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“Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.” Matthew 7:6

Beggers can't be critics and apparently critics can't be generous.

Beggars can’t be critics and apparently critics can’t be generous.

A good artist friend forwarded me a Huffington Post article called The Career Benefits of Boycotting Charity Auctions.  Since Huffington Post is where I go for all my serious social commentary and Celebrity Side-Boob slideshows and I work for a charity which has helped tens of thousands of animals and people with the proceeds from our charity art auction, I read it, twice, with interest.

I decided the more appropriate title given the tone of the article is the one above.

Many of the points made by Mat Gleason, art critic- And, hello?  When did artists start listening to critics?- are absolutely valid and utterly true.  Many charity auctions do not provide a good Return On Investment (ROI) for artists.  In fact, they don’t give a good ROI for the charities in most cases.  That’s why most auctions are losers for everyone and why most charities don’t do much better when it comes to fundraising generally and getting the most out of every charitable donation.  This is, by the way, where I note that HSBC has earned a Five Star Rating, the highest, from Charity Navigator for the 5th year in a row.

But Gleason does not find fault with bad auctions and poorly run charities, he finds fault with the entire process of charity.  He rather fatuously lays the struggling artistic community’s woes at the feet of charity auctions.  Yes, before charity auctions artists couldn’t keep paintings on their gallery walls as they all were snapped up by a discerning public for asking price and then some.  Since he lives in this fantasy, he might as well cast artists as ungenerous arty robber barons who should view merely giving away their art for something as vulgar as helping their fellow man- or animal- as foolishness.  Give a man a painting and he has a painting today; teach a man to paint and he has paintings to hang in his cardboard box on the steam vent for a lifetime.

Gleason demeans artists, and by extension all who give to charities, by reducing the donation to a mere transaction.  The reality is if you are an artist who gives to the Art for Arf’s Sake Art Auction

to benefit the animals and programs of Humane Society of Berks County and you are seeking personal Return On Investment, it’s a really bad bet, and we know that.  And I venture to say so do our artists and other donors, but that’s not why we give.  We aren’t an investment portfolio.  We aren’t a newspaper or website one hopes is a good advertising platform.  We are a charity and we have ways in which people can come together to make a greater impact by pooling their resources, whatever those resources may be.

For an artist a painting may be the resource she has to give.  For a law firm, it may be a check.  For a volunteer, it may be the hours and hours spent working on the event.  For many, it may be all three, since we have artists who give artwork, become cash sponsors, and volunteer for the event.  All together, these efforts to combine to raise over $100,000 a year, nearly one million over the last decade, in support of our programs; something we couldn’t do without this collaborative charitable effort.  And cash is king when you need to feed a dog or keep the heat on or provide care in emergency ice shelters.

Gleason raises some good points, points which we have scrutinized hard over the years and the reason we have one of the most successful art auctions in the region, even though we are an animal organization.  We don’t treat artists like second class citizens.  We not only invite them to the auction, we invite the live auction artists to the preview reception so they can be thanked right alongside the big cash donors.  Their art is every bit as valuable to us as a check but a check deserves a little credit, too.  We give pricing guidance to artists so they have a “sweet spot” and don’t donate a piece which is beyond the likely bids for our audience.  We give write off suggestions if that’s important to the artist.  For example, if he’s so concerned about only being able to write off supplies while the auction purchaser can donate back for market value, why doesn’t he suggest artists gift each other their art, then donate to the auction?  Oh, right, he’s an art critic, not a charitable professional who should know these things.

Do some pieces sell low?  Yes, and that sucks.  Does that drive down the market?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  But some pieces sell insanely high.  We have on artist who sells unframed silk screen prints at our Art Deska Gallery and Adoption Center for $5.  Last year a framed print sold for $1,500 at the auction.  Did that drive up the market?  Sometimes people in the room just don’t pay what we think something is worth, whether it’s art or a golf package.

But it’s not about the sale price of one piece of art any more than a humane community is about how one person treats one animal.  It’s about the aggregate.  How does the entire effort come together to create something bigger and better?  That’s what a good auction does.  That’s what a humane community does.  That, Mr. Gleason, is what society is about.  If you want to reduce the art community and artists to mere purveyors of product in an Ayn Randian market society, feel free.  I will suffer the fault of hoping for the charity and kindness of artists who support our mission and our cause, who give because they choose to and want to and can, not for ROI.

Yes, our job is to make sure we are good stewards of their generosity.  Yes, some charities don’t live up to that ideal and, hell, even ours has stumbled on occasion and worked to ensure we are great partners to all our donors.  You say charity auctions demeans the art world while you demean artists and charities alike with your characterization of each as greedy.  A few pigs doesn’t make the entire world swine.

