Passionate about engaging the community, Betsy McFarland has extensive experience in growing volunteers within organizations large and small. She is the author of “Volunteer Management for Animal Care Organizations” and has published research on staff-volunteer relationships. Betsy is a Certified Animal Welfare Administrator (CAWA) through the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators (SAWA). She has participated in the formation of several new nonprofit associations and serves on multiple nonprofit boards of directors.
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Hey, Betsy, thanks for coming on the show. Hi Chris. Thanks for having me. Start us off and give us a little bit of background and insight into you. Well, I have been involved in an animal welfare rescue, probably going on now, more than 23 years. Wow, you’ve been at this awhile. I have. I guess it’s amazing how fast time flies when you’re having fun. So I kind of fell into this work. Um, like so many people, I, I actually did not grow up saying I’m gonna be a vegetarian or anything like that. I actually thought I was gonna be a psychologist. Okay. And I did my degree in psychology, and then I always loved animals. I had animals growing up, um, and ended up after I got married, my husband, Mike, was accepted to graduate school at Texas A and M, and we’re from the East Coast. I’m originally from Virginia and we moved to Texas, which felt a bit like a foreign land to me at the time. And I wanted to meet people. And so I thought, how better to meet people than to get involved in the community. And I started to volunteer. But as I was looking for volunteer opportunities I was struggling to figure out what I wanted to do, and I saw that the animal shelter needed some help. They had that, back in the mid-nineties, they had that little dog icon running across the screen like websites used to do. And I thought, okay I’ll go. And I went and it was a fascinating experience and it’s what kind of ended up changing the entire course of my career. So it was, I think, what was so crazy about it, was, when I went they had me watch a little slide show in a conference room by myself. It was the kind that you advanced yourself. You have to play the separate audio recording. And I was there with somebody else, who had, was there for court-ordered community service. And then when we finished our little thing, I went back out to the desk and said, ok, so how did I get started? And they literally looked at me like I had three heads. They didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t know what to do with the volunteer. And I thought, well, this is odd. And so they said, well, go to an adoption event this weekend or whatever. And I started doing that. And what I quickly realized was this was a shelter that desperately needed help. They were so overwhelmed. It was an animal control agency. They had high euthanasia rates and they were a revolving door for volunteers because, as you could imagine, most people have the experience I had, wouldn’t stick around. So I ended up really interested in it. I was really intrigued by it and just kept thinking, gosh, they need help. And I can’t believe this is happening in our community. And so I just stuck with it, and the rest kind of was history. Wow, that’s interesting.
So you were just looking for a place to volunteer, and then after that, you went, I could do a lot of good here. I did, yeah, because I thought, I mean, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have any, I actually, that was the first time I’ve never even been in an animal shelter. And I was working for the Texas A and M University in book publishing, of all things. And so it was just this random thing. But when I went in there and I saw all these amazing animals and, and thought gosh, if they had more help and the community knew this was going on, I think more people will get involved. And so what I ended up doing was I just kept going back. I mean, they kind of ignored me at first. No, and it wasn’t, it wasn’t out of malice. It was just overwhelming. And as we know, a lot of people who do this kind of work tend to like animals more than they like people. I don’t think it is a good thing. Exactly. It’s not always a good thing. And in this case. So I just kept going back and whatever they wanted me to do, I’d do. I was like cleaning the traps they used for catching raccoons. I was, you know, scrubbing kennels, whatever they asked me to do, I just did it. And I just kind of watched and thought ok. After they gained my trust after a few months, I approached them and said, look like, here’s what I’m seeing, and now that you know, you know I’m not going anywhere, can I help you? And they said okay and we started to develop a volunteer, a real volunteer engagement plan for the, for the shelter. Of course, I was making it up as I went, I was frantically calling other animal shelters to figure out how to do it. You called yourself the expert and you’re calling ahead to other places, right, one day in advance. It’s okay. Our next lesson for today. Exactly. And so, but it worked. And I ended up running this volunteer program for them as a volunteer for about two years. Um and I just, it was such an incredible experience. I still have friends who are there. They think we have a new shelter and things are much better. Their euthanasia rates are far fewer than they used to be. And it was at that point that I just said to myself, I really want to do this. I was really captivated and thought, oh, my gosh, this is happening across the country, we have to change this.
