Coalitions Take Animal Welfare to the Next Level

2001 by Elaine Munch

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

The Metroplex Animal Coalition includes Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton Counties of Texas.

Coalitions are making a difference and taking the cause of animal welfare to a different level. Whether you are forming a coalition to address a specific issue, to apply for Maddie's funding, or to foster inter-group communication, a coalition may be just the means to the end we're all hoping for - an end to killing unwanted companion animals. Animal welfare groups have long been criticized for not working together toward common goals. The current movement among these groups to form coalitions may just bring an end to that criticism soon.

Coalitions obviously can create communication and sharing of information. But the most important asset a coalition can offer is a different outlook on our decades-old issues. If animal welfare groups keep doing things the same old way, they'll get the same old result. They need an umbrella organization to inspire them as well as to collect them and help them look at things from a different perspective.

While animal welfare groups are frantically busy holding "adop-a-Pets"' and promoting Spay/Neuter events, there is precious little time to brainstorm "out of the box" solutions for ongoing problems. Coalitions should provide those new approaches and new visibility for the same groups within their home communities. Coalitions can create the noise and energy - a cacophony of activity that says "Look at what all these groups are doing." "Look at the lives they're saving." "Look at how much they do with so few employees." The Coalition can say it for you, and it seems like it comes from a more important authority.

So How Do You Get to This Different Level - How DID MAC Start?

Any coalition starts by talking . . . and that's how the Metroplex Animal Coalition (MAC) did it. We put out queries to all groups and asked about getting together to solve mutual problems in January of 2000. We used lists obtained from area directories. We asked veterinarians about rescue groups with whom they worked. We asked our regional office of HSUS and other national groups for help in identifying those to invite.

Everyone was curious. Everyone came - most everyone - at first. We allowed several meetings for brainstorming that gave all involved the time to talk about their hopes and dreams for the future of animal welfare in our area.

Lisa Jones, from the SPCA of Texas, employed a clever and effective technique to encourage positive brainstorming and prevent rivalry. She asked everyone who attended the first MAC meeting to leave his or her "bones of contention" at the door. She provided little paper cutout dog bones for people to write their complaints or grudges against other groups, and she provided a basket for them to drop them into. She informed them they could pick them up on the way out, but to leave them at the door for now and not bring them up inside.

We used a facilitator for the first few meetings and we set some ground rules so we were able to glean some common threads from the meetings. At some point, we determined that we needed to mold all this talk into developmental groups and committees with an overall leadership committee at the top. Then the more structured work began.

We incorporated, filed and gained our 501(c)-(3) status, created operating procedures and by-laws. We elected a board and the board elected officers. The President appointed committee chairs from those who had volunteered to serve on committees. Then we went to work.

Our Accomplishments

In a little more than 18 months, we have kept 20 organizations together (still talking to each other) and we've accomplished the following:

  1. Saved a city of Dallas Animal Control "Neighborhood Canvassing Program" from budget cuts in year 2000 through active campaigning of the Dallas City Council by the MAC network.
  2. Had February 27, 2001 officially declared as SPAY DAY USA in Dallas by Mayor Ron Kirk.
  3. Sponsored Dallas Area Rapid Transit advertising posters, which will appear during the latter part of 2001 promoting adoption from the city of Dallas' two animal shelters.
  4. Began an active campaign to obtain $11.5M for construction of a new animal shelter in the city of Dallas to replace one built in the 1950s. MAC members and friends are speaking each week at city hall to keep the pressure on for passage of this capital budget item.
  5. Lobbied for and received additional funding in 2002 Animal Control budget to add 10 additional animal control officers.
  6. Participated in an audit of the Dallas Animal Control Department conducted by HSUS in August of 2001.

These are some of the important initiatives where the MAC coalition has played a key role or managed the process altogether.

How Did MAC Do It? A Case In Point

The leadership of MAC decided it needed a positive story to reinforce our plea to the Dallas City Council for more funding for animal control and to gain approval for an $11.5M capital program for a new animal shelter. Cries of thousands of animals dying each year had been heard over and over. The city was faced with budget shortfalls, and MAC feared the Animal Control budget would be compromised. MAC decided to take a different approach.

We collected data from all member organizations regarding operating expenses for the last five years. MAC also asked each organization what percentage of animals came from the city of Dallas. A spreadsheet was compiled showing the total of our groups' spending each year and the number of city of Dallas animals handled. It didn't take much to see how much more money the city would need to address this problem without these groups. We positioned it as though we were supplementing the city budget. We are!

