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The Shelter CEO Isn't the Top Dog and Shouldn't Be Treated Like They Are

Updated: Jun 8, 2019



Even though we know it is not true, we often like to think about and talk about the animal shelter director or CEO as being the "top dog" in the organization. Lacking effective leadership on the Board it can even become true. However, it is not supposed to be that way.

Intellectually, we all know that the CEO reports to a board and that the board is accountable to citizens, members or donors, depending on whether the agency is a private nonprofit or public municipal shelter. In the case of private animal shelters that contract with cities or counties to run their shelters, the CEO is accountable to two boards and all of the citizens, members and donors whose donations and tax dollars fund the operations.

It is a hierarchy that is pretty straight-forward. But, there is a problem, because it oftentimes does not work, in part because running an animal shelter is far more complicated than many people realize, requiring expertise in a number of different fields, ranging from fundraising and marketing to animal husbandry and care, veterinary medicine, human resources, finance, retail sales and more. Animal sheltering and "control" are also part of an industry that is undergoing rapid change resulting from dramatically changing public expectations for animal shelters. It also involves work that is emotionally difficult, even in the best of times.

How can a board, whose members have full-time responsibilities that have nothing to do with the shelter, be reasonably expected to be experts in animal sheltering? The simple and obvious answer is that they can't be. As a result, all too often they rely too heavily on the advice and expertise of the CEO - the person they are supposed to be overseeing - when making decisions about how to review or audit the work of the animal shelter. When they do that, they are abdicating their fiduciary role - a trustee of the donors and, ultimately, the animals - to ensure the CEO and the rest of the shelter are monitored and managed in a clear and objective way. They also potentially insert unnecessary conflicts of interest in the decisions surrounding the setting and enforcement of policies and practices.

Nearly all nonprofit organizations of any significant size are required to have their finances audited annually, because nearly everyone understands the importance of external review. But, these reviews are nearly always conducted by accountants with great bookkeeping knowledge, but little or no expertise in animal shelter operations. The result is that many or even most animal shelter boards end up letting their CEO and managers set policies and practices in relatively ad-hoc ways. When the CEO changes, practices at the shelter change. That is not how it is supposed to work.

In a well-run shelter, with effective leadership on the board, operations don't change when a new CEO is hired, because the policies and standard operating practices are written down and staff are measured and managed according to how well they follow them. Unfortunately, very often, that is not how it is, with many animal shelters not even having written down their most crucial standard operating protocols. If they have written them down, very often they are in a 3-ring binder on a shelf, or in a folder on a hard drive and many of the staff don't know where they are located or what is in them. To be perfectly candid: I have never seen an animal shelter that does every part of their work beautifully. Therefore, it is my belief that every animal shelter has areas where they can improve and it is the role of the board to ensure that a system is in place to identify the areas where improvement can happen, so that improvements can continue happening on an ongoing basis.

Fortunately, there is a simple way to achieve that: an external audit or review of shelter operations from someone knowledgeable about current animal shelter best practices. Here are some tips for members of board that oversee shelters to determine if a shelter audit or review is appropriate for them:

  • Can the various members of the board explain accurately and simply how the shelter calculates its Live Release Rate (LRR)? If not, an audit would probably be a good thing.

  • Do the various members of the board have access to, and do they understand the contents of, the shelter's standard operating practices? If not, an audit would probably be a good thing.

  • If members of the board ask line staff how to obtain copies of the standard operating protocols, can the staff answer quickly and accurately? If not, an audit would probably be a good thing.

  • Is the shelter's Live Release Rate (LRR) - including all outcomes and is it below 90%? If the LRR is not including all outcomes and if the LRR are below 90% then an audit should be done.

There are many experienced shelter audit services available, across a wide spectrum of prices. One thing is clear, It does not need to cost an arm and a leg. The average cost, in my experience, should be no more than $5,000 and should include:

  • Review of all standard operating practices/protocols to ensure they are current with industry best practices.

  • Review of actual practices to ensure they are being followed.

  • Review of record keeping to ensure reports are accurate and transparent.

  • Review of facility and husbandry standards.

For more information about our audit/review services, contact us at your convenience.

#leadership #governance #bestpractices #shelterreform #auditing