Episode 128 – Carol Novello

Carol Novello Carol Novello is the founder of Mutual Rescue and author of “Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You, Too”. Mutual Rescue is a national initiative that highlights the connection between people and pets in order to inspire and support life-saving efforts in communities across the nation and world. Mutual Rescue’s first short film, “Eric & Peety,” went viral around the globe and has been viewed more than 100 million times. A former senior software executive at Intuit, Carol earned her MBA from Harvard Business School and is proud to include several rescue animals in her family.


Website: https://mutualrescue.org/  

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 Carol Novello is the founder of Mutual Rescue and author of Mutual Rescue, How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You Too. Mutual Rescue is a national initiative that highlights the connection between people and pets, in order to inspire and support life-saving efforts in communities across the nation and around the world. Mutual Rescues’ first short film, Eric and Petey, went viral around the globe, and it’s been viewed more than 100 million times. A former senior software executive at Intuit, Carol earned her MBA from Harvard Business School and is proud to include several rescue animals in her family. 

Hey, Carol, thanks for coming on today. Thanks, Chris. It’s a delight to be here. Well, I’m really excited to have you, and I’m really excited to learn about Mutual Rescue, but first we gotta learn about you. So tell us about Caroline. Your history and how you got into this. It was actually pretty serendipitous. It was actually never planned. I spent most of my career in high tech. I was a senior executive at Intuit. I got my MBA from Harvard, so I was really, you know, pretty solidly on the corporate path. But then I found myself really deciding that I wanted to do something different and I didn’t know what that was. And I took a little bit of time off, and I just started doing things that were of interest to me. And animals have always been a big part of my life. And I found myself drifting towards doing pro bono consulting projects. I did something for the Assistance Dog Institute. I raised a guide dog puppy. But even then, I still didn’t think I’d end up making a career out of it.

 And then, just through networking, I actually met a woman who was the board chair at Humane Society Silicon Valley. And we didn’t meet because of animals. We met, I actually, it was for high tech purposes. I thought I was gonna go back into high tech, but we found out we had this mutual love of animals. And then one thing led to another. And she asked me if I wanted to join the board. Oh, cool. So I joined the board at Humane Society Silicon Valley and then six months in, they said, Oh, we’re wondering if you’d like to become president. I was like, Wow,  that never had entered my mind, that with my background, that I would run a nonprofit. But I actually, I didn’t hesitate but it came out of my mouth before I even had a chance to think about it like, Yeah, you know, it’s this great organization doing great work.

 And so I spent almost a decade serving in that role. And while I was there, actually, that’s how Mutual Rescue came about. So and now I’m focused specifically on Mutual Rescue. I’m still a board Alumni Ambassador for Humane Society Silicon Valley. But my animal welfare efforts are focused on Mutual Rescue now.

 So that’s really cool. So now Mutual Rescue is something that came out of them, Silicon Valley. Is that how it works? Yes. So what was really interesting, when I started working in animal rescue, and I stepped into that role, people would sometimes ask me, “Why are you helping animals, when you could be helping people?” Right. And I thought that was really curious because I knew how important animals have been in my life, and I was seeing day in and day out, how animals were transforming human lives. And then I learned a little bit more about animal welfare and its funding, and I found out that of the $410 billion that Americans give to charity every year, only 3% goes to animals in the environment, combined. Wow, 3%. Yeah, that’s combined, for the animals in the environment. And what I realized is there’s this perception, even among animal lovers, that you know, somehow animal welfare is a second class cause. I mean, I’ve had volunteers say to me, “Oh, I feel so guilty when I should be doing something for people.” And I realized that we really needed to change the conversation from people or animals, to people and animals. And that we needed to look at, you know, rescue is not one way, when we’re rescuing animals. More often than not, they’re rescuing us right back and that mutuality needed to get out into the general awareness and really help people see that this is a worthy cause and that we’re not taking away from humans, by helping animals. And in fact, they’re actually a vital part of the solution of a lot of humanity’s woes.

