It strikes me that there are usually two mindsets when it comes to doing something and they spring from the level of resources available. When an organization is rich and doesn’t remember being otherwise, it can do pretty much any damn thing it wants, any damn way it wants. When it is poor and doesn’t remember otherwise, it does what it can and jettisons everything else in an attempt to stay afloat.
But there is a third approach I think comes when an organization either clearly remembers being poorer than it is now or richer than it is now and that memory is combined with both hope and need. There is an interchangeability in the question that gets asked depending on which side of the resource trend one is, but it is framed as: “How can we do more/as much as we have done/did do in the past with what we have now?” Note the lack of despair in the assumption progress is not possible of the chronic poor and the lack of assumption that falling backward is impossible of the perpetual rich. The question is aspirational and focused on the future with an eye to the past.
Disasters are one way in which even a rich organization can face this altered reality. What is rich and effective on a good day is not the same thing as rich and effective after a massive tornado, earthquake, or hurricane. The need suddenly dwarfs the resources and simply throwing bodies and money and “bigness” at the problem won’t work. The last few years of economic turmoil and string of natural disasters has been demonstrating this on large and small alike.
In the case of Humane Society of Berks County, we had some bad financial years and had a couple lucky years which we used to grow ourselves in a seemingly sustainable way, only to see the bottom drop out for everyone and see our advances stopped in their tracks and even reversed. We had a choice. One option was to contract, cut, limit, and wait. But we had been through a tough time before and come out of it. We did not want to give up on what we were doing and where we were going just because the trend lines had changed. So we chose Door Number 2: Cut where and what we had to but try to figure out new ways, ways which had not been required in better days and therefore were not even imagined, to do as much or more than we ever had. And, yes, wait.
For us it meant that during the course of the Great Recession we changed our approaches. Instead of trying to be everything to everybody on our terms and theirs, an unsustainable approach in the best of times, we focus on what our real goals were and how we might achieve them differently. We had to release dogma and the grip of the past. If our goal was to get more animals out of our shelter, maybe we should find ways to have fewer animals coming in to our shelters? Programs like PetNet, Ani-Meals on Wheels, Berks County Animal Response Team (CART), specialized adoption programs, our free dog park, and most importantly our public veterinary services all took on increasing importance. These programs helped keep animals out of our shelters and that meant they helped keep animals from being euthanized.
Guess what? They also cost less money while being more effective. Simply being the place anyone could dump an animal because we had the resources to accept it didn’t help animals, people, or HSBC. Being a place where animals could go if there was a true need for a place to go but offered alternative solutions when the need was actually something else- medical care, short term fostering, behavior support- helped animals and people and HSBC’s financial stability. This approach led us to other approaches intended to get more bang for the buck, more help for the time, more animals saved for the resources.
Berks CART, which is the only County Animal Response Team in Pennsylvania coordinated by an animal welfare organization, is not as large in active volunteers as some and certainly doesn’t have the dedicated resources that some have. But our approach of using available people, resources, and ideas as multipliers of one another has been extremely effective. Co-sheltering, where disaster victims could be sheltered along with their pets, is now increasingly common and was very much pioneered by the PA State Animal Response Team (another organization which should be recognized for outperforming its size and apparent resources). But Berks CART, by necessity and with the confidence that people can be trusted to care for their own animals, even in an emergency shelter, pushed to have non-staffed co-shelters.
We provided all the crates, food, litter and guidance needed by co-sheltered pet owners to care for their pet and we arranged to transfer any pets which couldn’t be housed at the shelter to a central facility. But we did not put a CART volunteer in every shelter 24 hours a day. That meant we could set up one two, three, five shelters with just one or two people, rather than two, five, ten, people. We did it originally because we had to. We do it now because it works better and lets us do more with the same resources. So much more that in recent disasters we have been asked to set up shelters in other counties which did not have functioning CART’s. We did it while also serving Berks County because we had created a smart, effective model for service delivery. And it was scalable- not in a “double the impact requires double the resources” way. We could, in a pinch, double the impact with no new resources.
This mindset permeates all our work now, even as we have, through hard work, smart decisions, and a return of a little luck, not only returned to the path of stability and resource growth but are now stronger than ever before. We now aspire to do more with what we have constantly, ask how we can achieve more than the sum of our resources should allow in everything we do.
It’s why we did and could say yes when the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), a big and rich organization, called this week and asked our team to assist them in piloting an experimental Pet Retention Response Team in the Sandy recovery zone. A team which will try to keep animals from having to enter emergency shelters, maybe to be separated from their human family forever, by helping caretakers to obtain the resources, guidance and assistance they need, even while the caretakers are being sheltered, too. Sound familiar?
I am very pleased to see that HSUS, no relation to us, is the perhaps rarer breed. They are a rich organization which recognizes that they are dwarfed by the need and aren’t simply pigeon holing the need to what they have done in the past. Instead they are asking the same question, “How can we do more with what we have by doing things differently than we have done?” Just think of what an impact that will have when it’s being asked by an organization as big as HSUS. And when they are getting a helping hand from an organization as big in ideas and effectiveness as little old Humane Society of Berks County.
Of course, as the Executive Director for an organization that has to pay the bills, I do spend a lot of time wondering how I can turn all these good ideas and free helping hands given to other counties and bigger organizations into a few more resources and a little more money for us (and, Wayne, when that appointment with me pops up on your schedule in December, take this as fair warning that I’ve got a couple ideas to share with you on how to do just that).
It’s not that I want more to do what we do now. It’s that I can’t help but wonder about all the BIG things we can do in the future with just a little more now.