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Staying Nimble and Solvent through the Pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic is a crucible forging new ways of doing business for animal shelters and rescues. Animal welfare organizations are not just figuring out how to survive today, they are building foundations for the long-term to ensure they can re-open their doors and go back to operating at full capacity once this crisis has passed.  

Making decisions about how to operate today doesn’t just rely on an assessment of the resources at hand. It’s important to look ahead and consider whether you will be holding true to your mission if you make certain changes, and if there is continuity with the programming you strive to provide to your community. Evaluating what services to continue and which to halt should also involve reviewing what niches other organizations are filling.  

Our network partners are tackling this tough work with inspiring creativity, pivoting daily to keep pace with the rapid changes the pandemic throws our way. Here are a few of the ways they are proving to be nimble providers of critical social services. 

Scaling Back Programs and Streamlining Processes  

Many agencies are shifting to the need for social distancing by switching to online adoptions, adoptions by appointment, virtual meet-and-greets, and curb-side pick-up policies for adopters and fosters. At the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke Counties, VA, the public is no longer allowed to pick up pet food, which is being delivered by volunteers instead. 

Such shifts are opening up new opportunities, like a chance to beef up adoption marketing and return to owner efforts at Osceola County Animal Services in Florida.  

“We are not completely closed to the public and we try to get people to take strays back home with them to foster, but they don’t always do so. The greatly reduced traffic and calls for service allows our animal control officers time to canvas neighborhoods looking for owners,” says director Kim Staton. “Additionally, on days we are closed we are taking more videos and photos of the animals for adoption to better market them to the public.” 

Stand for Animals, a nonprofit vet practice in Charlotte, NC, stopped doing spay/neuter because they couldn’t practice social distancing techniques during surgery and because they wanted to be cautious about using up limited supplies. However, they remain open for sick patients three days a week at two of their three clinics using the curbside model. Executive director Cary Bernstein says they plan to do vaccines and heartworm testing as well at some point. 

“We’re considering setting up an express visit option for people where they don’t come into the office,” she told us. “We can make it more affordable for our clients because appointments take less time when you don’t have the client in the exam room. We are already interviewing current clients in the parking lot and our standard set of questions has allowed us to be more thorough. So having this as an alternative type of clinic visit in the future will bring in funds and support our community in a new way.” 

The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals started doing virtual tours, which have generated some adoptions and been so popular on social media that they’ve had requests to keep doing them indefinitely.  

Challenging the Status Quo 

Unsurprisingly, the need for change has proved challenging for shelter staff. At Dutchess County SPCA in NY, director of animal care Audrey Lodato had been trying to get her teams to understand that keeping animals in homes and out of the shelter is extremely important.  She was hitting a brick wall but with the new urgency brought about by the pandemic, the SPCA staff is exhausting every option to keep pets with their people. And they are seeing how that benefits both the animals and the community.  

Staff also had to quickly implement a foster program to make room in the shelter for emergency intakes. 

“We had a program comprised of eight foster homes when this hit,” says Lodato. “So that foster program got a swift kick in the pants. My plan to slowly move some staff around to accommodate having a foster coordinator went right out the window. Now I have shifted staffing to include two full-time foster team members and almost all our animals are in foster. 

“The staff had quite a learning curve, but they rolled with it and the program has been a bright spot in all of this for us. We now have 101 animals in 84 foster homes—and we’ve had 13 ‘foster fail’ adoptions. 

“We've also successfully implemented telemedicine appointments and have fosters sending in bios and pics of the animals in their homes. I would love to see more safety net programming here permanently, and COVID-19 might be the thing that allows us to have the resources to do that, as strange as that seems.” 

Seeking Financial Stability for the Short- and Long-Term 

The need to reduce costs immediately has unfortunately led to many layoffs in our industry, but the federal stimulus package may help reverse that trend. The Paycheck Protection Program is a 0.5% fixed-interest loan available to businesses with fewer than 500 employees; repayment is deferred for six months and maybe forgiven by the government.  

The big financial blow for the SPCA of Winchester, Frederick, and Clarke Counties came from shutting down its 10,000-square-foot thrift shop, which generates about $1,000 per day for the animal shelter. The organization ended up laying off half of its staff, retaining only essential personnel to take care of the animals and continue to facilitate adoptions. 

They are likely to be saved by the federal loans, though, too. Executive director Lavenda Denney has not only applied for one, she wrote five emergency relief grants; took advantage of a three-month mortgage deferral offered by its lender; got a story in the local newspaper that generated more than $24,000 in donations; and launched an online campaign called “Sit, Snuggle, Stay Home” that raised $3,000 on the first day.  

Speaking of online campaigns; Gateway Pet Guardians in St. Louis not only turned their biggest fundraiser of the year into a virtual one, they made it available to other shelters around the country. The Shelter Slumber Pawty, which raised almost $300,000 in 2019 for a collaboration of 15 organizations, encourages individuals or families to raise a minimum of $250 to support their shelter of choice. Then, on April 18th, they will participate in the interactive House Pawty. Already more than 125 organizations have registered, and it was only announced two days ago. 

While organizations are justifiably distressed about having to cancel some fundraising events, many are learning to make lemonade out of lemons. The Santa Fe Animal Shelter found it to be one of the most cost-effective and efficient measures they’ve taken thus far.   

“Events can be a fun way to raise money but when we really focused on the return on investment, in addition to the team's time, it was clear a change was needed,” says Deanna Allred, director of development. “We are going back to basics and stewarding our donors in a much more direct and impactful way, exploring how we can connect with them and keep them engaged.” 

Using Lessons Learned to Design the Future 

The innovation inspired by the coronavirus pandemic is inspiring, and organizations like these aren’t stopping now. They are hard at work figuring out the next phase: how to absorb these practices into their standard operating procedures.  

Keeping some or all of these program changes in the future will result in cost savings for shelters that may be struggling with their financial resources, and continuing practices like curbing intake and providing other solutions to the public will reset the role of the animal shelter in today’s society. 

While things will continue to feel like a roller coaster ride for all of us for the foreseeable future, shelters are clearly on track to become stronger, more efficient, more respected pillars of their communities.  

Makena Yarbrough
Regional Director, Mid-Atlantic Region
Best Friends Animal Society