 Interesting how it just kind of spawned out of that conversation, cause I’ve had people say that to me before as well, right that it’s, you know, I really should be doing more or why you’re not helping people instead of helping the animals. And when we first started making the Mutual Rescue films, we had a film festival in Silicon Valley and a lot of different people came. And there was a board chair of another local rescue who came and she saw our films. She’s like, “Thank you, thank you for finally giving me a response and a way to show people just how impactful this work is, not just for the animals but for humanity, too.” So then your approach was to try and bring this to light, that human-animal bond through telling the stories of rescue animals, that in turn helped the people as well. Well, so what ended up happening is I said, you know, people are asking me this question. I’m like, okay, how am I going to address this in a way that people really get it? And so I just started doing a presentation out in the local community, called Why Helping Animals Helps People. And in that presentation, I was sharing stories of animals that had impacted human lives, specifically from Humane Society Silicon Valley. And then I brought in statistics and whatnot. But as I thought more about it, what I realized is this isn’t just a phenomenon that’s happening at the local shelter in Silicon Valley. This is happening all across the country, and it really needs to be a national broader message because it isn’t just about one organization. It’s about the whole movement, and it’s about elevating the cause of animal welfare, so that people view it differently.

 And so as it happened, one of our board members introduced me to a creative producer. His name is David Whitman. And David had been the executive producer of the Tech Awards in Silicon Valley, which is essentially that Silicon Valley’s version of the Oscars, and David wanted to do something with animals. So our board member introduced us and David and I got together. We had coffee and I was like, Wow, this guy is a genius. He’s a creative genius. At the time, I had no idea how we’re gonna work together, how I was gonna pay for it, how we would come together. But I just looked at him and I said, “Look, if you’re willing to live in this space of, I don’t know how it’s gonna play out. Let’s just see what we might be able to dream up together.” And so I told him about this interesting question that people are asking me and what I was doing out in the community. And he said, “Look, if you really wanna have a broader impact, let’s make short films. I know some terrific filmmakers and we can make these short films that really bring these stories to light and get that message out.” So it started very simply, that’s where it started, which was okay. You know, one thing is leading to the next, and then I was like, that sounds amazing. And I have no idea how we’re gonna pay for it.

And then as it happened, one of our board members was having lunch with a board prospect and asked her, what really excites you? And she says, Well, I love storytelling through film. No, Come on. Serious? Totally serious. Next thing you know, we had a funder, so we decided we were gonna do a call for stories. We’re gonna put up this call and ask people to submit their stories. Who could get stories from all across the country, All different shelters, all walks of life. And then we realized, Wow, you know, we really need to make one of these films now, so people know why they should submit their story. And so I had been sharing the story of Eriko Gray and Petey in that presentation I’d been doing out in the local community. And I was like, this would make such a great first film. Let’s go ahead and do that. And miraculously, this was like December.  In December 2015. And miraculously, like, everything came together and we released that short film on Valentine’s Day. So we’re coming up on our four year anniversary now, but we released it on Valentine’s Day, 2016 and it was funny So we launched it on our Facebook page, and when we hit like 5000 views, I was really excited. I was like, wow, you know, wow, isn’t that great?. And then two weeks later, SF Gate posted it on their Facebook page, and on that one post alone had 35 million views, 200,000 shares and 50,000 comments! It’s crazy. And since, that films’ since going on to be viewed more than 100 million times, across the globe, on various social media platforms. The New York Times named it the number one news story in California, in a video format in 2016. It just, you know, and that’s when I knew Wow, you know, I think we’re really onto something here. I would think so. You have social proof. Yeah, we’ve got real proof. So we’ve gone on to release a lot more films, and collectively, the short films have been viewed another 53 million times. So all of our films together have been viewed over 153 million times on various social media.

 Yeah, so pretty amazing. And that led to the opportunity for me to write a book. So I wrote a book called Mutual Rescue: How Adopting a Homeless Animal Can Save You Too. That just came out this past April, and what I love about the book is, you know, the films tell the story. That’s the heart. And there’s lots of heart in the book. We share some of the stories from the films and dozens more, as well. But then we bring in the science. So what’s exciting about that is it validates for our heads, what our hearts already know, and it’s all in one package together. So that’s been an exciting piece that’s come out of the success of the films. 