And so I started looking for work in animal welfare. I was talking to animal shelters and all kinds of organizations, and ultimately I ended up at the Humane Society of the United States. So I joined that team in the National headquarters office out of the D C. area in 1998, was July 1998. So yeah, so ah, and from there, you know, I just got my foot in the door. I became an editorial assistant for the animal sheltering magazine, that’s still around. And just, you know, I was doing all kinds of assistant work and then grew up in the organization and was there, ended up being there for 18 years. And, gosh, the stories I could tell I mean, did lots of disaster response. I got to work with all kinds of shelters and rescues all over the country and was a tremendous experience for me. And hopefully, I’ve made some good things in the field. And ultimately, I ended up becoming a vice president and ran all of Companion Animals work for the Humane Society, for the last five years, I was there. So it was kind of funny to go from, you know, just volunteering at an animal shelter, not having any clue what I was doing. To, ultimately being a vice president of all the organizations work with shelters and rescues. And you had a psychology degree to back you up. Right. And you know, it’s funny though, is I, actually, I have found in all my work, that my psychology degree, I use it every day. Because most of this is about people. I really believe this work. While our ultimate goal is helping and saving animals, it all comes back to people, because animals can’t do it themselves. It takes people to make that happen. And so I really, you know, I really think that there’s a strong connection there. Yes.
So now you mentioned you led a lot of programs. I’ve seen it at HSUS. Tell me about some of the programs that you lead and kind of your perspective on things. Yeah, there were so many different areas, but we, you know, we did everything from legislative issues. So I was working too, with some my colleagues, especially Inge Fricky, to end gas chamber euthanasia across the country, and still some work to do there. But we made a tremendous amount of progress, which I was really thrilled with, and we did a lot of work on community cats and how to address community cat challenges. And I think one of the things that I was super thrilled about, was the work our teams did around connecting with underserved communities. We started the Pets for Life program, which goes into underserved areas, like in any given community. The program really targets those zip codes and neighborhoods that have the lowest income rates. The list, you know, wrote lowest number of resources available to them and what we’ve found in that work. And it really, actually, that work started because of Hurricane Katrina. Because what we found in the Gulf Coast during Hurricane Katrina was that, you know, the hardest hit areas, as everyone knows, were by the Ninth Ward and some of the other areas where people had very little. And we discovered really high rates of dogs that were still intact, you know, have heartworm. People in, but people love their pets. They didn’t want to leave them behind. They were crushed. And after Katrina, you know someone who helped run the call center for Humane Society. I was talking to the 100 to thousands of people who were desperate to be reunited with their pets. And so I think what we learned is that, you know, just because someone doesn’t have the resources to provide, what we would say, is the really good care for a dog or cat or any animal. It doesn’t mean that they don’t love that pet like they do any other family member. And so we really took that to heart and started using that in more of our everyday work and working on the Pets for Life Program, for example. Yeah, and I really appreciate that perspective because, like you said, it’s really, it’s all about perspective. It’s all about what you think, maybe is the right way to care for an animal. That doesn’t mean that they love them any less. They’re just having to balance different priorities. Yes, and it’s a huge bad challenge for people. I mean, you think about this so much, so I think those of us who,you know, have some resources, I know many of us were doing this work, we’re not in it because we’re getting paid millions of dollars, right? We’re all struggling a little bit, but it’s not even close to what people in underserved or like some generational poverty areas. They just, well, just to take your dog to the vet is such a luxury. So, you know, what we find is, in that work was, that if we would show up and remove barriers, so what is it that’s keeping that pet from getting what it needs or preventing that animal from staying in its home? If we can really think about, what are those barriers. Then we can help check off the boxes partner with that organization, you know, see what their challenges and barriers are. Help them work through those things and then facilitate them through some planning processes to determine based on their particular challenges and needs in their community. What are the biggest impacts they can make and how, and then help them set that up for the future?
