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Delivering results through collaboration

Sára Varsa, senior director of The HSUS animal rescue team, talks bringing together organizational experts to have a stronger impact for animals.

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In moments of chaos, we MUST focus on working together and aligning section experts with one another for collective success.

As professionals, whether in Fortune 500 companies or nonprofit organizations, we are rarely in a position where a goal is accomplished without the investment of a team. And yet, too often, the principles that guided us in primary and secondary school—principles like “there is no I in team,” and “it is attitude, not aptitude”—can become lost in philosophical debates or buried in a competition for resources.
I am sure we all have memories of our teachers assigning us to work groups during elementary or middle school and giving us guidelines and a deadline for some sort of major project for a significant portion of our grade. Who knows how the teachers allocated their students and for what purpose—but we all had many theories, and rarely, if ever, were they positive. I remember many group assignments that were predicated by a tense silence where no one wanted to take the lead and then, due to sheer frustration and the pressure of a grade looming, a reluctant “delegator” emerged. Of course, those who know me know exactly who that was.
Projects got completed, though of course some did more work than others. We submitted it with some head-shaking, last minute tweaks and peer differences, but that’s OK—and it brings me to my first belief about working together:
#1: It takes a village. Whether in parenting or my professional career, it is credo I live by. In early education projects, we may not yet have the maturity, patience or appreciation for difference. We focus on the grade and the HOW of the work. For example, how much I did in comparison to you—of course, we ALWAYS think we did more than our classmates (eye roll). We lose focus of the WHAT and WHERE—what are your specific talents and skill sets? Where do we all fit in to maximize our effectiveness?
As a member of the animal rescue team of The HSUS now for approximately seven years, I can confidently state that every rescue was a marriage of forces between law enforcement, animal welfare professionals, community partners and many others too numerous to mention. The ballet of response is choreographed amongst these groups and each step, every sweeping motion, is guided by asking “What do we have? What do we need? What is your area of expertise? Where does this intersect?” You need the what and the where to get to the how.
In my earlier adult life, I had a career as a teacher and the unique torture of group projects took on a whole new meaning. What occurred to me as a student became clearer when I was on the other side of the desk. And, hence, philosophy number two:
#2: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We see this modeled regularly in successful companies, in the military, and in family units. It is based on a vital understanding that needs to be held by all parties -you do not have to agree on all philosophies, practices, or processes,  what you have to do is work together to achieve a common goal for the greater good.
We occasionally struggle (note a hint of sarcasm here?) in animal welfare to agree on care protocols, quality of life decisions, guiding practices for building humane communities, etc. This discussion is healthy and will continue to professionalize the field. However, it has a time and place, and it is not during a crisis or mass care event when our constituents and communities need us the most. In moments of chaos, we MUST focus on working together and aligning section experts with one another for collective success. Clearly defined roles, diversity in skill set, and published procedures can aid in driving everyone to a shared mission.
Flashback, again, but this time with theme music and a dance, to my high school years. The scene: some hip hop on the radio, a late night drop off in front of my house. I am trying desperately to fit the key in the lock and sneak up the creakiest steps that ever existed in any house in the history of time. I cross the threshold of the door, turn around to close it quietly, and a voice from the dark says, “You know, Sára, you are the company you keep.” I jump out of my skin and see my mother lolling back and forth in the rocking chair in the living room. As a teenage girl, these words went in one ear and out the other and to this day, I would have a hearty debate with my mother on what she meant. But I’ve come to agree:
#3: You are the company you keep. To me, this means to surround yourself with individuals who are constantly striving to improve upon what they know, are open to things that they may not know, treat all experiences as learning opportunities and share the knowledge and philosophies that promote a better world.
By design, The Humane State program at The HSUS, which currently has a foothold in Puerto Rico and Oklahoma, does just this. It has brought together our organization’s experts on companion animal health and sheltering issues, natural disaster response, and volunteer and personnel management, to just name a few, and weaved us into one service to promote a humane nation to students, teachers, police officers, animal care professionals, prosecutors and judges. It brings out the best we have in each other, and exposes us to the magic in other people.
I recently spent several days speaking and training with my colleagues in Puerto Rico. I am always humbled by the experiences and depth that HSUS staff brings to bear, but I am equally touched by the concern, compassion and commitment of people in service to their communities every day. They are on the front lines of the mission to celebrate animals and confront cruelty. And, one thing is for certain, we have to work together to make this happen.

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About the Author

Sára Varsa, Senior Director for the Animal Rescue Team of The Humane Society of the United States, has worked on hundreds of cases nationwide that have resulted in the rescue and rehabilitation of tens of thousands of animals. During Superstorm Sandy and dozens of other natural disasters, Sára has led the HSUS response and recovery efforts ensuring that families could stay together after catastrophe. She counsels agencies on best practices for animal care and capture, and has presented nationally on preparedness and response.