usually try to have at least one heavy message in there,” says Tedford. “And I do the same thing with my board—every month we have a board meeting, I spend 5 or 10 minutes on the agenda doing an educational piece. ... Because I know they are going to be getting pressure and I want them to understand exactly what the issues are. Not that they are going to live and breathe it every day like we do, but if they are at a dinner party and somebody says, ‘How come you can’t be like San Francisco?’ I want them to have an answer.”

"We Need Each Other to Do This"

The web of good words and information stretches far beyond the walls of a single organization. In striving to end the euthanasia of healthy, behaviorally sound animals, the communities that have made progress are the ones where everybody, including those from animal organizations with differing missions or services, sees the same big picture. Groups that have set out from the beginning with the idea that animal homelessness is a community problem and that it should be tackled as a community have often made a real dent in the giant metal helmet of public apathy.

When Joan Williams created AnimalKind to help the shelters and placement groups of the Raleigh, North Carolina, area talk to the community about how to reduce the need for euthanasia, her first step was helping the organizations talk to each other. She spent six months visiting with animal protection organizations and veterinarians to discuss what was most needed from the public, and shaped the PSAs that AnimalKind developed around that feedback.

“We wanted the veterinary community [involved]. ... We wanted shelters to be working with other rescue organizations to support this message, in a collaborative, unified effort to promote spaying and neutering,” says Williams. “From a community standpoint, it presents a much stronger message. ... Nobody has ever heard of AnimalKind, but they do know what an animal shelter is and what a veterinary office is, and there’s credibility for those. So it was very important for us that we positioned ourselves as part of a unified effort.”

Some of the groups who came together to support the work of AnimalKind had never spoken to each other before, much less worked together, says Williams. But by gathering groups with different philosophies and approaches, Williams says, AnimalKind was able to find the message everyone in the humane field agrees on: spay/neuter saves lives. Getting feedback from lots of different individuals and groups also helped the organization develop ads that would be truly motivational to the public. The campaign focuses on the health benefits of spaying and neutering pets—the fact that the surgery can add years to an animal’s life—rather than on the tragic end results of unfettered breeding.

The ads that AnimalKind runs in the major papers instruct people to call their veterinarian or local animal shelter for spay/neuter resources. In addition to the promotional benefits of forming a coalition, working with 15 different organizations gives AnimalKind the flexibility it needs when making referrals to callers interested in low-cost sterilization services.

You don’t have to agree on everything to form a coalition, Williams notes—you just have to be willing to work together on the things you do agree on, and when community members hear that chorus of assent, they’ll respond.

Take San Francisco, where the heads of the SPCA and city and county animal control both go out of their way to credit the work of the other organization in their public statements, in their publications, and on their websites. Increasing interagency collaboration was one of San Francisco SPCA president Ed Sayres’s first goals when he took over the helm of the organization in 1998. “I basically said to [San Francisco Animal Care and Control director Carl Friedman] that I was impressed with what had been achieved statistically, but that I thought there ought to be ... more sharing of the glory with animal care and control, that it was a collaboration.”

The meeting led to San Francisco’s relatively new approach to statistics: While the agencies do track their own intakes and results, they also release joint statistics to help the community see what’s really been achieved and make it clear that the burden is shared. The two groups have done adoption events together, and they continue to emphasize their teamwork to their public; the SPCA began to include kudos to animal control in its own press releases.

Sayres and Friedman have also positioned their organizations as leaders in the community by being visible and active at community events. The San Francisco Giants have an event celebrating the “Dog Days of Summer” annually, says Sayres. It’s been a great benefit for the SPCA. In 2000, Sayres himself got to throw out the first pitch of the game. But in 2001, he changed up. “They gave me the ball, and then I gave the ball to Carl for him to throw the first pitch to symbolize the partnership,” says Sayres. “We need each other to do this.”

When Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control Director Belinda Lewis knows an issue that will affect the work of her department is going before the city council for a vote, she lets her colleagues at the Allen County SPCA know; the SPCA then announces it in its newsletter well in advance, helping to rally the animal lovers in the community. “They’re members of the SPCA, their ultimate goals for our community and our animals are the same as ours are,” says Lewis.