Yeah. You know, one of the things I really like about what you’re saying is, it is a very community focus. While we are all focused on animal welfare and caring for animals. Even in the other podcasts that we do the Animal Shelter of the Week and Rescue the Week, we find that depending where they are in the country, even in the state and in the city, the problems were slightly different, and their challenges are different rates some were more focused on community cats. Some are more focused on underprivileged areas. So it’s interesting here, you kind of reaffirm that and say like, we really tried to focus on what they need instead of trying to say, look, here’s the, here’s the magic cookie-cutter path that you should be taking. Exactly. I really don’t believe in a cookie-cutter approach. I think you have to look at what those needs are and then figure out how to address it. Because also, I mean, aside from that, each organization has a different culture. Different resources, so each time it’s a whole different experience when I do the consulting work. And so I think that’s one thing I actually, you know, really enjoyed the most. I get so much, I’m so passionate about these issues that, you know, it’s so fun for me to be able to work with an organization and help them to figure out what their terms are, knowing how they can solve it. Because at the end of the day, I am so happy when they’re feeling strong and ready and they’re off and running. I mean that that to me is the greatest reward because I know that they’re going to go and help so many more animals then I could have ever helped on my own, right. So I kind of see that, as you know, how do we help multiply this effect and empower all organizations to be their best selves so that they are, you know, impacting animals in the most positive way they possibly can, with what they have.
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So are there specific things, in the other organizations you’ve talked to, that use their set of common things. Maybe that, you would say, are kind of recommendations like Betsy’s top five things to really be thinking about. So for an organization listening to this podcast, they can kind of see, how does that affect, you know, animals in their community? Mmm. Oh, that’s such a good question. Now, all right, I gotta think about that. So I mean a few things that come to mind, listening to that question are, you know, I think, I think there’s multiple ways to look at it. So I would say, for example, to an animal shelter, let’s just take that as an example. To say, well, first, you know where are things going really well, what are your bright spots, you know? And how can you build upon what’s working really well for you as an organization? Um, you know, taking a look at what’s happening in the organization inside the animal shelter, right? Like how, how, what’s the welfare like. What are those numbers looking like? You know, what needs to be improved there. And then turning outward into the community. I always like to look at, what does this community look like? If I’m helping an animal shelter, it’s not enough just to look at them like we were talking about earlier. I always want to know what’s happening outside. What, what is their service area? Where did they, you know, where do they spend the most time responding? Where do they see the most animals coming from, you know what’s happening? So that we can kind of marry both internal operations with also stemming that tied and addressing issues where they live in the community. And then I also think it’s well, what, what, what are our human assets available to us? And how do we, you know, increase that or strengthen that. So whether it’s the staff and what support do they need, what training do they need? Where they, you know, we don’t want to prevent burnout, but also volunteers I, as you know, you, you know, from my background, like volunteer engagement is, is by far one of my favorite topics. Mostly because that was my start, right? Like that was my experience. Getting others to have such a good experience, right? And I see organizations so often struggling with volunteer engagement, and that if that, that component alone can be strengthened and you have clear, you know, clear infrastructure support to engage volunteers. Every organization I’ve worked with who’s able to maximize that sees so much more able to, for them to meet their missions. Because they can’t do it on their own or so most organizations don’t have enough staff to do everything they need to do. And what better way to support the community than bringing the community along with them? And that’s what the volunteers are, they are our community. So I’m a huge believer in that. So those are just a few of the things that I, I tend to work with organizations on. But you know, there’s, there’s just so many ways to look at these issues that I, I do hope you know that as we go forward, you know, we will all continue to challenge ourselves to say, okay, well, we solved this piece, but what about that, right? Like, we’re never gonna be done. I feel like there’s always going to be more we can do! And we can’t just rest on euthanasia rates alone.
