When I tell people I am in charge of an animal sheltering organization they inevitably launch into how wonderful it must be, helping all those animals, working with all those people who share my mission, and how they’d love to be able to do the work I do. It must feel great, right?
I try not to disabuse them of their naiveté. Helping animals is great and I do love most of the people I work with and for, because we do share a common mission. But if I was truly honest, I’d tell them that they should stick to volunteering. The second you take a dollar for this sort of job, especially if you are sitting in the leadership position, it’s a whole new ballgame, and its pro ball.
Animal shelter directors and CEOs are very often professional chew toys. We take heat for not doing the job others want us to do. Staff, volunteers, the public, supporters, or detractors, you’re going to get it in some form or another from someone or everyone at some point. We take heat for not changing, then we take it for changing from the people who liked the way we did it before. If you take donations, you’ll take heat from the donors. If you take government contracts (or even help out the government for free), you’ll take heat from politicians. If you are a cruelty officer, you’ll take heat from district attorneys. Hell, if you are an officer, you’ll take heat from everyone.
This is an industry which tends to chew up and spit out an awful lot of its executives. The latest departing, ravaged, executive announced her exit from our ranks recently. If you haven’t been following the saga in Lancaster County, I’ll leave you to click on the previous link and jump down the rabbit hole. If you have been keeping up, you know there is a lot of back story.
Her stated reason for leaving was, she “could no longer endure the emotional challenge of seeing abused animals come through the doors without having the actual or persuasive authority to find justice for them.” That sounds a lot like the reason I gave for leaving animal welfare for a couple years a little over a decade ago. But the real reason I left was I was tired of getting kicked in the crotch over and over by people in my own camp and on my own side, let alone by animal abusers. I suspect that may be the case for her, too.
Maybe she’ll return to the profession (I did) or maybe she’ll stay a volunteer. But a profession comes with costs as well as a paycheck and these costs are fair. People hold us to a higher standard, reasonable or not, that volunteers are not because we take a paycheck. It’s up to us to prove ourselves worthy, and to improve our performance as the world and its expectations change and evolve. I don’t think I understood that a decade ago the way I do now.
This is also a reminder to the community that it is the professionals who are here, day in and day out, to do this very demanding job. When volunteers can’t make it, staff must. What volunteers won’t accept, staff will. When a home foster network fizzles out, the brick and mortar shelter remains. And when leadership in one place transitions, the community has us to be here, like we have been for 100 years. Humane Pennsylvania knows why people care about animals, it knows why people are passionate and even sometimes unreasonable. It knows why people expect more and more, sometimes more than we can deliver, but we know we have to try continually to deliver anyway.
It’s an old chestnut but it’s true: We are here for the animals but we can only be here for them because the community is here for us. Your donations, your support, your high expectations. That’s what keeps us going and keeps us improving. Every time I think someone is heaping a pile of crap on me, I remind myself it’s what I signed up for and they have every right to. “Professional Chew Toy” is in the job description.