Richmond's Road to No-Kill

2003 by Robin Robertson-Starr

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

The Richmond SPCA, the organization of which I am the CEO, has been a no kill organization for a little more than a year now. Over the past five years, we adopted a plan to create a no kill community, created a partnership with our local animal control agency, raised $14.2 million and built a new and highly progressive 64,000 square foot humane center. We have done all this in the face of strenuous and vocal opposition from several much smaller, no kill humane groups in our community. They have opposed our becoming no kill, opposed our partnering with Richmond Animal Control, and refused to partner with us despite numerous invitations. They have also written many nasty letters to the editor of the local newspaper and have made false and damaging reports to newspapers reporters about our policies and procedures.

I must admit that writing this piece is a painful process for me because it forces me to recall all the frustrations and sadness I have felt at so much time and effort being wasted on fighting. But I truly think that our experiences and our story of overcoming these challenges and gaining our community's support can be instructive or at least encouraging for others who are at an earlier stage in the process. If that is the case, then it is well worth doing.

In early 1998, our Board appointed a committee to undertake a long range planning project to design the goals and the direction of our institution for the next five and ten years for recommendation to the entire Board. The committee worked for ten months with a professional facilitator to arrive at both a new mission statement and plan for our future. The new mission was "to practice and promote the principle that every life is precious" and the plan prescribed enormous change for us as an institution.

The committee had visited organizations around the country to study different methods of operation. During the course of that work, it became a very committed group of people who had a real shared vision of making major change for our community. The work of the committee concluded and it recommended to the Board that the Richmond SPCA become a no-kill institution and focus the use of its resources on providing those services that would promote an end to the need to kill healthy animals in our community. This would mean that we would stop using our resources on those things that were not targeted at our goal. The committee also recommended that a partnership be created with our local animal control agency and as many other private humane groups as would work with us. The committee had been particularly impressed with the operational model in San Francisco and recommended that it be used as a touchstone for our changes.

The Board, after considerable discussion, adopted the plan of the committee. While the large majority of the Board was supportive of this direction, there were Board members who soon resigned because of their fundamental disagreement with our plan for the future. I believe that this process of planning and commitment of the Board to a shared vision is the most crucial element in making fundamental changes successfully.

Once we announced our plan for change and intent to partner with Richmond Animal Control, a fury of protest was unleashed from several local humane organizations. These groups were no kill, had no shelters themselves and had condemned the Richmond SPCA for many years for the fact that it killed homeless animals.

When the protest first erupted, we were shocked - we had assumed that these groups would be delighted by our fundamental institutional change and the change that we envisioned for our community. Their protest, undertaken by letters to the editor, appearances before City Council, e-mail and phone campaigns, was deeply troubling when we were about to launch a capital campaign for which we would need focused energy and broad-based support. The Board was committed to their plan but decided to delay seeking the partnership with our local animal control agency in order to concentrate on conducting the crucial fundraising campaign first.

It was clear that we needed to have real standing and muscle in the community in order to assure potential donors of our likelihood of success. So, we asked a gentleman of considerable local prestige, wealth and influence to chair the capital campaign and he agreed. He had no previous connection with animal welfare but was quite experienced in fundraising and utterly fearless with respect to doing what he believed was right. After two years of our intense fundraising effort, we had raised about $11 million. At that point, although we had more money still to raise, we felt sufficiently confident of the community's support that we were ready to proceed with seeking the partnership with Richmond Animal Control.

We asked Mayor Tim Kaine, a very popular local politician who is now the Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, to sponsor the partnership proposal before City Council. He had served as the Community Chair of our campaign and believed strongly that our plan would be very good for the community. He agreed and helped us to time the entry of the proposal and manage the lobbying process effectively.

As we expected would happen, the opposing groups pulled out all the stops in their efforts to defeat the proposal. However, they failed to do the most important thing - have a plan themselves for positive change. They were the very ones who for years had been protesting the treatment of animals in, and lack of funding for, the Richmond Animal Control shelter. Now, we were proposing a well thought out plan for systemic change and they were against it with no plan of their own.

This all culminated in a City Council meeting. The debate went on for hours. Many well respected local citizens stood before Council and spoke in favor of our plan. I made it very clear that, whether or not City Council agreed to partner with us, the Richmond SPCA was never going to return to old ways but was going to focus its resources on saving lives and leading the community toward change. The Council vote was 8-1 in favor of partnering with us.

