Many non-profits have a pathological fear of anything political. The excuse is often some misplaced notion that anything associated with politics is off limits due to our tax exempt status. More often, I suspect it’s a desire to not actually take a position on anything, or intellectual laziness on the part of organizations which will actually have to move beyond reacting and identify a legislative effort which will allow us to pro-act. I will freely, if abashedly, admit to have engaged in both in the past.
However, these days HSBC is actively engaged in advocacy on all governmental levels and I think we are better, stronger and more effective as a result. It turns out that there can be an awful lot of “politicing” done by non-profits, as long as it’s issue related. We can’t say, “Vote for X, he likes dogs,” but we can say, “We should do this for dogs and X agrees, thank him for his support,” or “X voted against this, ask him to change his mind,” or “As a candidate for office, what do X and his opponent Y think about dogs?” It’s not about the candidate, it’s about the dogs (or whatever animal is your thing) and the issues and legislation and policies which impact them.
Sometimes we choose not to take up advocacy positions in non-profits because we have to face the fact that our personal political side is on the wrong side for animals.
For example, I am a die-hard political partisan in my personal life. In my 26 years as a voter I’ve never missed an election or primary, I give money to my party, I’ve served on my party’s county committees, I’ve walked in parades for my candidates, and I’ve canvassed. The odds of me voting for anyone outside my party are slim to none in a general election, regardless of their position on animals. If HSBC has a position which my personal candidate in the general election is opposed to, can I still advocate for it without being a traitor to my side? Of course!
As we all know, today’s elections are decided in primaries and that’s where a little information can go a long way. I’ve written in the past about the need to make animal welfare issues a new third rail in politics, one which no one on any side will want to touch. You think guns and grandma get politicians scrambling? Let’s add puppies and kitties to that list in both major parties, and the minor ones, too. An educated public can ensure that all their candidates in the party of their choice are good on animal issues so no matter who wins in a primary, all candidates will be on the right side of animal issues.
Then in the general election we can choose either party’s puppy hugger based on really important issues, like whether we want seven or thirty bullet ammo clips.
Being a non-profit does not silence us on issues which are vital to our missions and constituents. It merely means we must approach our speech differently. This can be very freeing. I shake hands with any politician of any party, regardless of who I will personally vote for, because HSBC serves animals in their districts and they need to know what their constituents think about animals. HSBC invites every elected official and every candidate to every event have so they can hear directly from us and our supporters- their voters- about animal welfare issues like tethering legislation, pigeon shoots, dog law reform, and more. We directly ask our supporters to directly contact their elected officials in support of animal welfare legislation. We ask no supporter to vote a particular way, just that they be informed and that if animals are important, they make it clear to the candidate of their choice.
Increasingly, we are seeing the fruits of these efforts. In a recent Senatorial contest in Berks, both major party candidates were equally solid on animal welfare positions. You and I might have cared who won on a slew of other issues, but on animals, both were good. Animal issues have begun to get bi-partisan support…yes, I’ll wait while you look up that little used term….and elected officials are actually finding common ground on animal bills when they can find little else to agree on. Candidates are showing up at animal events to kiss dogs the way they used to kiss babies.
And laws are being passed that languished for years. The gas chamber ban stalled for decades when the primary advocates were gas mask wearing looneys on the Statehouse steps. But when animal shelters across the state started advocating and asking their tens of thousands of supporters- voters- to call their elected officials, it finally passed and now gas chambers are history in PA. The recent Cost of Care bill, another long time stalled effort which provides for the cost of care for animals seized in cruelty cases, passed in large part to the dozens of sheltering organizations who personally advocated for the bill to their elected officials.
This success not only helps animals, it strengthens organizations. Those who raise their voice get noticed and they get supported by donor and volunteers. And stronger organizations can do more for animals and people.
So be careful and be informed. There are definitely red lines you need to be aware of and regulations which must be complied with. And lawyers who need your money, so consult one if you have questions about the rules. But don’t be afraid of raising your voice in support of the issues your organization feel are important.
There is nothing to fear, the politician is your friend. In some way they are like dogs: They require lots of positive reinforcement, training can sometimes take a while, and sometimes they growl. But mostly, they want to please their masters, the voters. Help them to do that by teaching them what we like when it comes to animals.
If you help a politician please his master, you’ll have a lifelong friend. And so will Pennsylvania’s animals.