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If you’re on HSBC’s email list, you probably got an invitation to The Humane Society Phoenixville’s First Friday art show this Friday.  It will be a blast and we hope you make it.  The art by Matthew Mazurkiewicz is really good.  Some of you might also have wondered, like the one email I received from a supporter did, what happened to Furry Fridays in Reading and why are they in Phoenixville?

We had hoped it would be self-evident by now why we weren’t having any in Reading at the Scholar Center because we had expected to have half our building demolished as we started construction on our new animal housing and nationally accredited community animal hospital.  Unfortunately, our planned start last Spring became a planned start of last Fall as we waited for construction approvals from the City of Reading.  As is always the case with best laid plans, things were delayed and we decided it would be smarter and safer to wait until this Spring to break ground.

Since shows have to be booked well in advance, it meant we had to decide not to host any shows in Reading while we wait.  But when one door shuts, another opens, and the door that opened was in Phoenixville.  Specifically, the door to our new cat adoption center and dedicated gallery space at The Humane Society Phoenixville & Art Deska Gallery.  The artists who had been so generous to offer their support through art shows were able to bring their work in support of newest effort to help animals, and in a setting which is made for art.  In fact, from April through October, the entire town shuts down on First Friday evenings just so we can have a showing.  OK, not just for us, but it’s a huge party and makes for a great and busy opening.

As always, the reason we have these shows at all is to introduce people to our mission, get folks in to see animals for adoption, remind people that our adoption centers are happy and inviting places, and to show our appreciation for the artists in the region who have done so much through the years to raise funds and awareness for our mission by making some of our animal welfare supporters aware of their fantastic art.  Since The Humane Society Phoenixville is new, it needs the attention.

By the way, what’s the deal with The Humane Society Phoenixville, anyway?  Glad you asked!  Well, HSBC has always known that the needs of animals don’t stop at some line on a map, that people will or can only go so far for adoptions and other services we provide, and that some of our locations can only provide so much.  That’s why we opened the County’s first free public dog park in Exeter, our first cat and small animal adoption satellite in Douglassville, put our mobile adoption and VetMobile on the road, and recently opened The Humane Society Phoenixville.

It has been a great way to get more cats adopted- our toughest challenge to adopt because of the sheer numbers flooding shelters- and to bring much needed program and veterinary support to the pets of underserved and at risk populations in the immediate Phoenixville area.  Funds raised at that location are dedicated to helping animals in that community, hence, its own unique name.  Of course, it is run with the same drive to help animals and focus on high quality and effective services.  It had the added benefit of being in a former art gallery so, duh, we had to have our artist friends involved.  More on The Humane Society Phoenixville soon, keep checking back.

So, to review: Thought we were building in Reading so we didn’t schedule shows but we got delayed; were lucky enough to have a new spot where we could have the art shows while we wait; we expect that we will finally break ground in Spring on our Scholar Center reservations- more on that soon, too; we love all the artists who have helped us be not only a great animal organization but a great arts organization, and we hope everyone takes a drive to Phoenixville to check out Friday’s showing.  Anything else?  Oh, right!  That merger thing we mentioned a while back is finally about to be final, allowing our new bigger organization to help animals in need right here at home and across SE Pennsylvania.  You can bet there will be much more on that later.  Whew.

Wow, we’ve been busy.

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At Humane Society of Berks County, we do pretty well on fundraising, especially compared to ten years ago when I started as Executive Director. We also do better than many of our peer charitable agencies in the region, both within animal welfare and in other fields, and have proudly earned Charity Navigator’s highest four star rating. But I am not the first person to say that Berks County is a tough row to hoe compared to neighboring counties when it comes to fundraising.

Please sir may I have some moreOf every contiguous county, Berks is at the bottom, second only to Schuylkill County, in both median giving and percentage of giving per capita. Those two stats are not about how rich or big the county is, they are about how generous Berks is when compared on an equal footing to other counties. Lots of people have asked why, but I think the reason HSBC has been doing better than average is that we have in part figured out the reason. It’s because Berks has been stuck in a culture of parochialism instead of one of philanthropy. And we’ve been stuck here because of the people doing the asking, not because of the people doing the giving.

We all talk about teaching children to be generous. We have community service requirements in our schools, we encourage Alex’s Lemonade Stands. It doesn’t matter what they are doing as long as they are contributing their time, service, and money to make a difference. But as soon as they grow up they get a different message in Berks County: We must give in this way, not that way. We must give to this group, not that one. Berks is oddly dichotomous. While focus tends to be singularly on Reading, there are two major hospitals close together and you are supposed to like one or the other. There are two major higher education institutions in town, and we should choose sides. There are even two competing billboard companies. Of course, there are also two major animal welfare organizations and for years we’ve all been expected to pick a side, like there are sides in saving animals’ lives.