That’s really cool. So now with these films, was there a call to action or was it more education focused? Well, it was both, actually, one of the things that, you know, we say at the end of the film is adopt, volunteer or donate at your local shelter. And one of the things that we want to do is help educate people, you know, look the Humane Society of the United States and the SPCA, they’re doing great work, and everybody that’s in this field is doing great work. But at the end of the day, those are national organizations, and they’re focused on a lot of it is advocacy, lobbying, which is important work. But a lot of people give to those organizations thinking that money is gonna make its way to their local shelter and in fact, you know, humane society and SPCA are just generic terms for an animal welfare organization. And we really want people to go, Hey, if you want to save animals in your own backyard, you need to be adopting, volunteering, donating to your local shelter. So that was part of what we wanted to do with the messaging.

 We also wanted to inspire people to go out and adopt. We wanted to get, elevate the cause of animal welfare, so people would feel good about their giving. And it’s amazing, I mean, we’ve gotten tons of letters and emails and you know, people that say, you know, I went out and I adopted an animal because I saw this film. And Eric still gets emails from people, whose lives have changed because they’ve adopted a shelter dog and began walking and changed their diet and had really amazing transformations. But the other thing that we’ve done Mutual Rescue is what we realized is, wow, We’re generating all this awareness. What do we want to do with that? And so we’ve expanded the mission and the vision of Mutual Rescue to be three components, and it’s around awareness, which is all the content we’re creating. It’s around engagement, which is helping shelters implement programs that have a human and animal intersection. And I’ll talk about that a little bit. And then ultimately, we want to find corporate sponsors, so that we can bring more funding into the sector and help shelters meet the guidelines put forth for shelter medicine, as well as implement more human-animal programs.

 So under the engagement area, we have collaborated with various shelters across the country, to create a Best Practices tool kit for Doggy Day Out. And Doggy Day Out is a low barrier to participation way, that people can get involved with, just an afternoon. You go to one of these shelters that has a program. You take a dog out for the afternoon, the dog gets exercise, stress release,  in the shelter, and so does the person. And what’s great is shelters that have these programs, they’ve seen their adoptions rates really go up. Fredericksburg SPCA, which collaborated with us on the tool kit, they saw a 20% increase in the number of dogs getting adopted because they were getting more exposure. Yes, something just a simple and it’s destressing on the dog’s destressing on the humans. And then, like you said, it’s also furthering the opportunity for that animal to get seen and get adopted. Yeah, exactly. That’s really cool.

 So now it’s interesting how you morphed from the videos that raise awareness and then you focus, Why did you focus specifically on the Doggy Day Out program? Well, what we were looking for is, how do we create opportunities for engagement? And how do we do that in a way that, it would be great if everybody had eight hours a month, that they could go and volunteer at the local shelter. A lot of people just don’t have that kind of time. And at the Humane Society Silicon Valley, we really stumbled into the Doggy Day Out program, and that’s when we realized, Wow, we’re having this great experience with it. It’s really relevant for Mutual Rescue. So how do we take that and leverage that on the Mutual Rescue side? But what was interesting about the Humane Society Silicon Valley is we had a dog, his name was Frosty, and we’re having a tough time getting him adopted. We’re trying to figure out how to get more exposure. So we’re like, Okay, you know, no one’s stepping up to adopt him. Let’s see if we can get somebody to foster and crickets. Okay, let’s see if we can get somebody to take him for the weekend. Nothing. Hey, how about just an overnight? Silence. And then we’re like, somebody just want to take him out for an afternoon? We were flooded with people that stepped up to take him out for the afternoon. We’re like, Wow, Okay, so that really got our attention. And then, you know, he’s going out on all of these doggy day outs and people are coming back with these great photographs and videos. I mean, it was like all of this really rich content, that we now had, that we could put on social media. You put it on social media and a former volunteer had moved to Arizona, saw all these videos and just fell in love with Frosty and came back to California and adopted him and brought him to Arizona. And so we were hooked, this is amazing.