Our capital campaign ended in September of 2002 having raised $14.2 million. We constructed a remarkable humane center that is a shining example of the best thinking to promote the well being of humans and animals. We have not taken the life of a healthy animal in over a year and have successfully treated many sick and injured pets. Here is the best part: In the year since our partnership with Richmond Animal Control actually began in operation, 1,339 fewer animals died in Richmond, Virginia than died in the previous year - that amounts to a decrease in deaths of 41.5% in one year's time.

Clearly, the enormous decline in deaths that we have experienced is the most important reason for adoping a no-kill approach. However, there are many other wonderful changes that we have seen happen to our organization once it became no-kill. First, there was a significant change in our staff. We are now able to hire people who are deeply dedicated to animals and they are able to allow themselves to care about the animals in their care. Our volunteer base has expanded enormously to include all those animal lovers who previously felt that the experience of working in a shelter would be too upsetting to them. The number of weekly visitors has increased dramatically and many of them come, not with the intention of adoping, but just to spend some quiet moments with the animals. Our annual donations have risen substantially. Many donors have told me that they feel that their contributed dollars are going to the efforts that they truly care about. And, lastly and most joyously for me, the atmosphere in our humane center has changed in profound ways. We are truly inundated with visitors, especially on the weekends, and the prevailing feeling is happy, almost party like, instead of the dreary, depressed atmosphere that seemed to haunt us before.

We are still dealing with some of the same original naysayers who are deeply angry about our successes and take every opportunity to disparage us. I have people ask me all the time how we succeeded so well and how I continue to deal with the constant attacks.

Here are the things I would tell anyone who asks. First, you must have done the crucial ground laying planning work so that your Board is wholeheartedly behind your direction. We would never have weathered the storms and kept true to our course without that essential commitment. It allowed me to always say with confidence that this is the vision of my Board and I must make that vision reality because that is what they employ me to do. Second, you must be open to negotiating the fine points and being willing to partner with people who have attacked you in the past. You have to be able to let things go and accept people who were not on your side when the going was tough. The community has a real sense of fair play and will respect you for behaving maturely. But you must never, ever compromise your fundamental principles. And you must make clear to everyone, friend and foe, that you will never compromise your principles so that they make their decisions feeling certain of where you stand.

Lastly, and most importantly, you must learn to place your faith in your community as being your ally. So many people ask me how we raised $14 million in a medium sized, very traditional Southern community. They frequently call our fundraising success "luck" and cite it as the reason that they cannot do what we have done. They always tell me at great length how mean and horrible the people in their community are and how hopeless it is. I do not mean to offend anyone, but I think this line of reasoning is used to justify their own lack of success and gumption.

We raised the money through years of very hard work, not luck. We spent the time it takes, and it takes a lot, to explain to the community that there really is a solution to the pet overpopulation problem. We explained how an end to the problem may be achieved, what are the required resources and how much they will cost - all in very concrete terms. We had open luncheons every Wednesday for almost three years to fully inform the people who we were asking for money or other support. (We actually are still doing the weekly luncheons because it is such an effective way of communicating with the community.) We stopped telling people the same old bleak tales of animals dying by the thousands. People give money when they feel confident that it will change a condition that they are concerned about - not when they see no prospect for hope.

We also looked hard in the mirror and saw that we had been blaming the community in many ways that were not fair. Many people who relinquish animals at shelters do so because they are having very real problems with the pet's behavior. The pet has become too much for them to handle with everything else stressful in their life. Instead of condemning these people, we began providing them with behavioral help and asking them to work with us to modify the pet's behavior. We also gave them help in finding pet friendly housing and, in appropriate cases, in rehoming the pet themselves. In other words, we stopped telegraphing to the community that we did not really like or trust them and started treating them like our partners and supporters. And, here is the hardest part, we delivered on every promise that we made to them so that we would keep their trust.

The mean spirited letters are still being written to the editor and they are often quite personal about me and our Board members. I have learned to give myself a day to let the anger that is natural subside. Then, I am able to take enormous comfort in the fact that our community enthusiastically supports us and they are smart enough to understand where the truth lies. It is hard to argue with 1,339 fewer animal deaths in the space of one year.

Robin Starr

Robin Starr has been the Executive Director of the Richmond SPCA since 1997. Through Robin's outstanding leadership the Richmond SPCA has become one of the most successful, respected and emulated no-kill shelters in the nation.

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