HSBC has been very up front with one message for the past ten years. Please give. Please give to us. Please give to them. Please give to everyone. Don’t like us? Give to them. Just give. When you do give, we’ll say thank you. Whether it’s a dollar or ten thousand dollars. No bumper sticker, no free hotdog, just a thanks. And if you donated a painting forth $100 or gave a check for $100 or gave a check for $10,000, you get the same thanks because we know people give what they can. People have responded to that increasingly and I think it’s helped not just us, but other charities, too.

But the traditional model in Berks has been to look to the big money folks. Can we get Al Boscov to give us a million? It was the first question my board asked me ten years ago. My answer was, probably not, but I bet we can get a thousand people to give us a thousand dollars each. If we’re lucky, Mr. Boscov will take note and send a check, too. That’s what we’ve done. We’ve built a community of giving instead of holding our hands out to the top twenty philanthropists in town, which is unfair to them and to us. Unfair to them because the burden of giving falls on all of us and, based on our giving stats, we all fall short.

Unfair to us because when we hand that power over to a few, they use it as they see fit. When HSBC first considered a capital campaign we were told that we had to go hat in hand to get permission from the committee of the wealthy who would decide when we were allowed to ask our community for capital funds. Our local community foundation openly believes that charities can’t be trusted with large endowment gifts unless they are safe in their hands, not ours. When we hoped to ask our supporters to give to us through their United Way donations, we found that ours was one of the very few United Way agencies nationally which prohibits donors from directing their giving to a charity of their choice. You are required to pick from the list of a mere 32 charities they give you. These are great charities, to be sure, but why only these 32? HSBC gets donations from United Way chapters in nearly every county surrounding us and from around the nation, but not one penny from Berks County’s chapter.

Our community isn’t asked to just give. Please give to us; give to them; give to everyone. It is told how to give, when to give and to whom to give. HSBC and many other local organizations have simply been opting out of this parochial view of philanthropy. We ask for what we need, when we need it, and from whom we need it. We encourage giving and volunteerism on the part of anyone in support of whatever they wish to support because we know a rising tide floats all ships and giving is a habit that needs to be learned and fostered.  Until it becomes an addiction.

I recently saw a great example of just such a fostering in Lancaster County, which held something called The Extraordinary Give. It was a single day of giving in which everyone in the community was asked to give. All the money was given directly to any charity which registered, it wasn’t just put in the bank. Better yet, the big money crowd and the local community foundation matched the money given so that the average person was standing shoulder to shoulder with the wealthy in support of their common community. It made the giving something bigger than the gift, not something small or petty. Together the community raised $3.2 million dollars in one day and it is being swiftly and directly distributed to 260 local charities. Not a free hotdog in sight and no one telling us who deserves our gift.

If we want to know why we don’t give more in Berks County, let’s ask why we try so damn hard to control what is given? In this holiday of giving I hope you’ll give generously to HSBC. And to other deserving organizations locally, regionally, and nationally. No matter who you share your generosity with, I have one thing to say: Thank you.

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As  Humane Society of Berks County and Humane League of Lancaster County approach the official date of our intended merger, I’m putting a great deal of thought into what the final product will look like, do, and convey.  Because the final deal is subject to two boards of directors, county or state courts, and the Attorney General’s Office, like every significant non-profit merger is, I’ve been a little quiet publicly.  I know, right?  Me, quiet.

Les_Demoiselles_d'Avignon

Les_Demoiselles_d’Avignon

But an NPR movie review today and the reminder of the retirement of a great film maker and animator, Hayao Miyazaki, made me reflect on what we will soon craft in the non-profit and animal welfare world.  I think it will be something special, not because of what it will do, although that will be pretty awesome.  It will be special because of how we- the staff, board, donors, and volunteers- are viewing our new creation.  It won’t simply be a bigger, better charity.  It will be something beautiful.

Most people don’t look at a corporation, a charity, or service programs in esthetic terms, but I do.  It is probably the frustrated artist in me, the one which beats readers of this blog over the head incessantly with music quotes, film and art comparisons, and oft maudlin remembrances of those who inspired me via other forms of art.  As much as I appreciate and recognize great art and music, I can’t write a song, I can barely play an instrument, as a graphic artist I’m a derivative technician, and as a writer I can turn a long phrase but I will never turn out a masterpiece.  But I think I have a gift for artistry when it comes to crafting an organization and creating programs and services.  I want not only to have a product, I want it to be beautiful, unique, and inspiring, in a way that is more appropriately in line with an artist as opposed to an executive.

