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The power of suggestion

Tapping into the knowledge of staff and volunteers

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2014

Thanks to one volunteer’s suggestion, the dogs at Virginia’s Fairfax County Animal Shelter have been enjoying some extra outings.

Previously, the shelter had required a typical commitment from volunteers, asking them to make regular visits to the shelter, but “many volunteers and foster families can’t make a steady commitment,” explains director of communications and outreach Kristen Auerbach. “From a volunteer’s suggestion, we developed our Shelter Dog Power Hour program. Volunteers can take the dogs on occasional hour-long outings, and we just ask them to document it with photos or video.”

The documentation provides the shelter with valuable marketing material. The photos or video are shared via social media, and give a candid glimpse into each animal’s true personality.

“What adopters really want to know is how the dog behaves in a normal atmosphere outside of the confinement of the shelter,” says Auerbach. “Now we can show, and tell, them.”

For longtime resident Lady, the program made all the difference in the world. After enjoying a trip to the local ice cream stand, the canine was heading off to a new home. “She was adopted two days later, by a family who fell in love with her from watching the video,” Auerbach reports.

Fairfax County took a new idea, considered it, and made it work for its animals. And you may be able to do the same: The staff and volunteers of animal shelters and rescues—some of whom may be newer to the organization, and seeing its operation with fresher eyes—often have a wealth of suggestions. Their ideas may open doors and turn corners for organizations interested in trying new things.

But in the course of busy day-to-day operations, gathering worker input isn’t always easy, and can even become a source of frustration.

Laying the Groundwork

“It’s tricky; people who are drawn to this type of work want to change the world,” says Hilary Hager, director of volunteer engagement for The HSUS. And that’s great, she notes, but shelter staff who’ve been doing things a certain way for a while, and who see the benefits of doing it that way, may be thinking, “Don’t change our world.”

The fresh eyes of a new volunteer inevitably result in questions and criticisms. While that can be valuable, early suggestions are often impractical, or in violation of standards designed to maintain worker or animal safety. But good training programs can go a long way toward addressing that issue.

As part of their training, Hager suggests letting new staff and volunteers know that ideas will be welcome, but their first priority is to learn and understand the way things are done. Understanding current practices will enable them to formulate suggestions that are more likely to be put to use. Then, embrace this learning curve as an opportunity to fill these eager beavers with knowledge.

“Don’t just train them on the ‘what,’ but explain ‘why’,” Hager suggests. “For example, the way I handle my cat at home is different than I’d handle a cat in a shelter. You need to explain that, give the background—that there are policies in place regarding handling, disease transmission, minimizing stress.”

Failure to lay the foundations of knowledge often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Hager. “If you don’t invest the time, you’ll have a low level of trust in your volunteers’ abilities, and you won’t expect them to become powerful tools. And because they haven’t been trained, they can’t perform as powerful tools, and they’re underutilized.”

Offer the “why” behind small issues, as well as more serious ones. Even the reasoning behind how you store food, or hang leashes, should be shared. Practice transparency wherever possible, and you’ll find that it results in volunteer and employee suggestions that are more practical.

Foster good communications by introducing newcomers to other workers. Knowing people by name is a positive step in healthy communications. But don’t expect that hasty introduction to stick, especially with your varying pool of volunteers.

“Have your volunteers wear a name badge,” says Hager. “Also, in the break room, post photos of your staff workers, with their name under each photo.”

Provide Avenues for Communication

Once workers are up to speed, their zeal to contribute ideas may become overshadowed by more pressing issues of caring for animals and meeting with visitors. Finding the time to voice their thoughts may slip in priority. It’s also likely that ideas will come to them outside of the distractions of the shelter environment.

A suggestion box or online message board enables employees to share ideas at any time, but will become ignored if users don’t feel that it’s used and taken seriously. If you have one of these, be sure to check it several times a week, consider the suggestions, and acknowledge them (if they weren’t made anonymously). If the idea isn’t feasible, at a minimum, converse with each idea’s originator to explain why. Whenever appropriate, share positive outcomes with the larger population.

Organizations that have a vast number of volunteers may benefit from incorporating a means to put them in touch with each other, as well as a volunteer coordinator. “We have over 200 volunteers,” says Auerbach. “We set up a Facebook group where they can discuss issues, share ideas and concerns. It’s definitely helped organize communications, and has been the source of many good suggestions.”

Finally, make sure that people know the go-to person if they do want to have a face-to-face conversation, as well as the best way to approach—by appointment or more informally. If they’re coming with a big proposal, suggest they do some homework first—“think out their idea, do the research, let you know how it will change things,” says Hager. “People at shelters are really busy. If you’re going to come with a great idea, it will help me if you also come with a plan and ideas for how you will help to implement and own it.”

Whatever means you use to gather suggestions, listen and be receptive to all ideas, even those that scream “no” right from the get-go. “I like the idea of a ‘not right now’ folder, where you store ideas that won’t presently work, but perhaps can be revisited another time,” says Hager.

