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How Pennsylvania animal shelter made it through superstorm Sandy

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1 2012 12:02 p.m. MDT

By Friday, forecasters were generally in agreement: The storm churning 200 miles off the Florida coast was going to slowly roll its way north and then make a sudden westerly turn for the mid-Atlantic states. While public officials along the Eastern Seaboard made declarations and activated civil defense plans typical of the post-Katrina world, it was easy to overlook the 20 people on a small, wooded lot in suburban Philadelphia moving into their own emergency response mode.

As a “no-kill” shelter, the Delaware County SPCA reduces the number of stray and surrendered animals by providing low-cost veterinary care, a mobile veterinary clinic, a pet food pantry and holistic care so that people need not give up their beloved companions for want of money. The group has also recruited an army of foster families that scales from 30-50 active placements beyond the shelter’s walls for transitional housing until surrendered animals can reach a level of wellness or socialization to be successfully adopted, increasing capacity by an amazing 67 percent beyond that which its physical facility can ideally handle.

At first pass, this just sounds like a heartwarming story of success — and it is. But closer study will reveal a small nonprofit organization that has figured out not only how to scale operations for the routine effort of meeting its mission, but how to rapidly expand and contract on-demand as well.

Scalability is a term most of us associate with servers that run mission-critical functions for large corporations, or the ability of retail and package delivery enterprises to meet peak demand over the holiday season. We seldom associate scalability with a small county animal shelter.

In a storm the likes of superstorm Sandy, water can easily surround the primary means of egress for the DCSPCA and the high winds can bring down large trees, some older than the building itself. Moreover, animals already stressed from being in an institution rather than the comforts of a “forever home” fear the unfamiliar sounds of debris falling outside and need support to handle normal bodily functions.

Thanks to a strong social media presence, regular visibility in the community, as well as work with the local press, Justina Calgiano, Director of Community Relations was able to put out the call for emergency fosters.

“In a crisis, it’s amazing. People come out of the woodwork … most are people we haven’t had any depth of relationship with before (but they’re) lining up to help.” And line up they did.

As the 1,000-mile wide superstorm kept most eyes on the sky, 85 foster homes applied and opened up in the days before weather conditions severely deteriorated on Sunday — more than double their routine foster options. A tree fell on the property, though not on the structure, and only a handful of animals, some still too frail for fostering, were able to get focused and tender care from volunteers who camped out in the facility prepared to function without power or heating for several days if need be. The emergency foster homes agreed to provide care for a full week, which allowed the facility a chance to clean up from any damage, make the property safe for people and pets and address anything unexpected.

The story of how the DCSPCA managed during an historic weather event is a wonderful modern story of how people care for those who share their environment. It is a story about a community coming together to do the right thing. But it is also a perfect managerial and leadership lesson for those of us engaged in work for the common good:

Have flexibility and gradations of involvement. Families can only adopt so many pets, and not everyone has the time or readiness to commit to ongoing foster care. Many were able to commit to a week during an extraordinary circumstance. This flexibility in providing a low-stakes, short-term option saved lives.

Don’t sacrifice good for perfect. While officials will tell you that ongoing foster families are what they really need, the bond between pet and person during the storm will likely result in 30-40 permanent adoptions. For the animals saved and the families who now parent them, that is a wonderful outcome. Year round, DCSPCA fosters adopt 1-2 animals each week. That is still an additional 50-100 animals saved each year.

Connect donors and volunteers with anecdote, not data. From a managerial perspective, metrics are critical. The DCSPCA exceeded its goal of placing 2,800 animals in permanent homes last year and is chasing a goal of 3,100 this year. That is a powerful impact. But for contributors of time, talent or treasure, the numbers are too big and success in the abstract can work against your goals. The most gut wrenching stories of abuse, neglect, survival and perseverance are what the organization promotes through all media outlets. As Calgiano said, “Each story is an animal right here in their community that they can help, and the number and volume of gifts we receive for one animal based on their story and photo can be overwhelming … these gifts include cash, toys, even handmade blankets!” It is these individual stories that volunteers rush to save and support during an emergency.

Partner with other nonprofits and businesses. While DCSPCA pays veterinarians, it receives volunteer care from local schools with veterinary tech programs and also boosts its success by working with a local pet supply store in placing up to ten cats per week in permanent homes through off-site adoption.

John J. Brady is the Chief Operating Officer of HigherNext, Inc. With 20 years in the education sector, he writes on matters of higher education, transitions into college and career, non-profit management and standardized testing. JB@highernext.com

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