In reality that's what every non-profit group does, but does anyone ever position it boldly that way? Hardly ever. The Coalition was able to have in its back pocket a powerful argument when it went before the City Council. We were saying "We're already paying our dues and some of yours - listen to us!" We would have never thought of this idea if we weren't looking at ourselves as one unit - a coalition with collective ability. We translated that ability to a sound fiscal argument that city leaders could easily grasp. This wasn't smoke and mirrors; it was real, factual and powerful. We just took it to a different level.

Do the Math

Consider the really important advantages and the disadvantages of forming a coalition. Those we've listed here have been the most important to MAC in actual practice, but sit down and list them for yourself and tailor the list to your community. All the disadvantages really revolve about just one thing - having enough bodies to devote to the coalition.

Advantages of Coalitions:

1. Coalitions establish strong communication networks

  • When it is necessary to "muster the troops" to show support for a local ordinance or work on an issue, the ability to do so already exists through the coalition.
  • As long as the groups are talking, there's a way to solve the problems.

2. Sharing of resources - from pet food to legal help, resources can be easily shared and distributed where needed, giving all organizations benefits that only a few may have reaped before.

3. Coalitions create a "one voice" approach to deal with city governments or state legislatures

  • Whether you represent a few dozen or a few thousand people, you will seem much larger than you are to authorities and the "movers and shakers" of your community because of your alliance.

4. Coalitions may actually help fund-raising efforts by bringing more awareness and exposure for the member group. Being a member of a coalition can bring more respect to small, struggling organizations as other people may see them as "more serious" than previously thought.

5. Most important advantage: Coalitions create a feeling that an organization is part of something larger than just its own group - no matter how small or large that group may be. Coalitions take groups to a different level.

Disadvantages/Obstacles for Coalitions:

  1. Coalitions require an additional time commitment from member organizations already struggling with too few volunteers and/or leaders. Resolve that someone in leadership will take the coalition role upon themselves and make it a priority - it is worth the effort.
  2. Coalitions can create the inevitable conflict - "Which comes first? My organization or the coalition?" Fortunately, most of our local humane groups have answered: "Both!" Again, make the commitment that a coalition is a long-term investment in solving problems. It's a different way to approach our same old issues. It's not an overnight fix.
  3. Keeping interest and enthusiasm high - this is a tough one. It requires leaders who are rabid cheerleaders for the coalition - people who truly believe in the positive benefits of keeping everyone communicating for the long term. Find them and recruit them. How? Make them think they can't afford not to commit to this effort. Plus this requires member organizations willing to channel some new volunteers to the coalition.

You don't have to draw from the same pool of animal welfare leadership continually. Ask people to volunteer that may have never worked in this area. If they love animals and are talented and hard-working, ask them to serve the coalition. We have been particularly successful at this. We have some dynamic new talent who have moved to this area looking for ways to make a contribution. We explain to them the larger value of the coalition role. They have proven to be invaluable, and it is exciting to see these new leaders emerge.

Is It Worth the Aggravation and the Effort?

As one who has made a long-term commitment to the Metroplex Animal Coalition, I can answer absolutely YES. From a personal view, I've met and become friends with people I might never have known, both locally and nationally. I know about every event in the area, and I see that much more is being accomplished than I ever knew of before. I work very hard, but I do have fun by supporting our member organizations. I'm part of something much bigger than myself or one group alone.

From the leadership view, though we haven't changed the world (yet), we are truly moving forward, and what's more important - we are trying. I sleep better at night because we are still trying . . . but what's most important is that we are trying on a different level than ever before. That's why it's worth it!

Steps in Building a Successful Coalition

I've outlined below the Board's philosophy and our recommendations, based on our own experiences, for building a successful coalition.

1. Determine your focus and keep it limited.

MAC chose to launch a "no-kill" effort for the city of Dallas, before moving to other cities or counties in the area. Our coalition represents four counties, but we purposefully chose one target community to begin.

