I can be pretty hard on the professional sheltering world. I think as an industry we often create our own problems, refuse to see and implement solutions within our grasp, and wear our “tough jobs” as a badge which should protect us from criticism and scrutiny. Being paid to do our jobs, we deserve a little extra scrutiny into our motives and the differences between what we say and what we mean or do.
By the same token, being an unpaid volunteer or “lover of animals” doesn’t make a person a saint, a blind arbiter of animal welfare, or beyond scrutiny of motives. That doesn’t stop many of them from thinking it does. Just as there are shallow clockers in shelters, there are shallow animal welfare dilettante volunteers out there, too. They can be just as selfish and mean spirited, damaging to progress, and dishonest with themselves and the community about what their true motives are as any bad shelter worker.
I see this self-delusion quite a bit when I speak with boards and volunteers from other organizations, specifically struggling organizations. I’ll be asked for advice or assistance, listen to the usual tales of woe, and hear the list of things this unpaid and above reproach volunteer wants for their organization. “I just want our animals to get better treatment and care in our shelters, I just want to save more lives, get all the pets sterilized before adoption, or have better qualified staff. I just want to be able to raise more funds and find more resources to be the shelter I know we can be or to build the shelter I know we should have. I just want this or that or the other thing for the animals, not for me.”
Most of these volunteers and board members mean it, just as most sheltering professionals mean it, too. But I’ve taken to asking a question of them all. What if you could have all of that, everything you say you want, but the condition was you have to resign from your positions of power in the organization? In the long pause that follows, the volunteer and I both get to reflect on the divide between what you say you want and what you actually want, but are not saying.
What most of us, professional or volunteer, actually mean when we say we just want some something is that we want to be the person who does it. It’s not, “I want all the animals saved in this shelter,” it’s, “I want to save all the animals in this shelter.” That is a vast difference.
As a director, a consultant, and a volunteer board member, I’ve been in many situations in which I’ve had to face the reality that a well-meaning staff member who really wants something good for the mission they are paid to serve needs to be told, yes, we can do that thing. We just can’t do it with you, because you are not up to the job or you, despite your best intentions, are part of what’s stopping us from accomplishing this goal we share.
That’s a tough conversation, made tougher by the reality of the livelihood you are denying that person if you make that decision, and one reason that well-intentioned but terrible employees choke our industry. It’s just really hard to fire a good person, even if we know it’s best for the mission. That’s why it’s my job as a paid professional, with the responsibility of looking out for over 60 employees and their families, to be really honest when I say, “I just want to do this list of important things for animals and I want me and my staff to be the ones to do it!”
Some volunteers have trouble with that “and” when it comes to them. But sometimes the change that needs to come requires a volunteer to step back or give up control or play with the rest of the team in consensus. Sometimes the team reaches a different consensus and the volunteer needs to decide to find a new team. Sometimes the volunteer needs to reflect upon their own role in an organization’s shortcomings. At all times, we need to acknowledge our own ego and our own human and sometimes selfish desires. Yes, we want something good to happen and, yes, we want to be in control of it, too. That’s just fine.
I got to thinking about all this because of an interesting experience I had recently with a volunteer group at an organization I work with. There has been a long standing, if a bit loose, partnership and the volunteers asked, jokingly, for something that seemed like a lot. We often express what we actually want when we think we are joking. I thought about it and decided it made a lot of sense and went on to ask if they could have anything, what would they want? The list was rattled off. I thought some more and said, “Yes.”
They could have everything they wanted and I’d even pay for it. Tens of thousands of dollars would be the cost to make capital purchases and capital improvements but, yes. They could have total autonomy and we’d exert no control over their program. Yes. The partnership would give the organization I was working with something we really wanted to accomplish, even if it involved spending our funds and giving up control- and I love’s me some control, buster, so don’t think I didn’t have to put some thought to that.
They could have everything they said they wanted, everything on their wish list, in exactly the way they wanted it, and someone else would pay for it. Yes. They thought about it for a few days. And they said, no. They gave no reason, just which they were opting for a different direction. A different direction than getting everything they said they wanted. Huh.
My guess is that they experienced the fear that comes with accomplishment and the fear that being given what we want is a trick or the fear that allowing anyone else to do something for us somehow controls or diminishes us, but who knows?
All I know is that we need to be very careful in animal welfare to recognize the difference between what someone says they want and what they actually want. We’d also be better off if we examined that chasm in what we tell ourselves we want.