This is the final installment of my halftime report and while I could legitimately fill another three installments with achievements by our teams and our partners, I want to stick to the theme of signature Best Friends programs, all of which are moving the needle on change.
If you’ve just joined the conversation, you can read the two previous entries here and here, as I close the year with a final assessment of how far we’ve come since declaring our goal, at the 2016 Best Friends National Conference, to make the country no-kill by 2025.
The embed program: Flipping the script on shelter assessments
The story used to go like this: A shelter or city animal services department with a poor lifesaving record would get rocked by an inflammatory scandal or an endless parade of no-kill advocates lining up at city council meetings to demand change. In an effort to placate the public, the agency would commit to an outside assessment and a “get well” plan. The city would contract with a consultant or a prominent traditional sheltering organization to come in and identify all that was wrong, write a report recommending best practices, pick up their check and leave town. The recommendations, whatever their actual lifesaving value, would find a happy home on the shelf or in the general manager’s filing cabinet, the public would be assuaged for a year or two with modest efforts implemented, and then the whole cycle would begin again.
The missing element in all such schemes is leadership. Real lifesaving change means breaking old habits that have become rules enforced by the agency and empowering staff to build new lifesaving protocols and make lifesaving decisions at every juncture, regardless of old habits and failure-oriented rules and routines.
Powered by a generous grant from Maddie’s Fund® (#ThanksToMaddie), the Best Friends Maddie’s® Shelter Embed Project has been uniquely effective in turning struggling agencies around. First, we do shelter and operational assessments, including board work if it’s a private organization, and then we put together a plan. But simply handing a sheltering system that’s spiraling downward an assessment and a plan is like trying to address homelessness by handing out real estate guides at a homeless shelter.
The success of the embed project, and where it gets its name, lies in the fact that we place Best Friends staff in on-the-ground leadership and/or line staff positions, with the agreed-upon authority to lead change. Best Friends staff are embedded in the shelter and work side-by-side with shelter staff. It’s a model that has had proven success with our community cat programs for years (as detailed in part two of this series), and it is demonstrating that having hands-on leadership and mentoring the next rank of leaders are the keys to lifesaving success.
Here are a few examples from some of the most underserved communities in the country, where the Best Friends Maddie’s® Shelter Embed Project is saving lives:
Phase one of the embed project began in 2018 in the Rio Grande Valley at Palm Valley Animal Center, located in Edinburg, Texas. The shelter had a sad 35% save rate that year, and nearly 30,000 dogs and cats entered the overcrowded facility. Best Friends staff and a local team eager for change doubled the save rate in 2019, and by the end of 2020, 88% of the re-branded Palm Valley Animal Society pets were being saved. Up the road in Harlingen, Texas, was the next stop for the embed bus powered by Maddie’s Fund. At Humane Society of Harlingen, with a Best Friends shelter manager, a dismal 2018 save rate of 28% was transformed to a save rate of 82% in 2020, with the last seven months at or above 90%. In Santa Rosa County, Florida, the Maddie’s® Shelter Embed Project earned another gold star as Best Friends combined an embedded shelter manager with progressive animal control officer training by our staff. Santa Rosa County has seen a big lifesaving improvement — from a 32% save rate in 2018 to an 83% save rate in 2019.
Other embed communities include Abilene, Texas, and the Big Island of Hawaii. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of the forward-thinking support from Maddie’s Fund for this type of essential work.
Other innovative programs
Speaking of leadership, in December 2019 we announced the Best Friends Executive Leadership Certification program (ELC). This groundbreaking partnership with Southern Utah University is tailor-made for animal services leadership at the highest level, and it’s the first of its kind to be endorsed by a university. Southern Utah University recognizes the academic rigor of the ELC and cohorts receive an Institutional Certificate of Executive Leadership in Animal Services upon fulfilling program requirements. To date, two cohorts comprising 35 leaders committed to no-kill have earned the certification and have taken that training to agencies across the country.
In the fall of 2019, we launched the 2025 Action Team, a group of local advocates working to take their communities to no-kill. The team has quickly grown to include more than 18,000 people nationwide. Team members organize work with shelters and other stakeholders to increase lifesaving in their communities. They also help to pass legislation on issues like trap-neuter-return, breed discrimination, pet-inclusive housing and puppy mills. The Best Friends legislative advocacy team chalked up 375 legislative wins between 2016 and 2019, each one an important brick in the road we’re building to achieve no-kill across the country by 2025.
The future of animal sheltering
For years, Best Friends has advocated for a shift away from the traditional sheltering model, which centers on brick-and-mortar operations that aggregate stray and homeless pets, often to their detriment. Shelter design hasn’t changed all that much over the last 150 years, while the number of animal lovers willing to play a role in the care of local homeless pets has grown exponentially. That’s why Best Friends advocates for a community-supported model of sheltering, one that leverages the animal-loving public to provide foster care and neighbor-to-neighbor adoptions, with the shelter providing essential community coordination and support, critical emergency care and management of resources to help keep pets in their homes.
This model gained unexpected traction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the beginning of the pandemic, many shelters were forced to close their doors to the public and to call upon the public for foster care and to find new ways to decentralize their operations — actions that coincidentally align with this vision of the future. The full impact of this shift and its long-term durability are yet to be determined, but the simple fact of keeping more animals out of shelters has had a dramatically positive effect on lifesaving in 2020.
Also with an eye to the future of animal sheltering, last year, prior to COVID-19 restrictions, we announced a partnership with the Walton family to build a community-oriented shelter from the ground up. Now, thanks to the foresight and compassion of the decision-makers at the Walton Family Foundation, coupled with Best Friends’ experience and know-how, we stand at the threshold of a new era of innovation that will transform the entire concept of what an animal shelter is.
The Best Friends Pet Resource Center in Bentonville, Arkansas, is scheduled to begin construction in 2021 and will be a benchmark for how far our movement has come. Stay tuned for more details that will be coming your way soon.
Important acknowledgements and special thanks
As I said, I could use three more blog posts to cover adequately all that has been accomplished and to recognize the critical role played by our partners, but I want to close with a shout-out to some of the key players who have made so much of this possible.
The Rachael Ray FoundationTM has channeled millions of dollars through Best Friends for grants to our network partners. In 2020 alone, we distributed $2 million in Rachael Ray Save Them All COVID-19 relief grants to help hard-pressed shelters and rescue groups continue their lifesaving work, in addition to $1 million in planned pass-through grants via their other granting programs.
The Petco Foundation and PetSmart Charities have been tried-and-true allies in the no-kill movement for decades. These two organizations not only support Best Friends projects and programs, they have been an important lifeline for both large and small animal welfare organizations across the country. Together, they account for millions of lives saved through their adoption programs and historic support for innovation.
Here we are, looking forward to a new year and the second half of our campaign to bring the country to no-kill, and the only thing I can say for sure is that the most exciting and unexpected portion of the journey to 2025 is yet to come.