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Taking a closer look at your community

The road to helping starts with a community assessment

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2015

It’s only about three miles from the Milwaukee campus of the Wisconsin Humane Society (WHS) to the community on the city’s north side that makes up ZIP code 53206. “But three miles can be a long way, too, in terms of access,” notes Jill Kline, WHS vice president of community impact programs.

Three miles can mean the difference between an affluent neighborhood and an impoverished one, between a place where problems seem manageable and one where they seem overwhelming. For pet owners in low-income areas like 53206—who may be unsure what animal welfare services are available and whether they can afford them or make the trip to access them—three miles could seem like a visit to another world.

A few years back, when WHS officials heard about the HSUS Pets for Life (PFL) program—which extends services and information to underserved areas—they were immediately drawn to it, Kline says. Hoping to make the most of its limited resources for community outreach, the WHS applied to join the first class of PFL mentorship cities and began training in November 2012.

“We have a beautiful shelter that’s very centrally located in Milwaukee, and we know that our mission is communicated to everyone that comes through our doors,” Kline says. “But we’d been thinking about folks that weren’t coming through our doors. … Pets for Life is a great way to meet those folks where they’re at and reach a new population of both people and animals in need.”

The first step in that process? Performing a community assessment.

The Whys and Hows

Outlined step-by-step in the Pets for Life Community Outreach Toolkit, the community assessment helps organizations identify pockets in their communities that have great needs and sparse resources. With that information in hand, groups can efficiently focus their outreach, such as spay/neuter services and pet care information, says PFL director Amanda Arrington.

From their experiences running PFL programs in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, HSUS staffers, with help from program consultant illume communications, knew some neighborhoods lacked such services, but many groups in the field—from local organizations to national foundations and grant-makers—used only shelter data to guide their work, Arrington explains. While shelter data shows rates and types of animals taken in, and can shed light on what tactics might help reduce that intake and make for better outcomes, it can fail to capture what’s happening in the communities that don’t register on the shelter’s radar. PFL wanted animal welfare groups to have a tool to find those underserved areas and justify reaching out to them.

The community assessment starts with groups collecting demographic data, which is readily available online by ZIP code, and entering it into an electronic spreadsheet to make sure it’s shareable and portable. A single staffer or volunteer can gather basic information in a couple of hours, Arrington says.

In Milwaukee, the WHS looked at each ZIP code in the city, filling the spreadsheet with such information as the total population, number of households, percentage of renter-occupied homes, racial makeup, level of education, median age, unemployment rate, average income and percentage of people living below the poverty line. A few ZIP codes quickly emerged as areas of extreme need, and WHS staff found that 53206 topped that list because it had no pet supply stores, no veterinary clinics and no big-box retailers—in fact no retail options other than corner stores, which often have limited if any pet merchandise, Kline notes.

Using a formula in the toolkit that estimates pets per household, the WHS determined that the 53206 ZIP code, with about 28,000 people in 9,500 households, has roughly 15,000 pets. “We have our work cut out for us to get to each one of those families in need,” Kline says.

As a PFL mentorship organization, the WHS got funding from PetSmart Charities, which made possible free spay/neuter and general wellness services that staff could offer as they went door-to-door in the neighborhoods. Even if you don’t have the benefit of a grant, Kline notes, you can search for partner organizations within the targeted ZIP code to help provide services, or use the data you’ve collected to make a case for municipal or private funding.

Different groups have varying levels of technological savvy, but Arrington says PFL’s toolkit and spreadsheet template—available to anyone—help make the assessment process nearly foolproof. (PFL staff are also available to answer questions.) After compiling the essential data, “groups then take it and run with it in varying degrees,” Arrington says. Some go far beyond the basic information, creating PowerPoint slides and maps that show every church and corner bodega.

Once groups have identified two or three ZIP codes with a critical lack of access to resources, PFL encourages them to walk or drive around the neighborhoods to determine where they’ll start knocking on doors to begin their outreach.