I think most corporate executives, non-profit or for-profit, are satisfied with their professional craft in the way that doesn’t reach inspiration. They are technicians.  Does it work, did it replicate something else, will it sell?  And that is important.  No one wants to be a professional Van Gogh and be the genius who never sells a piece or gets recognition for the organization until after he goes mad, cuts off an ear, and dies.  But the fact that great art is not always recognized now, doesn’t mean we should aspire no further than what sells, or worse, has sold in the past.

And it doesn’t mean that some derivation is not a good thing.  Picasso was brilliant in a way his compatriots were not but he stole the kernel of someone else’s idea routinely and then turned it into something so much better he might as well have thought of it on his own.  Les Demoiselles d’Avignon may have been inspired by Picasso’s introduction to African art, his cubist still lifes and landscapes may owe much to Braque, but they were so far beyond the works of others who may have inspired him that they established a whole new domain of excellence and originality.  You look at Picasso and say, “Oh, that is what they were trying to do.”

I think that the “non-profit artists collective” we have put together in Berks County and have partnered with in Lancaster County are in the process of doing that right now in the organizational and service realm.  We are in the middle of creating something in animal welfare which derives from the past one hundred years but is so unique and different that those who view it, work with us, and make use of our services will say, “Oh, that is what animal welfare has been trying to do.”

Yes, I just compared myself and my co-workers to Picasso, a man of small stature and giant ego.  But if you are not certain what you are doing is profound and important, why do it at all?  In an animal welfare industry which thrives on self congratulation and public self-martyring, we better believe we are doing something worth that self congratulation.  We do, or at least we are earnestly making the effort.  And I agree with Jim Collins’ book Built To Last.  Ego placed in the service of the organization is not a bad thing; it can be a creative and powerful thing.  Just ask Jack Welch or Steve Jobs.  Yes, I guess I also just compared us to Apple or GE.

When we unveil our new creation, it will seem familiar.  After all, it’s based on prior works.  It will be accessible.  After all, we want people to make use of it, not appreciate it for the concept but not be able to sit through all four sides, like some non-profit version of Metal Machine Music.  But we fully intend that as we introduce the newly sculpted organization those with the eyes to see will say, “Damn, now I get it.  That’s what a humane organization is supposed to look like.”  Of course, we hope everyone else will simply buy it.

Miyazaki’s final film is about the man who designed the Zero attack airplane, a thing which resulted in ugliness but of which the inventor said,  ”All I wanted to do was make something beautiful.”  The reality is that animal welfare can be ugly.  Animals get sick, die, and are killed.  We deal with the worst in humanity too often.  The nature of our work sometimes leads us to success defined by delivering the least possible failure.  Too often our own industry uses these facts to deliver more harm than good in the name of the ugliness we see daily.

We can choose to twist something beautiful, like so many in animal welfare do to our mission through despair, lack of creativity, or pettiness.  Or we can take something ugly or mundane and create something new and exciting and lovely, even if the medium is not paint or sounds but is instead corporate structure, program and service delivery, and operational protocols.  We choose the latter and I am so looking forward to sharing our art with you over the next year.

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Many non-profits have a pathological fear of anything political.  The excuse is often some misplaced notion that anything associated with politics is off limits due to our tax exempt status.  More often, I suspect it’s a desire to not actually take a position on anything, or intellectual laziness on the part of organizations which will actually have to move beyond reacting and identify a legislative effort which will allow us to pro-act.  I will freely, if abashedly, admit to have engaged in both in the past.

I love's Me Some Politicians!  The Humane Society Phoenixville's grand opening with Senator Dinniman (center)

I Loves Me Some Politicians! The Humane Society Phoenixville’s grand opening with Senator Dinniman (D- center)

However, these days HSBC is actively engaged in advocacy on all governmental levels and I think we are better, stronger and more effective as a result.  It turns out that there can be an awful lot of “politicing” done by non-profits, as long as it’s issue related.  We can’t say,  “Vote for X, he likes dogs,” but we can say, “We should do this for dogs and X agrees, thank him for his support,” or “X voted against this, ask him to change his mind,” or “As a candidate for office, what do X and his opponent Y think about dogs?”  It’s not about the candidate, it’s about the dogs (or whatever animal is your thing) and the issues and legislation and policies which impact them.

Sometimes we choose not to take up advocacy positions in non-profits because we have to face the fact that our personal political side is on the wrong side for animals.