During the last mayoral election, Fort Wayne’s animal care and control commission held a forum specifically devoted to animal issues for the candidates; thanks in part to the publicity provided by the SPCA’s newsletter, the forum welcomed a packed house of animal control supporters who all got to hear firsthand how their potential representatives felt about animal issues.

Taking advantage of local businesses and clubs can glean other benefits; you can turn their interests into yours. In West Virginia, Theresa Bruner works with a local photography club to get pictures of the Taylor County Humane Society’s animals up on the Web. In Baltimore, after requesting help from nearby businesses, the Maryland SPCA now gets free color copies from one local shop and discounts on film development from another.

And in Seattle, Jordan’s used the “day jobs” and the talents of his volunteers and board members to make connections with potential corporate sponsors and donors and expand the agency’s image. A few Seattle Art Museum employees volunteered at Seattle Animal Control and were so good about spreading the word that, Jordan says, half the staff of the museum ended up following in their footsteps—and even brought shelter animals with them to the museum, increasing the agency’s visibility. Professionals attract professionals; Seattle Animal Control’s talented volunteer corps even includes people who specialize in digital photography and graphic design.

While many organizations are struggling to “brand” their own names and services, combining voices tends to send a louder message. Seattle Animal Control and the Maryland SPCA are both striving to market their organizations and create clear organizational identities—something they see as essential to their success. Neither shelter is shy about coming on strong in its advertising campaign, but both have also worked with other humane groups to coordinate joint events where all organizations promote their animals on one day. In the Baltimore area, it didn’t seem to make sense that different organizations were holding different events for something that’s usually called the same thing: the adopt-a-thon, says Aileen Gabbey, executive director of the Maryland SPCA. The overlaps and the apparent repetition confused members of the public, so Gabbey wanted to put a single face on the concept. “This year our organization just asked everybody, ‘Why don’t we promote it together?’ ”

Participating organizations brought valuable community connections and sponsorships to the table; in return, the adopt-a-thon received coveted broadcast coverage. People interested in participating could locate their nearest shelter just by dialing a toll-free number. By pooling their resources behind a single, consistent message—adopt an animal rather than buying one, for example—individual organizations can have a greater impact on community perceptions of shelters and shelter animals. “I think it made it clear for the public, and it also made us look good for the media outlets—that we weren’t competing, we were working together,” says Gabbey. “And it gave us a chance to get to know each other better.”

The SPCA makes sure all of its programs are being promoted by its partners. If needy residents of Baltimore somehow miss seeing the hard-to-miss Neuter Scooter out on one of its rounds, the SPCA has made sure that Baltimore Animal Control has plenty of information to hand out to let people know about the Neuter Scooter. In fact, animal control director Bob Anderson helped the SPCA procure the grant necessary to purchase and operate the unit. “We’ve started working very closely with [animal control], and they are awesome,” says Gabbey. “And they have our Neuter Scooter cards, and they’ll let people know about the Neuter Scooter that way—and so they’re reaching a population that I think could benefit from some of our resources.”

Where the Action Is

While driving around in a Neuter Scooter is likely to garner an untold number of new supporters for the Maryland SPCA’s services, imagine how that tactic would have gone over in your personal life during the days when image was everything and most people around you were engaging in their own mini-marketing campaigns.

Think back to those bad old days of junior high, when you had the killer crush of all time on that person who didn’t know you even existed. Remember how much you needed and wanted their attention, how desperate you were to be noticed, plotting all day how to get their attention when they were already so involved in cheerleading/football/band/chorus/heavy metal, not to mention those other cute people who didn’t need to coat their entire heads in Noxzema every night to battle the ever-encroaching teenage pizza-face you were struggling with? What were the strategies you came up with?

Unscientific surveys of people who remember this phase of their lives yield interesting results: When seeking a way to garner the attention of a totally disinterested party, two primary flirtation methods work best. Method #1: Find out where they hang out and hang out there, thus increasing the probability that you might run into them “accidentally” and strike up a conversation. Method #2: Find out what they’re into—Jethro Tull, football, Dungeons & Dragons, marijuana legalization—and do a crash course in this subject so you’ll have something to say when Method #1 pans out.