 So that’s when we realized, Wow, here’s this engagement component. It fits so well into the messaging of Mutual Rescue and we started finding out what other shelters were doing it and again put together this Best Practices tool kit and so now were specifically helping shelters that don’t have the program. They can go to MutualRescue.org, download the tool kit. And then we’ve got our Doggy Day Out program manager, who helps hold your hand. We’ve got a Facebook group for administrators to help with that. And then we’ve got a directory on the Mutual Rescue site, where if you’re a person who’s looking for a shelter that has a program, you can go and find out if there’s one in your area. Nice.

 I love the big thinking on that, right. And trying to make it a program because it’s a great program, that any shelter can do, and really, it engages our community, and it brings people in and like you said, such a low barrier for people to get involved. And I gotta figure that some of these people are going to get more involved. This is just kind of their toe dip in the water. Yeah, exactly. And what’s exciting about it is just to see how it’s catching on. Maddie’s Fund is putting dollars into research it because, you know, some people will see it on social media and will come back with like, “Oh, that’s so mean, you know, to take the dog out of the shelter and then he has to go back.” But the research is actually showing the dogs cortisol levels are lower after they’ve been out of the shelter and they stay lower for a period of time. And then on top of it because they’re getting more exposure, they’re more likely to get out of the shelter sooner. So it really is a big win and the media loves it. We’ve been able to secure coverage for several local shelters across the country, so that’s a great opportunity. And Mutual Rescue is able to pitch this in various areas of the country to the media, and that’s helping local shelters get attention that way as well. So it’s exciting to see that, and I’m excited for us to be able to expand, create tool kits and support shelters and implementing others, of these programs. I mean, I have a personal love of reading, and there’s some great reading programs that are out there that involves, it could be for cats or dogs. But I love that there’s a human-animal program potential that’s there, that we can scale and help shelters with as well. So that’s on the agenda for the future, I hope.

Yeah, and it seems like you started with videos and now you’ve found that this is gonna have a really big impact. Do you guys still do the video stories anymore or? We do, yeah. And in fact, we’re actually working on a documentary right now, which is exciting, So we’re hoping to get that distributed sometime this fall. But our latest film, Chema and Her Pack, is actually making the rounds in various film festivals across the country and actually just won best picture and best performances at the Pride Film Festival in Chicago. And it’s a final in the Miami International Film Festival, and it’s gonna be in the San Diego Black Film Festival, the Los Angeles Black Film Festival, and it’s in the running for a couple of others. And it’s also touring in 2021, with the Dog Film Festival, so you could see that in a lot of places.

 The other thing that we do is we want to help local shelters and their ability to raise money. And so we make these films available to them for free, for offline use. The Maui Humane Society just had an event, and they showed two of the Mutual Rescue films, Mike and Abbey, which is a great story. I don’t want to ruin it for viewers, but it’s appropriate for Hawaii themes, and they showed Mike and Abbey and they showed. And so that’s just something else that we’re making available to shelters. And you know, these films were not inexpensive to make, and the whole point is we highlight the animal as a local shelter animal and then in the credits will say, Hey, this animal was adopted from such a shelter, but we specifically don’t make it about organizations because we want the emotionality of the story to be at the heart of what people are experiencing. And it makes it possible that any shelter can use these films, to communicate their work. And then they can always bring in people live to talk onstage about something that is specifically happened within their own organization. So there’s lots of different ways that shelters can leverage what Mutual Rescue is doing, to help their own local community.

 That’s really cool. Now, I’m just kind of curious when you started this, is this how you thought things would turn out? Yeah, I had no idea. No, it started in a coffee shop with David and I having a conversation, you know, throwing ideas at the wall and seeing if it would stick and really just had no idea what it would grow into. And what’s really amazing is that it has a life of its own. I’ve never worked on something that really is so organic, fundamentally a type A personality, and it’s like you have a plan and a strategy, of course. Knowing all that and what I have found with Mutual Rescue is, I just see what emerges. And then I know we pick up the thread and we go that direction and we see what else might emerge.