For example, I am a die-hard political partisan in my personal life.  In my 26 years as a voter I’ve never missed an election or primary, I give money to my party, I’ve served on my party’s county committees, I’ve walked in parades for my candidates, and I’ve canvassed.  The odds of me voting for anyone outside my party are slim to none in a general election, regardless of their position on animals.  If HSBC has a position which my personal candidate in the general election is opposed to, can I still advocate for it without being a traitor to my side?  Of course!

As we all know, today’s elections are decided in primaries and that’s where a little information can go a long way.  I’ve written in the past about the need to make animal welfare issues a new third rail in politics, one which no one on any side will want to touch.  You think guns and grandma get politicians scrambling?  Let’s add puppies and kitties to that list in both major parties, and the minor ones, too.  An educated public can ensure that all their candidates in the party of their choice are good on animal issues so no matter who wins in a primary, all candidates will be on the right side of animal issues.

Then in the general election we can choose either party’s puppy hugger based on really important issues, like whether we want seven or thirty bullet ammo clips.

Pick a party, any party!  Everyone is welcome at HSBC events- as long as they will listen to our concerns.  HSBC Walk with Former State Rep. Dave Kessler (D) and current US Rep. Jim Gerlach (R).

Pick a party, any party! Everyone is welcome at HSBC events- as long as they will listen to our concerns. HSBC Walk with Former State Rep. Dave Kessler (D- left) and current US Rep. Jim Gerlach (R- center).

Being a non-profit does not silence us on issues which are vital to our missions and constituents.  It merely means we must approach our speech differently.  This can be very freeing.  I shake hands with any politician of any party, regardless of who I will personally vote for, because HSBC serves animals in their districts and they need to know what their constituents think about animals.  HSBC invites every elected official and every candidate to every event have so they can hear directly from us and our supporters- their voters- about animal welfare issues like tethering legislation, pigeon shoots, dog law reform, and more.  We directly ask our supporters to directly contact their elected officials in support of animal welfare legislation.  We ask no supporter to vote a particular way, just that they be informed and that if animals are important, they make it clear to the candidate of their choice.

Increasingly, we are seeing the fruits of these efforts.  In a recent Senatorial contest in Berks, both major party candidates were equally solid on animal welfare positions.  You and I might have cared who won on a slew of other issues, but on animals, both were good.  Animal issues have begun to get bi-partisan support…yes, I’ll wait while you look up that little used term….and elected officials are actually finding common ground on animal bills when they can find little else to agree on.  Candidates are showing up at animal events to kiss dogs the way they used to kiss babies.

And laws are being passed that languished for years.  The gas chamber ban stalled for decades when the primary advocates were gas mask wearing looneys on the Statehouse steps.  But when animal shelters across the state started advocating and asking their tens of thousands of supporters- voters- to call their elected officials, it finally passed and now gas chambers are history in PA.  The recent Cost of Care bill, another long time stalled effort which provides for the cost of care for animals seized in cruelty cases, passed in large part to the dozens of sheltering organizations who personally advocated for the bill to their elected officials.

This success not only helps animals, it strengthens organizations.  Those who raise their voice get noticed and they get supported by donor and volunteers.  And stronger organizations can do more for animals and people.

So be careful and be informed.  There are definitely red lines you need to be aware of and regulations which must be complied with.  And lawyers who need your money, so consult one if you have questions about the rules.  But don’t be afraid of raising your voice in support of the issues your organization feel are important.

There is nothing to fear, the politician is your friend.  In some way they are like dogs: They require lots of positive reinforcement, training can sometimes take a while, and sometimes they growl.  But mostly, they want to please their masters, the voters.  Help them to do that by teaching them what we like when it comes to animals.

If you help a politician please his master, you’ll have a lifelong friend.  And so will Pennsylvania’s animals.

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My wife and I work in two very different worlds.  I’m in animal welfare and she’s in education (no jokes about children being little animals, please).  Despite that we find ourselves having the same conversations about how to make progress in our two industries and we find rather bizarre parallels.  Dogs or kids, we are both in sectors which tend to be dominated, despite all claims to the contrary, by emotion, tradition, and personal preference rather than by analytics, innovation, and best practice.

Schools and kennels are still built on models created 100 years ago which are more about controlling our charges and ease of management than to benefit the animals or kids.  Our worlds are populated by self-righteous saints who insist that they are here for the animals/kids so how dare anyone question their motives, techniques or performance.  Both our industries are based on outcomes- learning or save rates- yet both industries fight against efforts to quantify our successes or failures and are loath to share that data with the world.