  • Rescue groups and humane societies are already being "all things to all people" though each may have a slightly different mission. Your coalition has been formed for a reason - stick to it! Don't spread yourself too thin and reach for too many roles.
  • Above all, don't compete with the local groups. Find a way to supplement or assist in what member groups are doing. This means that being a member of the coalition brings added value to the individual humane organization - don't duplicate their work, facilitate it. That's what taking the work to a whole new level is about - helping these groups get something accomplished that they couldn't by themselves.
  • Determine your group's mission and set goals and objectives that will allow you to accomplish them. MAC's mission statement is: "Working in a spirit of cooperation to save as many dog and cat lives as possible." Our key goals are to educate bi-lingually about pet overpopulation in the city of Dallas and advertise about how to correct it through spay and neuter programs.
  • Though your goals may focus on one city or one area of need, all groups, even outside that area, will benefit from the knowledge gained and from the exposure by being part of the effort. Example: Members of MAC from outside the city of Dallas may learn how to advertise better to Hispanics in their own community by working on the Dallas program.
  • Don't be afraid to modify your goals and objectives. MAC started out with promoting adoption as a key goal. We've learned that while adoption events will certainly have an important place in our mix, they will not be the prime focus for the future.

2. Choose a Chair or President who is neutral.

  • Select a leader who is not on the board of any organization, but rather one who has shown to support the best efforts of all legitimate groups. This kind of leader can hear the issues from all sides and be able to keep all parties talking, whether they truly want to cooperate or not.
  • A neutral leader will encourage an open forum on all issues. Diverse groups are more likely to rally around a fair leader who keeps an open ear and open mind and who has no "favorites."

3. Recruit board members and other leadership who have no "grudges" or conflicts of interest.

  • If there are leaders who have "bones to pick" with other leaders try to weed them out of coalition leadership unless these issues can be truly resolved or shelved.
  • Having regional offices from national organizations involved is fine, but those groups are usually designed to be very neutral and work with "the big picture." Having them involved in local policy other than from an evaluative or support role can create difficulties. These organizations are usually best in an advisory board capacity and certainly in assisting and facilitating the formative stages of a coalition.
  • Guard against the "me/my group first" mentality: coalition members shouldn't use the group to further their organization's objectives, and should vote and volunteer with the goals and objectives of the coalition in mind.

4. Avoid "setting policies" for the member groups to follow.

  • The business of the coalition is not to "police" member groups. It is to facilitate the mission and objectives of the coalition. Stridently resist requiring that all groups agree to do certain things exactly the same way. Unless it is a specific coalition program, for example: requiring that all groups test for feline leukemia, or that all groups practice early spay/neuter, may make a few groups feel good, but overall may not contribute to the mission of our coalition. Don't set yourself up for a battle over things that you may never be able to agree upon. Agree to disagree and MOVE ON!

5. Strategic vs. task oriented

  • Consider tackling the "big picture" issues. Use your "one voice" to its advantage.
  • Of course, you'll have committees that will work on tasks, but the issues they work upon should be strategic issues.
  • Coalitions should pursue "out of the box" solutions to our decades-old problems.
  • Again, let the individual coalition members do the true "task" work. The coalition should provide the resources and the exposure to make it possible for the member organizations to do their jobs better. (Remember we're taking it to a different level.)

6. Strongly support your local animal control groups whether they are an active participant or not.

  • Coalitions are all about image, and usually animal control shelters need more reinforcement of the positive images they are trying to build than anyone. Take every opportunity to include them as a true partner and promote their services and personnel.

7. It's o.k. to move slowly, and it's o.k. to lose members.

  • Inevitably, you'll have groups who will feel that you are moving too slowly. Thank them for their opinion and accept it as such. You are building a long-term coalition for working on animal welfare issues for some time. You are not building a SWAT Team; you're building a coalition. If you are pressured to act rapidly without a plan - one word applies: resist. I'm not saying drag your feet, but take time to put together a plan before acting.
  • Also, inevitably, some groups will drop out. Not everyone has staying power. You'll find that those that are the most vocal about moving rapidly may be the first to drop out. The "instant gratification" groups/member can be fractious. If a group cannot "agree to disagree" but still back the coalition, then having them drop out is probably for the best. Thank them for what they have contributed, and don't miss a beat, or waste time coaxing them back. They'll come back if they wish, and if not, it's o.k.

Elaine Munch

Elaine Munch has served as President of the Metroplex Animal Coalition since July 2000. She will serve on the City of Dallas Animal Shelter Commission from 2002-2004. Elaine has been an active volunteer in animal rescue work for more than 25 years, having served on the boards of the Humane Society of Greater Dallas, the DFW Humane Society and Weimaraner Rescue. Ms. Munch is currently employed as a Senior Staff Consultant in Brand Management for Verizon. She lives with her husband, four dogs and three cats, in Dallas, Texas.

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