If thinking about junior high and how pathetic you were back then brings on painful flashbacks of big hair and locker rooms, take heart: All those hours of woe-is-me daydreaming haven’t been wasted after all; they’ve instilled in your adult self an innate knowledge of some of the most valuable community outreach strategies. Because the general public? They’re your crush—desirable, distant, consumed by other things. But by going where they are and doing what they do, by mainstreaming your agency and its work into their everyday lives, you can get much more attention than by waiting for them to notice you.

About five years ago, Burney’s agency tracked down its crush by hanging out at that classic teenage loitering spot: the mall. The agency accepted a donated space within the North Hills Mall and turned it into the Critter Connection, an off-site adoption center and gift shop. The store sells a cute and eclectic mix of animal merchandise—frames, doormats, t-shirts, and more—and its attractive and cheerful atmosphere brings in crowds.

The agency was initially concerned about the “impulse buy” issue that might be exacerbated by the mall mentality, but they made sure to set up an area within the store where they could counsel and talk to potential adopters, and they’ve found that their return rate to the Critter Connection is half what it is at the main shelter.

It’s paid off—not just for the agency, but for the mall itself, which had been experiencing a downturn in traffic. Now the Critter Connection is a draw for shoppers, and it brings in dollars for the shelter’s spay/neuter assistance and injured animals programs while also presenting some of the agency’s great animals to the public—outside of the confines of the shelter, where so many people fear to tread. “We take the animals to the people. We go where the people are,” says Burney, noting that stepping out has helped the public step in.

When the Critter Connection first opened, the Humane Division’s adoptions doubled—an unexpected but welcome benefit of being more visible, says Burney. “There’s just such a segment of the population who won’t come into a shelter because they have these ideas of what they’re going to find,” she says, “[but then] they come to the shop in the mall, they see that people are helpful and friendly—it’s not uncommon for them to come back to the shelter.”

Like the Critter Connection, the Neuter Scooter has been successful because of its mobility; by delivering services and messages far beyond the confines of the shelter, the Maryland SPCA isn’t waiting for people to just happen by the facility. “We were looking at it ... as a billboard on wheels,” says Leslie Stever of MGH Advertising, the firm that helped the SPCA conceive and create the image of the mobile clinic, which features a larger-than-life cartoon dog and cat zipping along on a moped against the backdrop of a Baltimore skyline.

“It goes in parades and it goes to pet fairs they have at the convention center, so it sends out a positive-branding look and feel,” says Andy Malis of MGH, who got involved with the SPCA when he adopted a dog there about five years ago. With the Neuter Scooter well on its way to achieving the sterilization numbers the SPCA had hoped for, Malis says he’s delighted by how effective the bus has been, and how clearly the message has been heard—since its inception in 2000, the Neuter Scooter has provided a quick fix to nearly 5,500 animals who would never have been sterilized.

The Maryland SPCA isn’t the only organization to take its message on the road in the form of a bus; in fact, the Seattle Animal Shelter recently plastered its sterilization plea on the sides of 100 city buses. Next to an image of two firefighters holding a soulful-eyed dog is a slogan that seems appropriate to the times: “Be a hero in the war against pet overpopulation ... Spay or neuter your pet!” “We hope that in addition to getting the message out about spaying and neutering,” says Jordan, “it will also help in our ‘branding’ efforts and will hopefully prompt people to donate to us.”

The “Get Fit With Fido” program puts the agency’s name on another moving billboard of sorts—only instead of an exhaust pipe and wheels the size of your whole body, this one has a tail and four legs to propel it along. The teams of runners who regularly visit a popular park in Seattle with shelter dogs in tow not only help their four-legged teammates get their exercise but also succeed again and again in reeling people in to the facility.

“We open at noon,” says Jordan, “so what they do is by 10 o’clock on Sunday morning, they take all the adoption dogs out of our facility and take them up to the park. They parade them around, so they’ve developed a following of people who time their visits to the park around what we’re doing. And the neat thing is that if they see a dog they’re interested in, they can come down at noon when we open and adopt it.”

It happens all the time, Jordan says, and works great for the kennel care staff, too—while the dogs are out getting promoted and exercised, the staff has quiet time to clean the kennels and get them sparkling in time for the arrival of visitors.