Both worlds seems stuck in self-reinforcing loops of failure where all point the finger at someone else for our shortcomings, rarely take personal responsibility for our role in our failures, and even more rarely actually focus on the things which bear the brunt of failings and should be the singular reason we are in our jobs: the children and animals.  City schools whine against accountability because suburban schools have it easier, just the way open admission shelters whine against no-kill shelters.

And it’s true!  The children of entrenched poverty are a more challenging population to show success if compared against a Main Line population, just as the animals of an animal control facility are more difficult to adopt successfully compared the Golden Retrievers of DVGRR.  Or are they?  How will we know if we don’t actually look at our data, share our data, and hold ourselves accountable?  And shouldn’t we also have an honest conversation about what success is, depending on the school or the shelter?  Isn‘t it a total red herring to say we must not track and test students in a poor school because they don’t match up against a rich school? Just as much as it’s equally unreasonable to say we expect equal outcomes immediately for both schools and equal adoption rates for two types of shelters?  But does that mean we should expect nothing and no progress because we can’t match someone else’s success?

The animal welfare industry hates showing their numbers and evaluating their own performance because we know that most of us have accepted a status quo which results in dead animals.  We are defensive because some in the industry who don’t face our challenges make moronic, simplistic claims about math saving the day.  But the fact that some suburban dilettante volunteers at a shelter which restricts admission to only the most adoptable pets and has vastly more resources to ensure 100% placement for adoptable animals does not mean that we are off the hook for the open admission, low resource shelters we may run.

If we kill half our dogs, shouldn’t we strive to kill at least one percent less than half our dogs?  Two percent? Five percent?  Shouldn’t we use our data to figure out which populations we can save so we do better and better?  Shouldn’t the 100% no-kill shelter strive to extend that 100% rate to a greater number of animals and not just stop at a percentage? Without that data, without using our heads in support of our heart based missions, we are merely churning through animals the way some schools churn through kids.  We are not here simply to have animals pass through any more than schools are a place for kids to pass through.  We’re supposed to actually do something for them to improve their lives and their outcomes.

Schools teachers fear testing and data will be used punitively, and sometimes it will be and sometimes it should.  The same is true for shelters and the staff and directors which run them.  But the world not knowing you aren’t doing as good a job as you could be doing doesn’t mean you are actually doing a good job.  It just means you can tell yourself you are, that you are so big hearted, and no one can contradict you with any facts.

My wife and I both use the same criteria for approaching our jobs.  We look at a dog or a child we are responsible for and we ask. “What would I expect to be done if this was my child or my dog?”  Not in the abstract, but literally, if that was my child’s class or my dog’s kennel, would it be good enough?  In both our experience the answer is almost inevitably, no.  We would want more for our child or pet.  We would want someone held accountable for failing our child or pet.  That is what our hearts demand.

Our heads tell us that it’s the data that makes it happen.  If a child falls back under a teacher, there is a problem and it may just be the teacher, administrator and school, not the child.  If a happy, healthy dog can’t find an adoptive home, it might just be kennel tech, executive director and shelter, not the fact that it’s a pit bull.  If no one is keeping track, how can we know if we are succeeding, let alone failing?

I welcome the day of mandatory reporting of shelter statistics, just like schools have to publish their data.  I welcome the day all shelters have staff meetings where they are pouring over spreadsheets, not petting dogs.  I welcome the day that donors actually ask, “What exactly are you doing with my money which will actually save more animals?” instead of just sending Sarah McLachlan a tear-stained check.  Hard work and hard questions?  You bet.  But the alternative is failing the animals we are all here to help and that is a far heavier burden for us to bear.

When we start using our heads more, our hearts wills be lighter.

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I hear veterinarians level the claim of “unfair” competition again and again- and again.  I’m starting to feel like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride.  “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it means.”

"Hello.  My name is Inigo Montoya.  You killed your credibility.  Now prepare for your industry as you know it to die."

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed your credibility. Now prepare for your industry as you know it to die.”

The Reading Eagle Business Weekly section recently featured an article (9-24-13, “Veterinarians have their hands full”) about how competition is bringing “change to pet docs”.  I read it with interest for two reasons.  First, as a CEO of an organization providing veterinary services, I know a little bit about the market.  Second, I wanted to see how long it would take a veterinarian to level the claim of “unfair” competition against non-profit veterinary providers.  I got a two-fer when I saw that it wasn’t just non-profits generally which were vilified, the Humane Society of Berks County was specifically named as offering “unfair” competition.  Better yet, we didn’t even get a chance to respond to the false claim in the article.  I guess if a vet says it, it must be true.

