A couple of weeks ago, I was scheduled to give a short presentation at the HSUS Expo on Transparency as a part of a program initiated by Maddies Fund. I was unable to attend in person, but thanks to modern technology was able to "give" the presentation via video.
I wanted to share these thoughts (and others) on transparency via the blog, because it's incredibly important. I've heard from many shelter directors that they are afraid of being transparent because they are afraid the public, and advocates, will skewer them for mishaps and imperfections if they allow them to see behind the curtain.
My experience has been the exact opposite. My experience is that if you AREN'T transparent, people will generally assume you are trying to hide something. People will assume the worst, unless you give them a reason not to. And that the only way to build trust within the community is by being transparent
Here is (roughly) the presentation I prepared on Transparency for the Expo:
Hello everyone. I'm Brent Toellner with the Kansas City Pet Project. I want to take a few minutes of time today to talk about transparency. But more that talk about transparency, I want to talk about trust.
In order for your shelter, or rescue organization to be successful, you are going to need the support from your community. You are going to need help from the community to adopt, foster, volunteer, and donate to your organization. You can't do it alone. You will need the community's support.
But before the community will support you, and I mean fully support you, they will have to TRUST you. People have learned to not be trusting; and you're going to have to earn that trust.
And if you are going to walk away with one bit of information from this speech it should be this: Transparency builds trust.
Transparency builds trust.
Four and 1/2 years ago, our organization, KC Pet Project, took over the operations of the Kansas City, MO municipal animal shelter. It's an open admission shelter that services a community of roughly 500,000 people. Prior to the shelter being privatized, the shelter was a very high kill shelter. And the city's first effort at privatization was wrought with challenges, including charges of neglect against the shelter operator.
When KC Pet Project took over, we were an unknown organization, and I think most people expected that we, too, would fail.
A couple of weeks after we took over the shelter operations, I got a frantic email from a volunteer about a dog named Barney. This volunteer had volunteerd at the shelter prior to KCPP taking over. She was a loyal volunteer, who came out every Sunday.
Well, the previous week, she had fallen in love with a shaggy terrier-type dog named Barney. And when she came back the following week to volunteer, she went to Barney's kennel first because she was looking forward to seeing him again. But Barney wasn't there.
"Where's Barney? What happened to Barney?"
One of our staff members told her that Barney had been adopted, but she wasn't so sure. "Was he really adopted? Or were we just trying to make her feel better?" She wasn't so sure.
And it's a natural reaction -- it's a natural reaction for people to assume the worst unless you tell them otherwise.
From that day forward, at the end of every single day, 365 days per year, KC Pet Project has posted the names of every pet adopted from the shelter, returned home, or transferred to another rescue group. We do it because we want to give our volunteers the opportunity to celebrate adoptions and other positive outcomes with us. And we want them to TRUST and know for sure that these positive outcomes are happening.
At KCPP, we try to be very open with information -- even the bad stuff. We try to be honest about our challenges and missteps. We explain why, and we try to explain what we're doing to make it better.
We even report really challenging things like the number of animals that died in care and about owner requested euthanasia. That's a bit scary, right?
But sometimes reporting the bad stuff can be really helpful.
When we started reporting the number of animals that died in our care, we used it as an opportunity to explain some of the challenges we faced with very young neonatal kittens -- who were the ones most vulnerable in our shelter. However, talking about the challenge helped us to rapidly increase the number of foster families that opened their homes to these needy kittens. It also helped us to afford the purchase of several small kitchen scales so that these fosters can weigh their fosters twice per day so they can notice small losses in body weight before those losses become critical. And these amazing foster families have enabled us to dramatically increase the number of these needy kittens we are able to help and save. And that's the whole point, right?
We also publish numbers on Owner Requested Euthanasia -- which is a service that we do provide at KCPP as an end of life decision (our staff decides whether or not it's end of life, not the pet owner). Talking about the numbers gives us an opportunity to talk about the people with limited resources in our community that truly need our help, or who may live in a resource desert without access to veterinary care and need our help and compassion.
And being honest, gives us an opportunity to ask for help - -and tell the community what they can do to help KC Pet Project help save animals.
And the same will work for you. And when YOU ask for help, they will help you. Because you were honest, and they trust you. And when you get a community of people willing to help you, it can be a very powerful tool in lifesaving.
And it also helps your volunteers and those close to the organization have the knowledge and tools to defend the organization outside the walls and in social media. KCPP staff seldom has to respond to criticisms in social media because our volunteers and supporters take care of it. And they help us, and support us, because they trust us. And that wouldn't happen if we weren't transparent.
Transparency builds trust. And without trust, you won't have success.
If want to end this by providing a few examples of what transparency looks like for successful organizations, including a couple of recent stories.
Also, I wanted to highlight what it means to be transparent in bad times. A few weeks ago, Lifeline Animal Project made a couple of really bad mistakes. But, they didn't try to hide their mistakes. They owned them -- and talked about what they would do to get it right in the future. I have a great respect for their organization, and their Founder and CEO Rebecca Guinn, and think, and hope, that their honesty and transparency in this situation will help them maintain and continue to build on the trust of the community they've rightly earned over the past several years.
And then, this article by Austin Animal Service's Deputy Chief Animal Services Officer, Kristen Auerbach also discusses transparency:
"We don't shy away from sharing the hard stuff along with all the happy news. This commitment to transparency has helped us earn people's trust and has led to many amazing acts of kindness....Once in a while, people ask us, 'Don't people ever get tired of helping you'. We've found the answer to be a resounding, 'NO!'. What we've learned is people want to be given a chance to contribute to the efforts that keep homeless animals alive. Whether they're advocates, volunteers or just animal lovers, people want to help!"
And I'm gong to share the opposite version here. I'm hesitant to post this because the situation in Des Moines is a bit complicated. The Animal Rescue League (ARL) is a better-than-most organization, although I will confess that some philosophical differences (mostly in the types of medical/behavioral issues are "treatable") prevents them from being, IMO, as good as they could be. I'll also note that while they contract with the city of Des Moines for animal services (field and shelter), Des Moines is paying them a ridiculously small amount for those services. But I found this article from yesterday interesting because ARL continues to find themselves on the defensive over the issue of transparency. The amount of time, energy and effort they've spent defending the lack of transparency is pretty amazing -- and is one reason there is a complicated situation in Des Moines due to lack of trust.
"Trust is built on telling people the truth, not telling people what they want to hear" -- Simon Sinek
In one final note, as a part of this presentation -- Maddies Fund awarded me and 8 other industry leaders with their first ever "Maddie Hero Award." for "leading the way with their innovative ideas, progressive thinking and lifesaving actions; Exemplifying Maddie's Fund's core values of honesty, integrity and mutual respect." I am truly honored and grateful for the recognition, although it always feels awkward receiving personal recognition for KCPP's work because truly we are successful because we have an amazing team of staff, volunteers, board members and donors at KCPP that make it all possible. But I am grateful that others have taken note of what is happening here in KC -- and I do hope we've been able to provide some inspiration for others to create lifesaving success in their own communities.