Effective Flirting

In trying to win the attention of the Baltimore public, the Maryland SPCA tried another great date locale: the romantic darkness of a nearby movie theater. The Charles is the only real arthouse theater in Baltimore, so it has a captive audience of those avoiding the latest installment of Die Hard—thousands of the young, hip, and artsy (and those who wannabe) flock to the theater every weekend.

Through its connections with MGH Advertising, which also does pro bono work designing the SPCA’s campaigns and bumper stickers, the agency managed to replace the boring, predictable ads for soda that usually appear on theater popcorn bags with an adoption appeal: “Find the love of your life at the Maryland SPCA.” The theater has over a thousand seats, and given how many people like to eat popcorn at the movies, the visibility is almost as good as a movie teaser. Now when people go to see the newest independent film, they’re reminded that the SPCA up the road isn’t independent—the community’s a part of it.

When seeking the love of the community, always remember: Even the hardest hearts can’t resist the appeal of a furry face. If you want to get “hot and heavy” with your public, a recent event at the Oregon Humane Society in Portland may melt your butter. It certainly melted that of the local community, who on Valentine’s Day came out to enjoy the society’s “kissing booth.” Healthy puppies and kittens doled out laps and nuzzles for a dollar each, raising money and causing an audience meltdown on par with a Barry White concert. The shelter and the critters got some lovin’ right back from the local media, who ate the event right up, says Kathy Neely. “We are their warm and fuzzy,” she says.

Thanks to the shelter’s effective promotion of its programs to the media, the community knows about all its fun events—the kissing booth, Santa Paws, and a great recent party at a local brewery called the “Pug Crawl.” Neely says that while much of the publicity the society gets comes from media coverage of the group’s work dealing with cruelty cases, the most public goodwill and support is generated by “feel good” events like these. And it’s the “feel good” message that the shelter is using in designing new print ads and commercials: With all the bad news lately, how could anyone not want to support an organization whose promotional slogan is “Feel the love”?

While encouraging adoption and preventing relinquishments are top priorities for most animal care and control agencies, the community should be able to “feel the love” even at times when they’re not looking for an animal or having problems with a pet. People often think of shelters only in times of crisis, but shelters need the support of the public all the time, and many agencies are developing programs and events—from cat claw clipping classes for adults to basic grooming and pet care for children—that celebrate and strengthen lasting relationships between animals and their people.

The North Hempstead Animal Shelter in Port Washington, New York, has started hosting a lecture series about a range of animal-related topics that aren’t necessarily specific to sheltering issues. The agency has hosted an animal acupuncturist, an animal chiropractor, a behavior specialist, and a veterinarian specializing in geriatric dogs.

A local library offered to host the lectures, says assistant director Susan Hassett, but she turned them down. “All of the lectures are at the shelter, so we make the people come here,” she says. “If we had these lectures at a library, people wouldn’t go to the so-called ‘dog pound.’ So now they come here and they see.”

Not only does this sort of community familiarity increase a shelter’s ability to intervene in potentially problematic relationships; it helps establish the animal shelter in the minds of the community as a resource for “all things animal.” And it brings animal lovers into the shelter for more than just the beginning and end of their relationships with their pets.

Hassett can remember the days when members of the community would actually throw things at animal control officers on duty. Now, 25 years after she started working at North Hempstead, the agency is so much a part of the community that officers are welcomed at street fairs and other neighborhood events. “So for my guys now to drive down the street and have someone wave at them, I’m like, ‘You have no idea,’ ” says Hassett.

Being waved at is the ultimate sign that your agency has mainstreamed itself into community life—and become, in terms of visibility, more like the fire department or the police force or the mail deliverers. Sometimes gaining this recognition comes not necessarily from shelter events but from knowing how to work it when you’re out and about.

In Scotia, New York, Gordon Willard has turned his eccentric personal hobbies into a sly method of shelter advertising. The executive director of the Animal Protective Society of Schenectady, the athletic Willard plays hockey and baseball. He also attends the annual Scottish games, where in true manly-man fashion he participates in “caber tossing,” an ancient sport and show of strength in which men hurl young tree trunks through the air at targets. The local media always covers the games, and since Willard knows the cameramen, he’s usually a sure shot to get his picture taken throwing a caber. And since newspapers and TV stations like to get as much information about their sources as possible, down to their age and where they live, Willard makes sure he always slips in his title and the name of his organization.