Animal welfare groups have a tendency to “spread ourselves too thin,” Arrington says, but the community assessment helps avoid this pitfall. Groups are more effective in underserved communities when they concentrate on one area at a time, saturating it with services and stabilizing it before moving on. The assessment is a matter of “really identifying where we need to be, and then taking it to the street directly,” she says.

It also helps groups see their community through a different lens. If a neighborhood has lots of chained dogs and free-roaming cats, for example, the old-school reaction might be, “This is a neighborhood that doesn’t care about the animals” or “There’s a lot of neglect happening in this neighborhood,” Arrington says. After the assessment, a more complete picture emerges: Maybe there’s no veterinarian within 10 miles, a high level of poverty and no access to pet care services. The assessment “helps to remove some of that judgment,” Arrington says, and causes animal organizations to think, “OK, maybe this is an opportunity for us as the service provider or the animal welfare agency to start making a change.”

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Any organization can and should perform a community assessment, Arrington says. “I always tell groups to just do it and see what you can glean from it. … Everybody always learns something about their community, regardless if they’ve grown up in that city or that county, or they think they know it inside and out.” Accurate community assessments can aid a grant application or help convince a county government to fund spay/neuter.WHS staff knew that Milwaukee has high-need populations, “but getting in the field and doing the work is different than looking at the statistics,” Kline says. Guided by the assessment, groups can build powerful relationships in a small area of need, rather than trying to spread their resources over a larger one. It’s important to let people know what services are available from your organization or others, and to establish yourself as a routine, trustworthy presence in the neighborhood. Sometimes it’s eye-opening just to talk to people about the choices they’re making for their animals, which can give you a better picture of the information and services they need, Kline says.

“And I think getting out in the community absolutely changes you,” she adds. “… It’s just really inspiring to see what people are doing on very limited resources already for their animals, and how open they are, and excited they are, to be able to partner with us to offer care to their animals.”

One caveat: Don’t overpromise. Kline advises groups to determine exactly what services they can provide. “That’s really important,” she says, “because you don’t want to go out into the community and not be clear on what you can offer or promise things you can’t deliver, especially to a community that has had that experience of people not coming through for them.”

As WHS staffers go door-to-door, they share the services available and also just get to know people. If the residents have pets, the WHS offers a package that includes free spay/neuter, microchips and vaccines. Staff also gather data on who owns pets, how they acquired them, whether the animals are fixed, how often they visit the vet and if the residents are familiar with the local animal control department.

“What we’re finding supports Pets for Life’s overarching ideal, which is that folks in the community are open to services but just have never been reached,” Kline says. Most people they meet haven’t spayed or neutered their pets, haven’t interacted with either the humane society or animal control and didn’t get their pets through adoption from an animal welfare group. The WHS is right down the street from animal control, and some people don’t understand the difference between the two entities, Kline adds, so WHS staff can explain each group’s role.

Even if people know about the available services, of course, cost and transportation issues might make them inaccessible, Kline notes. The WHS combats this situation by offering free services and transportation to residents in the focus area.

The resources that go into doing a community assessment are relatively small—you can download the PFL toolkit for free—and from there organizations can scale their work to what’s doable for them, Kline says. Animal welfare organizations are typically so busy that starting another project can seem impractical, she adds, “but this is really a proactive strategy that’s going to impact what happens outside your door, [and] also long-term who’s coming to your door and who’s needing services. So I think it’s definitely worth exploring.”

Many times the information groups discover through a community assessment isn’t earth-shattering, Arrington says, but it helps inject humans into the animal welfare equation. “We’re really looking at the human need, and all of the other societal and social issues and pressures that impact what’s happening with the dogs and cats,” she adds. “The community assessment really helps shine a light on that.”

Get more information and download a free Pets for Life toolkit.

About the Author

James Hettinger is the assistant editorial director for Animal Sheltering magazine at The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). He's responsible for editing copy and managing the production of the award-winning quarterly publication aimed at shelter and rescue personnel. Prior to joining The HSUS in 2008, James worked for several local newspapers and trade associations in the Washington, D.C., area. He shares his home with three cats: Edgar, Dana and Vinny.