Yeah, I know. And I think that’s a really good point. I mean, having a successful volunteer program is just a common theme that I hear in every organization I talked to. This is really doing a great job because, as you said, it allows them to do more. It allows them to take on more programs. And, it’s also one of the biggest barriers, though that I find is that organizations say volunteers are just too hard to manage and their pain in the butt and they’re unreliable. And you know all those other things that certainly those are, I would call symptoms and you’re gonna experience people like that. But any, any suggestions for somebody that’s struggling with their volunteer engagement program. I mean, where would they begin? Yes, and it’s so interesting because you’re right and it’s all in. It’s to some degree, it’s all true. Because, and this is where, you know, we laugh about my psychology interest, is because I think humans are messy, and I think you could replace the word volunteer for staff, write and say, well, staff are also a pain in the butt sometimes just human made for, people are people. And so, but I think what is so important when it comes to volunteers, is you having some structure is really important and having someone or someone to help to coordinate, that makes a big difference. And I think, thinking about it first, for the point of view of understanding, what does the organization want to achieve? What are the programs it wants to run, you know, where does it need support? And then building out what that looks like to have volunteers do it. Rather than just saying, oh, we need help. Let’s just let people in the door to help us in whatever way, you know, who happens. Being strategic about how you place volunteers, I feel is really, really important. And then not just accepting anybody who comes through the door. But much like you might do with paid staff is find the right volunteer for the right role. You need them to play. Not every volunteer is the same. And so if you have a strong need to have someone out engaging the community at, I’m making this up, but say at an event fair, parks, who are taking dogs out with an Adopt Me vest, to get them adopted. You want a volunteer who enjoys going out and meeting new people and interacting with people and has a great ability to sell, right? You know you want a specific skill set. It’s not just any person, or, you know someone who’s a wallflower is not gonna be as successful at that. So I think that’s where a lot of organizations run into trouble. Is when they’re not taking the time to make the right match. Just as you would with an adoption, you need to make the right match between volunteers and the roles you want them to play, in order for everyone to be successful. And then, you know, and then providing some support and making sure they understand. You know, what are the guardrails in which they’re working so that everyone is working from the same set of guidebooks and you know, the same kind of playbook, I guess so to speak. So I find most organizations who are really struggling in volunteers don’t have those pieces. They’re lacking infrastructure. They’re lacking, you know, support for volunteers. And it ends up spiraling out of control.
Yeah, and it seems like things that are so basic, but that I’m listening to, it’s also really hard to do sometimes when you think, you know, people think about volunteers and it’s sometimes volunteers I’ve seen are very entitled. Like, I’m doing you the favor, but it’s setting that structure upfront and saying, look, this is the type of person we want, here’s the job description or bullets of things that you’re going to do and making them apply for it. Right? Like this is not just you shall open, you’re guaranteed a volunteer position. There’s listen, we have specific needs. We have specific jobs that we need done, and, you know, tell me why you’re a good fit for this job. But if they’re not like you said, not being afraid to say, you know what? This is not a fit. We’ve got other positions. Or maybe you’re not a fit for the organization. Exactly. Yes. And most organizations, when I say that, especially when they’re already overwhelmed, say, well, when the heck are we gonna have time to do all that? And I say. But you’re wasting so much time now with this spinning around volunteers like, it’s not productive to have, ah, not to have good volunteer engagement. You’re wasting time. And I think it is an upfront investment. What I have found is that once you get that structure in place and you begin, it builds on itself. And then you’re empowering volunteers because you have strong people who are with you for it, and then they could become leaders. And so often, what organizations are struggling, I’ll have them kind of pull back a bit. You know, um, only focus on a few rolls, get that going really, really well, and then expand. Don’t try to do it all at once, and then also look at how could we build out the volunteers who are with us and make great bids to be more leaders of other volunteers, right? Because they can take on a lot of that stuff that who knows better what’s needed. And what type of person should be engaged than a volunteer who’s already been doing that work? So, you know, I, I see it as a process and a critical one in terms of, you know, really ensuring that the organization has all the support it needs to be as impactful as it could possibly be.
Yeah. Now I can really hear your psychology background and experience coming into play. So it’s, it’s kind of interesting that, you know, when you went to school and then, as you said, you kind of stumbled into this. And now, 23 years later, you’ve really managed to melt all these things together. And it’s really fascinating to hear your experiences and your perspective because you make it sound like, really, it’s not that hard, but here, let’s walk through the very basic steps that you know you need to do to get this done. So, um, Betsy it’s been really great to talk to and have you on the program today. Is there anything else you want to mention before we wrap things up? Thank you so much for having me. I just, I’m thrilled that you’re doing this and I hope anyone that’s listening, will feel empowered themselves to recognize that you know the path is theirs to create. I mean, each of us have a different role in a different thing to bring to this work, and all of us are needed. So I’m thrilled to be with you, and I appreciate you taking the time to hear my story. Well, Betsy, thank you so much for coming on today. It was really great to talk to you. Thanks, Chris.
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