Five Reasons Why Government Is Bad At No Kill

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If you've been involved in No Kill for very long, you've noticed it -- the great majority of cities that have achieved sustainable No Kill have done so with a lot of help from the private sector. From Jacksonville to Austin to Kansas City (MO) to Atlanta to Salt Lake City to Charlottesville to Reno, and in a lot of places in between, private 501(c)(3) humane organizations are creating, assisting, and sustaining No Kill. Sometimes the private organization signs a contract with the city or county to take over and run the shelter. Sometimes it partners with the shelter to take all or most of the at-risk animals and find homes for them.

We want to create No Kill in all communities, so it's important to know why cities that don't have major private-sector support for lifesaving seem to have such a hard time succeeding at No Kill. Here are five reasons why shelters that are operated by government employees may be handicapped. All of these problems are less likely to affect a private 501(c)(3) organization that is running the municipal shelter by contract or partnering with the municipal shelter.

1. Lack of flexibility in hiring. Governments need to be fair and impartial in hiring, and in order to achieve this they develop lists of criteria that candidates should meet for each position. These criteria often include previous experience in a similar job. A list of criteria for a shelter director in a major city, for example, might include "x" number of years of experience working at a supervisory level at an animal shelter. However, some of the best No Kill leaders have been people who took over shelters with no previous experience in the field. Richard Avanzino, the father of No Kill and the legendary director of the San Francisco SPCA, had never worked in a shelter before he was hired as the president of the SPCA. The San Francisco SPCA, as a private organization, was free to take a chance on Avanzino, but a city government might not have that type of flexibility. In general it's a good thing that governments have hiring criteria, because the criteria help prevent nepotism and good-ole-boy networks. Hiring criteria can be a bad thing for No Kill, though.

2. Lack of flexibility in firing. Similarly, governments establish procedures that must be completed before an employee can be fired. Successful No Kill directors tend to surround themselves with hard-working people who have can-do attitudes and share a passionate commitment to the goal of No Kill. When directors are reforming a kill shelter they often have to replace a sizable portion of the previous work force. That can be difficult to accomplish when the government is in charge of personnel decisions.

3. Lack of ability to fundraise. Government shelters often eschew fundraising. They may have a private organization that raises funds for them, but this type of fundraising is often less effective. People seem to prefer to donate to the organization that's doing the work, not an organization that's raising funds for the organization doing the work. Getting to No Kill requires funds for things like advanced veterinary care, offsite adoption venues, and modern buildings. That means substantial amounts of money must come from somewhere, and private sector organizations that are running a public shelter seem to have an easier job with this fundraising than municipal-run shelters.

4. Layers of red tape. The recent Boston Consulting Group report for the Dallas city shelter found that the shelter director had to report to multiple layers of city managers, and this hindered her ability to manage the shelter effectively. This is not an isolated problem in shelters run directly by local governments. I once volunteered at a municipal shelter where every deviation from established policy, no matter how minor, had to be approved by the government officials who had oversight of the shelter. And approval was not just a matter of picking up the phone -- it took weeks or even months to get approval for the smallest thing. Layers of government bureaucracy can make it difficult or impossible for the director of a city-run shelter to do things like establish an offsite adoption venue, hire a rescue coordinator, hold adoption specials, use social media, or network with other organizations. By contrast, the board of a private organization that contracts with a city to run the shelter can delegate broad authority for operational decisions to the shelter director.

5. Conflicting missions. A primary purpose of local government is to protect the health and safety of citizens, and domestic pets are not citizens. Cities and counties tend to see their major responsibilities in relation to domestic pets as animal control and enforcing animal-related laws and ordinances. Saving the lives of pets is generally lower on the list of priorities. A private humane organization that runs the municipal shelter by contract, or partners with the municipal shelter, is free to go beyond what local governments see as the scope of their duties.

What's the takeaway from this? When advocates are trying to reform a shelter that is operated by the local government, they need to think about how they are going to deal with these five barriers to lifesaving. Although it's possible that the local government will make shelter lifesaving a priority and give the shelter director enough resources and management flexibility to reach the goal, local advocates can't assume that will happen. Private-sector organizations may need to take the lion's share of responsibility for creating and sustaining No Kill.