Are non-profit veterinary practices competition?  You bet!  As in every industry, veterinary medicine is competitive.  What makes it a little unique is the effectiveness with which private practice veterinarians have functioned as a cartel and blocked competition by any other model than their own, decades old and faltering, model of the independent practice model.  They say the mere fact we are a non-profit corporation instead of an llc. or plc. corporation is inherently unfair and act as if it’s unseemly and unheard of.  One need only look around to see how wrong they are.

People like to refer to their pets as kids, so let’s look at child care.  There are for-profit and non-profit providers for daycare fighting it out in the market place.  Veterinary medicine is medical service for animals, so let’s look at human health care.  There are for-profit and non-profit hospitals, insurance companies, and doctor’s offices and practices.

Across all sectors of our economy there are a variety of corporate and business entities providing service from sole proprietorships to limited liability corporations to professional corporations to publicly traded companies to government entities.  Does Exeter McDonalds complain about the municipally owned Reading Country Club horning in on its burger business right across the street?  Is it competition?  Yes.  Is it “unfair” competition?  No.

Even within the vet industry, there have been complaints about for profit competition.  Banfield, owned by the Mars candy company, operates out of PetSmart.  VCA is a publicly traded company.  Vets complain about them, too.  VCA can use its billion dollar plus annual billing to obtain better pricing on its drugs and supplies than the local one owner vet practice can.  They can use their Antech diagnostics division to give themselves preferential pricing and use the resources of that company to fund the purchase of additional practices.  They have a wall of lawyers who help them get around the laws in states where private practice vets have managed to block corporations like VCA from buying practices directly- instead they run complex professional management services for their own practices.  They have a single marketing department.  Is this completion?  Hell, yes!  Is it “unfair” competition?  I don’t think so but I’m sure our little HSBC vet practice offer far less competition of any sort to our competitors.  After all, there are three VCA’s in spitting distance of our practice.

On an aside, I wonder why VCA didn’t get mentioned specifically by that vet in the article?  Perhaps because he sold his own prior local practice to Los Angeles based VCA years ago?

What exactly is our non-profit advantage, by the way?  We pay payroll tax, like the vets.  We have all the same facilities and operations and staff and carrying capacity costs as the vets.  We don’t pay tax on our stuff, but neither do the vets since they are tax exempt for all business related purchases, just like us.  Most vets draw a salary so they pay income tax, not corporate tax, and so do we.  Non-profits don’t pay property tax, but if we lease a building we still have that cost passed along, just like a vet, and let’s be honest, trash and sharps collection cost a practice as much as most property tax bills.  In short, our base costs are essentially identical to a for-profit vet practice.

So, what would be “unfair” competition? What would be unfair would be if we were able to find a way to use whatever paltry tax benefit we get and use it to unfairly undercut other vets in pricing.  That would be unfair.  But we don’t.  We peg our rate to the middle of the market, meaning that at least half the private practice vets in town charge less that we do and less than the other half of the vets in town, which charge more than we do.  Are they “unfair” because the charge less than we do?

Perhaps the vets think we have some unfair heart tugging capacity that brings in clients.  I sure hope so.  Because we need every single one to help us recoup the costs for the hundreds of thousands of dollars in free and reduced cost services we provide to stray and homeless pets in our care and to the thousands of low income clients we assist each year because they have no place else to turn.  Certainly not to the private practice vet who often asks for a credit card in advance of service.  Is that fair to us?  Yes, it is, because we chose to help those people.  It’s our mission, which is why it’s not only fair, it’s legal.  Just ask the University of Pennsylvania Ryan Veterinary Hospital, which is a non-profit hospital that somehow avoid mention by the vets.  Veterinary services help animals stay healthy and stay in homes.  And stay out of shelters.  Period.

The reality is any private practice owner could become a non-profit corporation any time then choose to take advantage of the same so called “breaks” we get.  But most don’t because they know it’s not some silver bullet which will help them save their practices from the economic march of time.  The same march that crushed the family doctor under foot.  Or the Sony Walkman.  Or the haberdasher.  Fair?  Yes.

To the private practice vets who feel the strain of the economy:  I feel your pain and I have sympathy for you, but your pain and my sympathy can’t change what’s coming.  It isn’t HSBC or UPenn Vet or Atlanta Humane or San Francisco SPCA causing you this pain or is bringing an end to your storied monopoly of services.  To end on another quote, this time by Joe Strummer, “It’s just the beat of time, the beat that must on.  You who have been crying for years- we’ve already heard your song.”

We’re here.  We’re non-profit.  Get used to it.