My wife and I work in two very different worlds. I’m in animal welfare and she’s in education (no jokes about children being little animals, please). Despite that we find ourselves having the same conversations about how to make progress in our two industries and we find rather bizarre parallels. Dogs or kids, we are both in sectors which tend to be dominated, despite all claims to the contrary, by emotion, tradition, and personal preference rather than by analytics, innovation, and best practice.
Schools and kennels are still built on models created 100 years ago which are more about controlling our charges and ease of management than to benefit the animals or kids. Our worlds are populated by self-righteous saints who insist that they are here for the animals/kids so how dare anyone question their motives, techniques or performance. Both our industries are based on outcomes- learning or save rates- yet both industries fight against efforts to quantify our successes or failures and are loath to share that data with the world.
Both worlds seems stuck in self-reinforcing loops of failure where all point the finger at someone else for our shortcomings, rarely take personal responsibility for our role in our failures, and even more rarely actually focus on the things which bear the brunt of failings and should be the singular reason we are in our jobs: the children and animals. City schools whine against accountability because suburban schools have it easier, just the way open admission shelters whine against no-kill shelters.
And it’s true! The children of entrenched poverty are a more challenging population to show success if compared against a Main Line population, just as the animals of an animal control facility are more difficult to adopt successfully compared the Golden Retrievers of DVGRR. Or are they? How will we know if we don’t actually look at our data, share our data, and hold ourselves accountable? And shouldn’t we also have an honest conversation about what success is, depending on the school or the shelter? Isn‘t it a total red herring to say we must not track and test students in a poor school because they don’t match up against a rich school? Just as much as it’s equally unreasonable to say we expect equal outcomes immediately for both schools and equal adoption rates for two types of shelters? But does that mean we should expect nothing and no progress because we can’t match someone else’s success?
The animal welfare industry hates showing their numbers and evaluating their own performance because we know that most of us have accepted a status quo which results in dead animals. We are defensive because some in the industry who don’t face our challenges make moronic, simplistic claims about math saving the day. But the fact that some suburban dilettante volunteers at a shelter which restricts admission to only the most adoptable pets and has vastly more resources to ensure 100% placement for adoptable animals does not mean that we are off the hook for the open admission, low resource shelters we may run.
If we kill half our dogs, shouldn’t we strive to kill at least one percent less than half our dogs? Two percent? Five percent? Shouldn’t we use our data to figure out which populations we can save so we do better and better? Shouldn’t the 100% no-kill shelter strive to extend that 100% rate to a greater number of animals and not just stop at a percentage? Without that data, without using our heads in support of our heart based missions, we are merely churning through animals the way some schools churn through kids. We are not here simply to have animals pass through any more than schools are a place for kids to pass through. We’re supposed to actually do something for them to improve their lives and their outcomes.
Schools teachers fear testing and data will be used punitively, and sometimes it will be and sometimes it should. The same is true for shelters and the staff and directors which run them. But the world not knowing you aren’t doing as good a job as you could be doing doesn’t mean you are actually doing a good job. It just means you can tell yourself you are, that you are so big hearted, and no one can contradict you with any facts.
My wife and I both use the same criteria for approaching our jobs. We look at a dog or a child we are responsible for and we ask. “What would I expect to be done if this was my child or my dog?” Not in the abstract, but literally, if that was my child’s class or my dog’s kennel, would it be good enough? In both our experience the answer is almost inevitably, no. We would want more for our child or pet. We would want someone held accountable for failing our child or pet. That is what our hearts demand.
Our heads tell us that it’s the data that makes it happen. If a child falls back under a teacher, there is a problem and it may just be the teacher, administrator and school, not the child. If a happy, healthy dog can’t find an adoptive home, it might just be kennel tech, executive director and shelter, not the fact that it’s a pit bull. If no one is keeping track, how can we know if we are succeeding, let alone failing?
I welcome the day of mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, just like schools have to publish their data. I welcome the day all shelters have staff meetings where they are pouring over spreadsheets, not petting dogs. I welcome the day that donors actually ask, “What exactly are you doing with my money which will actually save more animals?” instead of just sending Sarah McLachlan a tear-stained check. Hard work and hard questions? You bet. But the alternative is failing the animals we are all here to help and that is a far heavier burden for us to bear.
When we start using our heads more, our hearts wills be lighter.