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Creating community connections

After helping to develop the Pets for Life model with The HSUS, Annie Pruitt launched her own Charm City Companions assisting families with pets in Baltimore city.

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How are you and other animal welfare providers fostering relationships with new organizations?

In 2008 I was introduced to the world of animal welfare work through my work with The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). I learned quickly about the overpopulation of cats and dogs in our country and beyond. While it was unsettling and upsetting to hear the stories and watch the videos, I was greatly inspired by the people I was working with and their selfless acts on behalf of animals. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have worked on numerous projects with The HSUS, but the work that I am most proud of is the work I’ve done with Pets for Life (PFL). This program’s new success in connecting animal welfare experts with underserved communities is catching on quickly.
For the past six years I have been working with groups all over the country proudly implementing PFL programs.  More recently, I became acutely aware of the countless underserved communities of pet owners in my own city of Baltimore, nicknamed “Charm City.” Launching Charm City Companions (CCC) was my own attempt to solve this critical animal welfare shortfall. Starting an animal welfare nonprofit organization in Baltimore City has been an incredible and rewarding experience. That’s not to say it hasn’t been challenging—but never challenging enough to quit. Emily Kelley (my co-founder and niece) and I have been closely connected through our love of animals for decades. Once we became aware of the need for resources for animals in underserved neighborhoods we channeled our passion into establishing and building an organization to help fill that critical gap.
We started CCC with little information about the shelter and rescue community in Baltimore City. We soon met dozens of groups and individuals, many doing some form of community outreach in underserved communities. Two key organizations that were central to the implementation of our program were the Baltimore Animal Rescue Care Shelter (BARCS) and the Maryland SPCA, both located in the city.
We also learned that, like so many other cities, Baltimore has too many unaltered and homeless pets! While the animal welfare groups in the area do an admirable job of making sure the pets they take in find homes, with so much need, there was room for more help. So we had support for our outreach model from the start.
This summer we celebrated a two-year anniversary from when we registered our organization, became a 501c3 non-profit and knocked on our first door. These were huge milestones for us, but they don’t mark the start of our work.
We spent two years prior conducting a community assessment, as outlined in the Pets for Life Toolkit, in and around Baltimore City.  We found this was an important and informative process that needed time and serious attention, before we knocked on our first door.
While we were closely familiar with the process of conducting a community assessment, doing this in our own city seemed like a daunting task. We approached this slowly, only committing a few hours a week at first. These hours were filled meeting with local organizations and animal welfare advocates. After each meeting we became more encouraged and inspired by what we learned. Everyone was eager to meet with us and openly interested in the PFL community outreach and engagement model we follow.
Smart and dedicated people were telling us about ideas and programs they were already implementing, many with some of the same elements as CCC. With this knowledge, we were able to identify the most underserved zip codes in Baltimore City and had a clear understanding of what work was already happening in many neighborhoods in need of services.
We now consider our organization successful in working toward our vision—connecting the dots to create a web of resources for underserved pet families in Baltimore City, and helping to reduce the number of homeless pets. We don’t base success solely on how many doors we knock on, pets or families we meet, nor the spay/neuter surgeries we help facilitate. Success is also measured by the extended reach we have through our partners in Charm City and the surrounding area, including many of our client volunteers.
A great example of the benefits of this community collaboration is our work with BARCS, an organization that shares a building and works closely with animal control. BARCS provides low-cost vaccinations, first-come/first-serve on the first Saturday of most months. Often, CCC is only able to provide vaccinations when we also do spay/neuter surgeries, so we are grateful to have an affordable, reliable and consistent vaccine resource for our clients and their pets. It’s when they attend these clinics that many clients find out for the first time that they can also adopt from BARCS.
We also partner with the Maryland SPCA. They work with us by providing low-cost spay/neuter and rabies vaccinations and hold regular spots for our clients’ pets weekly. They take time to listen and understand our organization and our clients. In fact, they are so supportive of this type of spay/neuter engagement that they recently hired their own dedicated community outreach employee. They consistently go above and beyond our expectations with the treatment of pets in their care.  We couldn’t be happier with our relationship with the MD SPCA spay/neuter clinic.
And there are more! Aside from the larger, more known organizations, we have partners in dozens of smaller animal welfare, social justice and community-focused entities, and veterinarians from full-service practices, and we regularly meet with new, potential partners, to expand our network. Without the help and support of our many volunteers, we could not serve as many pets and families.
We continue to be amazed as we meet more people interested in this type of community engagement. Our experience in Baltimore may not be typical, with so many organizations willing to come together to serve the community, but it has been ours. We credit these partner organizations for making our work possible. Baltimore needs relationships like these to make real change in underserved communities.
There are several components of the CCC model that we believe have been instrumental in the building of productive relationships.
Do Your Research: We stalked all the organizations and learned as much as possible before we approached them. This is easy in the days of Internet and social media, and, in particular, when it comes to animal welfare. Understanding the tasks of different groups before meeting their teams was helpful and made conversations much more productive.
Listen More, Talk Less: Find out from the source what they do and what they are working to accomplish. Listen for ways community outreach can fit in and support the work others are already doing.
Think Long-term: Effective community outreach organizations can’t be successful with a ‘burst’ strategy.  We are in it for the long haul, and because of this we don’t feel compelled to be relevant and useful for every organization we meet. Opportunity will present itself when the time is right.
Stay Connected:  Formal relationship or not, stay in touch on a regular basis by sharing your updates, stories, new ideas, supporting via Facebook, etc. Don’t rely on social media to keep important contacts up to speed. Send an email, make phones calls or stop in, if appropriate, to stand out.
Don’t Underestimate the Love of Food:
Baking or providing lunch for different organizations has worked well for CCC. We find ourselves always wanting to do more than say, “Thank you so much!” over and over.  Showing up with food has turned out to be a great way to show we appreciate what our partner organizations are doing. Everyone loves fresh homemade cookies—just don’t forget the vegans.
I hope this part of our story is helpful, and that you’ll share below your experiences and insight. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
How are you and other animal welfare providers fostering relationships with new organizations—like Charm City Companions—entering the market?
Does your shelter see organizations such as Charm City Companions and other PFL-like outreach programs as valuable partners and/or an extension to what they can provide to the community?


About the Author

Annie Pruitt is the Director of Insights at ILLUME, a multi-award winning marketing and communications firm. For over 25 years Annie has conducted researching to inform both local and national campaign strategies and program development. Most recently, Annie was inspired to start Charm City Companions in Baltimore City in response to her work helping to develop a national model, The HSUS’s Pet for Life program, which assists families and pets in underserved communities.