That’s what The HSUS itself did some years back, when an extensive employee surveyed revealed, among other issues, certain organizational processes that staff found frustrating or a waste of time. Not all of the issues brought to light could be addressed immediately, but the committee worked in stages through which the workable staff suggestions could be implemented—and explained in an all-staff session why some suggestions weren’t feasible. This helped make people feel like their feedback—even when not practical—wasn’t being ignored.

Make the Most of Meetings

Group meetings can be a valuable opportunity for brainstorming and problem-solving.

“Staff meetings shouldn’t be just to report information, but should be a chance to gather information. The leader should encourage employees’ voices at a meeting, and make known that they want input,” says Steven Rogelberg, a professor and director of Organizational Science at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who’s worked with shelters for many years.

If you find your meetings don’t provide a valuable opportunity to hear from the members of your workforce, do some troubleshooting.

Consider your attendees. Are you gathering the correct people for the purpose? If people feel they’re called to meetings that don’t directly affect them, their participation may be minimal.

Always circulate an agenda ahead of the meeting time. Even with a weekly meeting that seldom varies in its structure, the agenda lets everyone know what’s expected, and instills a sense of structure to the gathering. For meetings with more specific focus, circulate the agenda early to ensure that attendees have time to consider the issues. Be sure to stick to your declared points; if other topics arise, jot them down for later discussion.

Foster open discussion. If you want people to brainstorm, and if you want those who may be more hesitant to share their ideas, you need to ensure that the meeting feels like a safe, supportive space for idea-sharing. Obviously not every idea will be a workable one, but attendees shouldn’t worry about feeling dismissed or belittled when they speak up.

Start and end on time. If the people who show up on time find themselves waiting several minutes for the meeting to begin, or if you consistently run over the allotted time, frustration may cloud people’s focus.

If you’re not achieving the robust discussion you’d hoped for, you could try some new techniques to break down barriers. “Try breaking people into pairs, or groups of three. People will talk more comfortably in a small group; ideas are more likely to bubble up,” says Rogelberg, adding that the anonymity of presenting an idea as a group might appeal to people hesitant to come forward on their own.

Try announcing a goal, suggests Rogelberg. “Present your question or problem, then tell people that once you hear four possible ideas, you’ll end the meeting.” Be sure you’ve built adequate time into your agenda to accommodate discussion. Forming task forces after the meeting to work on the ideas that come up will show you’re serious about responding to feedback.

At the Humane Society of North Texas, the layout of the building creates some physical separation between departments. As a result, the shelter started using meetings as a chance to reconnect, says Whitney Hanson, director of development and communications. “As part of our weekly team meetings, we’ve added the opportunity to go around the room to share updates or concerns,” she says.

Once the departments warmed up to the change, attendees began using the opportunity to share problems and identify solutions. One area that came into focus was the need for a less restrictive adopter screening form. “We realized that the yes/no questions on our adopter screening form were unintentionally restrictive, possibly excluding people rather than inviting discussion,” Hanson says. “For example, we asked if a potential adopter would be declawing a cat—a yes-or-no question. We revised the wording of the question to create discussion and the opportunity to educate and inform people of other ways to control unwanted clawing.”

While their new form is still undergoing revision across departments, Hanson is optimistic and feels the collaborative effort will directly improve the shelter’s ability to welcome and educate adopters and find the best match.

Sweeten the Pot

At the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society in Pittsburgh, a program called “Make a Difference” was designed to encourage worker participation. “We want the people who are hands-on in every aspect of our program to feel they are part of the solution,” says Kristen Lane, director of marketing and public relations. “This program rewards ideas that either increase adoptions, increase revenue or enhance service excellence.”

While it is designed to solicit input, Lane says the program also strives to minimize the emotional drain that can come from constant exposure to homeless animals.

“The ultimate reward is when your suggestion is put into place, and you see you’ve made a difference to the life of an animal.”

Employees are encouraged to come forward with a detailed description of their idea, along with thoughts on how to measure its success. If their suggestion is implemented, the originator receives a $100 gift card.

One idea that stemmed from this program helped the shelter design more targeted pet-to-person introductions. “One of our employees created the idea of the Pre-Adoption Questionnaire, a series of questions that the customer completes before he or she even enters the dog or cat areas,” says Lane. The questions help the shelter provide better customer service by scanning for lifestyle issues that may help figure out which animals are most suitable for the visitor. After the front desk quickly reviews the answers, the adoption counselors can more efficiently use their time to direct the potential adopter to the best matches.

Most of the individuals drawn to working in an animal shelter are full of compassion, ambition and enthusiasm. All the better when they have come from educational and professional backgrounds that are different, and that might give them an understanding of your processes and methods that you’d never have thought of yourself. While being open to suggestions can sometimes feel a little risky, remember that a new idea doesn’t have to be a criticism—and even when it is, your critics can push you to greater, more effective work. By implementing methods to harness this creative energy and being open to new ways of doing things, you’ll not only learn something, you may end up doing something better than you were before.

About the Author

Boston-area freelancer Debbie Swanson is a frequent contributor to animal publications.