 And, you know, at one point I was like, gosh, you know, I don’t know if we’ve got enough funds, to keep this going. And next thing you know somebody steps up with the big gift and makes it possible for us to keep going so that we ultimately can secure a corporate sponsor and hopefully, really start to bring in some significant money, that will make it possible for us to funnel money to the local shelters, that are doing the human-animal programs.

 Yeah, So that’s how I was gonna ask you is like, What’s the next step? What’s the vision for, you know, what you’re gonna do in the years to come? Well, as I mentioned, there’s really three pillars to Mutual Rescue. There’s the awareness, the engagement and the funding, and we’re really in the process of building out each of those three pillars. And, you know, the awareness is focused on the films, the book, the documentary. We’re going to see what other kinds of content deals might come about. And then you marry that up with, the engagement which is the programs that are happening at the local level. So we’re gonna want to continue to build out the network of shelters that are doing these various programs. We’re gonna want to implement new programs and new tool kits that shelters kick out online and then bring into their own local community. And then the synergy of all those things together, we think, is gonna make it very attractive for national brands that want to leverage the impact of the human-animal bond that they’re gonna wanna join with us.

 We have a couple of conversations already going on that we’re excited about everywhere you turn, you know, companies are starting to recognize how powerful the human-animal bond is, and they’re starting to leverage that for their own marketing. So we want to be able to bring that value into Mutual Rescue, so that it gets down to the local level and that these companies just don’t default and go, Well, I need a national brand, to partner with so, you know, I’ll partner with Humane Society Silicon Valley or Maui Humane or whatever, unless your local, cause it’s not a big enough reach. But when you have a brand that is, has a national presence, if not an international presence. I mean, our films have been viewed all over the world, and the book is going to be released in Germany in April, in Italy this summer. And we’re in conversations right now for Australia, New Zealand. So you have potential to be an international brand, which is really exciting and has the ability to shift people’s minds, open people’s hearts. And we ultimately hope that’s going to result in wallets opening as well and being able to create more of these programs and help support the local shelters and their ability to do that. Yeah, this is such a far cry from what you were doing at Intuit, right, and you’ve had quite a journey.

 I’m curious. What have you learned about yourself throughout the process? Well, one of the things that is interesting, it’s not as far of a cry as you might think. You know so much of what I was doing, when I was president of Humane Society Silicon Valley, was dealing with people and money, and honestly, I did that at Intuit as well. So it certainly would have defined myself as a software executive at that point, and that is translated into, you know, software executive that has a soft spot for homeless animals. And I know a lot of business things that I dealt with in terms of end to end process, and you know, how do you run an organization efficiently? How do you inspire people to, you know, want to do the work that needs to be done? All of those things are very relevant. So there’s actually a lot more overlap than you might think.

 That’s really cool. I mean, it’s really interesting to hear how your background now really prepared you for what you’re doing. And I’m really inspired to hear that you’re taking it national and even international. You’ve got some really big plans, and you’re a really big thinker for how this could make an impact. Yeah, and again we’re following the threads and the opportunities as they emerge, and I’m super excited about the documentary, and essentially, it’s gonna be audio visual, you know, it’s not gonna be the book, exactly like the book, but it will be similar in the context that it will share both stories and science and bring the heart and head together, and I think in a really compelling way. That’s really neat. 

So I know people can go to MutualRescue.org. They can download the tool kit and learn more about what you guys are doing and see links to the films and that. Is there anything else, Carol that you want to mention before we wrap things up today? Well, I just want to mention that people are looking for a good read. Check out Mutual Rescue: How Adopting A Homeless Animal Can Save You Too. It’s available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble. Any of your favorite online retailers, or any of your physical bookstores. Great! Well, Carol, thank you so much for coming on to talk to me today. I mean, I really enjoyed learning about all this, and hopefully we’ll check back with you when you’ve got the film released. Thanks so much, Chris. It was a pleasure to be here.

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