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Cartel (noun): An association of independent businesses organized to control prices and production, eliminate competition, and reduce the cost of doing business (1). Also called a trust (2).

(1) Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. US Department of Defense 2005. (2) Collins English Dictionary, 2003.

There’s been a long lull in blogging this summer, mostly because I’ve been busy doing a lot of things which will annoy the private practice veterinary community.  We’ve expanded HSBC’s own veterinary services and have just received final approval for our new community veterinary hospital, to break ground this fall.  I’ve presented workshops at the nation’s largest animal welfare conference highlighting and promoting the new wave of non-profit based veterinary hospitals springing up across Pennsylvania and the United States.  We’ve helped other shelters add or expand their own veterinary resources to better fulfill their humane missions.

However, during that time I’ve also had a bit of an about face in my rhetoric due to meeting several veterinarians from around the country.  If you follow this blog, you know I’ve stated many times that non-profit vet services are presented as the boogey man for every problem facing small, private practice vets.  This is especially the case for private practice vets who are struggling in the face of very real, but completely unrelated, negative market forces.

I’ve pointed out the private vet practice has been in decline for decades in the face of these other economic drivers and, in my opinion, is going the way of the human health care industry.  There will be more consolidation, non-profit practice, corporate practice, with only the most capable private practices surviving.  I’ve pointed out that the vets themselves facilitated a glut of new graduates who need jobs and these new graduates like animal shelters, are charitable, and don’t want to buy in to the old, debt ridden, practice purchase model.  Many of them want only to work as a shelter vet or desire a non-profit practice, as long as the practice of medicine is high quality.

I’ve talked about the way non-profit practices like ours can provide better than industry standard care at market rates for those who can afford it, at reduced rates for those who can afford less, and for free for those who can afford nothing.  This approach is deeply rooted in mission, since there is now a growing body of evidence that having a strong veterinary relationship decreases relinquishment of pets to shelters.

Whether the old timer vets like it not, the world is changing and their model of practice is coming to an end.  Given the new models of service rising, I think this is for the best for animals, for people, and for veterinarians.

I’ve also been pretty vocal in my feelings that the private practice veterinary community across the nation, and sometimes with the active support of their state vet boards and veterinary medical associations, attack non-profit veterinary practices and seek to keep them from opening or close them down.  If this was any other industry, and the economic bullies weren’t able to hide behind a white lab coat and stethoscope, we’d call it a cartel.  I have called the thugs of the veterinary industry- and it is a multibillion dollar industry, make no mistake about it- a cartel.

But this year I had a bit of an eye opening.  I realized that it wasn’t just non-profit practices who were falling victim to these attacks.  It was also other veterinarians and other practices feeling the heat.  I’ve been meeting vets from around the country who want to turn the model I promote- non-profit missions driven by veterinary services- on its head.  They are trying to have veterinary practices which embrace major non-profit, mission driven goals to better serve animals and people.  And their own consciences.

Vets who have opened full adoptions programs in their hospitals and have even applied for 501c3 status for that work.  Vets offering charity clinics and sliding scale fees for poor clients.  They are starting to look like us!  And now they face opposition from their own community, sometimes even from their own partners.

Am I mad they are stealing our “market share”?  Do I pretend to fear the quality of their charity isn’t as good as ours?  Am I suspicious of their stated motives and suspect its really just some plot for more profit?  No!  Hell, I know they aren’t getting rich giving away services, that they aren’t stealing clients from other vets or from us, that they aren’t undermining the quality of care industry wide- and so does every other vet, just like they know we aren’t doing that either.  They are simply professionals who care about animals and people and are doing what they think is best for them, for their own practices and for themselves.

800px-There's_no_cabalJust like me and the vets who work for and support the mission of The Humane Society.

I called the vet industry a cartel and I was wrong.  A cartel implies a broad coalition, a monolith in support of a monopoly.  But I see cracks in the monolith now and I see the very bricks which constructed it- the very vets these assailants of non-profit practices claim to represent- pulling themselves from the mortar to build a new foundation for the future of veterinary medicine.  So, I don’t think it’s a cartel any more.

I think it’s become a cabal.

Cabal (noun): A small group of people who work together secretly united in a plot.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 2013

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You’d think the argument over whether free or reduced adoption fees are a good or bad idea- they are a good idea- would be long over.  However, it’s come up again so I thought I’d repost a prior blog, as well as a new article and study on the topic.  If you know any naysayers who are still living in the 80′s on this subject, please try to convert them!

Read: Damaging Beliefs, Damaging Traditions

Check out this Maddie’s Fund article and study on fee-waived adoptions.

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