People love to find out the weird and wonderful hobbies of others—to be reminded of the fun-loving, nutty sides of professionals in the community—and the Animal Protective Foundation has been well-served by the local media’s coverage of Willard working on a future hernia. “[It’s] to make me and the organization more human in another way,” says Willard. “You can’t go wrong with that—almost to the point where I think we get more coverage than we ought to.”

While dedicating a song to your community on the local lovelorn radio call-in show may not be the best way to get their attention—Britney Spears has yet to come out with a hit called “I Like My Boys Neutered”—many of the tried-and-true methods of old-fashioned courting can be adapted to serve your outreach needs. If you want to go a little further to get the attention of your beloved public and make their hearts go pitter-patter, why not try placing a personals ad?

That’s what the job notice that Nicky Ratliff, executive director of the Humane Society of Carroll County in Westminster, Maryland, placed recently added up to; it might as well have read “Sexy, supercool ACOs seek same.” When Ratliff was putting the ad for a new animal control officer in the local paper, she decided to use the space for every penny it cost her and do a little word-spreading about the organization and its work. “My ad said, ‘Animal Control Officer ... You must be outgoing, friendly, and flexible. Each day brings new challenges and the chance to be a hero. A mature individual with the ability to work well with the public; love and respect for animals a must ...’ ” says Ratliff. “So OK, now you’ve told how many people who saw that ad? It’s an ad you’ve got to pay for anyway, why not put something in it that’s good? You are going to attract more people—I had 257 applicants for that job.”

The Lost Art of Listening

If your shelter’s relationship with the community has already progressed beyond the heady stages of a crush, you still have to be a good partner in order to keep it healthy and functioning. And just as with any reciprocal relationship, the partnership between a shelter and its community will grow and prosper in direct relation to the level of communication fostered by the organization.

As in many places, the issue of feral cats has been a hot one in Hawaii. A few years ago, the Hawaiian Humane Society started holding regular community meetings about the problem, and feral cat caretakers along with individuals representing other viewpoints showed up.

The first meeting was pretty rancorous, but as the meetings progressed, trust grew and quickly evolved into real collaboration on trap/neuter/return initiatives, free spay/neuter surgeries, microchipping, and other cat-related programs, recalls Eve Holt, director of community relations. “There were some good things that came out of it, in terms of future direction and objectives and things to look at,” she says. “Groups emerged who were interested in finding common ground—we have been able to work with [them] and make some wonderful progress.”

The humane society’s openness and willingness to work with others helped it respond effectively when a feral cat problem surfaced at a local university. Some people were feeding cats on the campus in secret, and the disconnection between these caretakers and the administration had become so entrenched that campus police were threatening to arrest people caught feeding the cats. While one animal group protested the university and further alienated its administration, the humane society took the opposite tack, stepping in to see what it could do to help.

“We were able to go in and meet with the public affairs people and the security people and the grounds people and the cat feeders, and everybody sat down together and helped them understand what trap/neuter/return was, helped the colony caretakers understand what the college campus’s needs were, and peace has reigned ever since,” says Holt.

When the Maryland SPCA was determining whether an on-site or mobile sterilization clinic would best suit the needs of the organization, it was the needs of the community that helped the shelter decide. “We were thinking we wanted to reach folks who didn’t have a lot of money,” says Gabbey. “And if they didn’t have money, maybe they didn’t have a car, so we decided that if we could go to them it would make their lives much easier.”

The SPCA has been an equally good listener in developing its basic behavior program, which has grown significantly in the four years since its inception. Once offered every other week on Saturdays, the classes weren’t accessible enough to those whose busy lives required them to be carting children everywhere on the weekends. By holding classes at four times the frequency now—on both Saturday mornings and Tuesday nights—the shelter is ensuring greater community saturation; attendance at the behavior classes has increased significantly since the shelter expanded the times.

Through their great variety of outreach approaches, the Maryland SPCA, the Seattle Animal Shelter, and other organizations across the country are becoming what all shelters hope to be: unforgettable. And when people are no longer able to relegate shelters and the work they do to the back of their minds, the burden of the animal protection field’s struggle to end the need for euthanasia will be lifted from the backs of shelters and animal control agencies and carried jointly by a caring, involved, aware community.

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