Animal shelters exist in the tension between being highly competent at inefficient systems and finding ways of turning efficiency into incompetence, all in the hunt for efficacy.

I travel around to a lot of shelters and see many organizations which are highly efficient at being incompetent. These are the places which follow their rules to the letter and are models of consistency. Unfortunately, they are consistently engaging in terrible operations, have ludicrous policies, and inevitably have terrible outcomes. While this is certainly a step up from places which are wildly inefficient and have terrible outcomes, clinging to such an efficiency is like the court telling the innocent condemned man that he still has to hang because he received a “fair” trial.

There are also many sheltering organizations which may excel in the outcome realm, but have no competence and efficiency at all. They often kill themselves to have a great outcome for animals but they have to try so much harder than is necessary for the outcome and are far more prone to some small problem snowballing into something massive and damaging.

Perhaps the scariest scenario is when a highly effective organization becomes so highly efficient that it can begin to negatively impact its success. Sometimes every improvement and step forward, every means of squeezing more work out of the time or money available or getting more work out of the limited staff resources, or every attempt to improve outcomes, can actually backfire and lead to a negative return.

This is the one that scares me when I think of my organization. We’ve gone through efficiency/competence/efficacy cycles before. We’ve used computers, internet and databases to increase our efficiency in managing people or volunteers to the point where the efficiency leads to so little contact with our people and volunteers that we lose the connection with them. What’s the point of being able to handle more volunteers through “efficiency” if they no longer enjoy the process?

Ironically, we have constantly had to guard against increased performance leading us backward in animal care because of our new veterinary capacities. When we had no access to high quality vet care, any care was welcome and served the animals. But when you can deliver nearly unlimited vet care- but don’t have unlimited resources and time- we can end up spending too much time and care on some and risk not giving enough to others on balance.

We also face the negative impacts of staff competence. As our staff gets better and better and more and more skilled, they begin to ask for or even demand to do things in ways which can be too big a drain on resources and actually damage the entire organization. As a manager, I spend an awful lot of my time explaining why just because a staff member has the skills and wants to do to do something a particular way doesn’t mean we (the organization) can do it that way.

I’ll give a specific example. Ten years ago we performed sterilization surgeries in the standard model of shelter surgeries, not the American Animal Hospital Association model we do now. Although the “standard” model demonstrated no greater negative outcomes that our “advanced” model, we moved to the new model because it’s the model you and I would want for our pets. It was a “preferred” way of providing surgery. The two approaches were exactly as effective, with every animal getting sterilized, and without any demonstrable difference in negative outcomes, but for good reason we moved to a new model and we are highly competent at it.

Except we now do half the number of sterilizations in the same period of time. We are highly competent and highly effective, on an individual animal level. But we are about half as efficient and it costs us double in time and resources to do what we feel to be best for the animals. And that can be a real danger to the well-being of the organization.

That is the tension we find ourselves dealing with more times than not. We have become highly effective. We have become highly competent. But in doing so we can sometimes become less efficient and delivering the most services, helping the most animals, connecting with the most people. Or conversely, we can become so efficient we become less effective.

Suddenly, we tip toe our way into being an incompetence of efficiencies rather than the other way around. It is very tough to explain to staff that there are ways in which we were actually doing better before they had the database, or the new equipment, or did things to the highest level of expectation, rather than the average level. But that’s where a close eye on outcomes is important.

If we have a better fundraising event that costs us more money but doesn’t raise more money, is that truly a better event? If we start providing medical services that don’t save more lives and actually cost so much more that we get short on resources in other vital areas, is that a beneficial service? If we empower our staff to do the things they aspire to but these things don’t actually save the lives of more animals or uplift the organization, are we doing right by our staff, the animals, or Humane Pennsylvania?

I don’t always know. You don’t wonder these things when you have all the money in the world. But we don’t and never have. So we are left juggling competence, efficiency, and efficacy, trying to keep all the balls in the air at once. It doesn’t help animals to be so good at our job we can’t afford to help all the animals. But it’s also never an excuse to do less than we can and should because we claim we don’t have the resources.

If the job was easy, everyone would be good at it.


I often joke that I thought I got into animal sheltering to worry about animals, not worry about money. The reality is that those two things are intertwined and the way we help animals is by having the resources to give them what they need.  As an organization we’ve done a pretty good job of that.

Ain't too proud to beg!

Ain’t too proud to beg!

We’ve pretty much always had to work off “cash flow”. In other words, how much we can spend doing our job of saving the lives of animals is based on how much we can bring in in donations and service revenue.  We have a pretty limited saved buffer and we’ve never been lucky enough to have a giant endowment like some shelters in our region.

That’s why it kills us when we have budgeted income that doesn’t come in when it’s supposed to.  Such as the $110,000 which was supposed to come in to our coffers this month but didn’t.  Surprise! That’s money we need to adopt animals, provide surgery and vaccinations, feed the pooches, keep the lights on, heat the buildings, and pay our excellent staff.

We budget as tightly as you probably do with your household income and when we get told, as we just were that the overdue check is “in the mail” in a month or two, it doesn’t help pay the bills right now.  It’s even more frustrating when we have had a great year, like we have had, because it means we have to decide where we will cut back on programs or services, even if it’s just for a month or two, services which won’t be in place to help people and pets.  When it is life or death, a month or two can be a long time.  Too long.

I wish we had ten, twenty, or thirty million bucks in the bank to draw from when an accountant decides to wait an extra couple months before distributing over one hundred thousand dollars given to us by a generous donor who passed away. But we don’t (can you imagine what we could do for animals if we did?!).  We just have to squeak by and hope this unexpected and unwelcome shortfall hurts our mission as little as possible.

Fortunately, we are highly efficient, we’ve got discipline and good financial practices- there’s a reason we have a four star charity rating! – and we’ve got you!

Our supporters have always come through for us because they know we do more with less than pretty much anyone out there and we do work on their behalf that makes them proud. I hope our work makes you proud. That’s why I hope you’ll consider helping us out right now, when we need it and are waiting for our critically needed gift to arrive.

Please consider making a gift online right now.  Consider giving a gift for holidays (the animals don’t care which one!) in honor of a friend or family member.  Have an office dress down day and ask people to donate funds or items from our wish list to help offset our costs.  Make a year-end stock transfer to avoid those pesky capital gains taxes or distribute a mandatory IRA payment to the animals.  If you’ve already made a gift this season or this year, double check to see if your employer makes matching gifts before the year ends.

We know you probably don’t have an extra $100,000 just sitting around (if you do, call me!) but every little bit helps and together we can all chip in to ensure that the animals get the holiday they deserve and our staff can focus on worrying about the animals and not worrying about money.

That’s my job.  Thanks for all you’ve done- and I hope will do- for the animals!