Episode 121 – Tom Van Winkle

121 Tom Van Winkle_FB

 

Tom believes that the most important part of their job is to repair and strengthen the bond between humans and their pets. The mission at Hinsdale Humane Society is to eradicate animal homelessness by providing a temporary safe haven for homeless animals until a forever family can be located and operating programs to keep pets from becoming homeless in the first place. They accomplish this mission in many ways including pet adoptions, low-cost spay/neuter services for other rescues, humane education, pet therapy, and obedience classes.


Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is proudly sponsored by Doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters, and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now, on with our show!

Tom Van Winkle has a graduate degree in Mathematics from the University of Illinois and a Master’s Degree in Business Administration from Loyola University of Chicago. He started volunteering at the Humane Society in the late 1990s, and fell in love with the philosophy that it was mission first, and profit second. Tom has been in the nonprofit sector for more than 15 years, where he is currently the Executive Director at the Hinsdale Humane Society. He brings a strong management skillset and an inclusive management style to his team.

Hey Tom, thanks for coming on today. Hi Chris, thanks for having me. Well, excited to have you. So tell us about you and you’ve got quite a long-standing career and doing this. How did you get into all of this? It is a long-standing career and a very long story, so I’ll make it short, so we don’t waste all of our time on this. But I started off, I went to college, kind of the traditional route. I got a degree in mathematics and get my MBA in finance and went to the world of business after college and worked in the business sector for about 14 years. Wow. And right at the end of that time period, I started volunteering at a controlled facility in my hometown. I just wanted to get involved a little bit, learn a little bit. So I started walking dogs and socializing cats and just kind of doing all the things a new volunteer sort of does. And I really, really fell in love with that. The business side of things. I really liked, how animal shelters operate, of course, the mission was what grabbed my heart and soul. And I love working with the animals, but I liked the business side of it and figuring out ways to help people, help the animals. So after seven years of volunteering, I finally got my first professional job in the animal welfare world. This is about 2004—2005-ish, I took over a shelter in the suburbs of Chicago and ran that for a number of years, and you know, here I am today. I’ve been–the last two and a half years–almost two and a half years–I’ve been with the Hinsdale Humane Society. I’m the Executive Director out here and oversaw the building of a brand new shelter. And we’re just rocking and rolling, doing what we can to help the animals.

So you started with a degree in mathematics, and now you’re running an animal shelter that feels like quite a journey. It does, and it’s much to the demise of my staff because I love my numbers. I love my data. And I love my spreadsheets, innit? I hate to give away my age, but this is back mid to late eighties, and you know, the animal welfare world–Not that I necessarily would have thought of it, at the time. But the world of animals, in general, was quite different than it is today. As far as career opportunities and where you could go, and so while I did do some research in that area, it wasn’t as mature as it is today as far as all the different opportunities you have. So I went with my next love, which was mathematics, And I remember having a conversation—my dad one day and said, “well dad, look, it’s math, right? There has to be a job for a position somewhere, right?” People have to count things. Everyone else hates math, so there has to be a job out there somewhere. And that worked well for a while, but really, the truth of the matter is that even though I liked that, I liked it as a tool. I didn’t find the right industry to apply that knowledge. I think that’s why when I said I like the business side of the animal sheltering is, I do like how businesses run. I like the aspects of running a business, and I do like the numbers and all that kind of fun stuff, but I get more meaning out of it by applying it to the industry that I care so much about. You know, that’s really cool.

So I have to ask because you’re a very tall guy. When you showed up that day and started volunteering at the shelter, right? Did they just look at you and be like, “you want to do what?” Most of them did. Yes, I was lucky enough that my father worked for the city for most of his career. So when I showed up in the name of ‘Van Winkle’, it’s not really a name, it’s not the most uncommon name in America, but it’s definitely not the most common either. So when I walked in, they’re first thought was “I heard that name before. We better check this out.” They knew for my father, but yeah, I did stick out. I still do, to this day. Most of the animals in my shelter, especially dogs, are scared of me. Everyone’s like, “Oh, here comes Tom.” You know, dogs are scared of this guy walking in, so I don’t hide easily. Yeah, I was gonna say, definitely, you don’t.

And as you pointed out, the animals sheltering industry is very female-dominated. Unlike, corporate America, it’s just very different. It is, you know, the studies have shown that anywhere from 60 to 80% of the industry are female. It’s an emotional industry, you know, and if you want to get back to the traditional caveman, you know men are tough and strong and we aren’t supposed to have our feelings or show our feelings or anything like that. And, of course, those things are stereotypes are changing and things are changing, over time. So you do see men and more and more men in the industry. But it is still a predominantly female-driven, staffing-wise volunteer-wise as well, donor-wise. There’s nothing negative about it, It just creates different challenges when I need to go talk to a group. Right. Sometimes it might be better to send someone else to go and talk to them because I’m may not be the best version. It’s interesting because we, you know, men and women always come at things with different perspectives.

I think it’s fascinating to me when you look at that, you say very dominated by a female industry, and so we stand out a little bit more. But we also bring a different perspective, which I think is helpful to some of the challenges that we’re trying to solve. It is, and it’s one of the messages I try to get across to my male counterparts when I talk to them. Let’s look at it as what it is a business. Right. Now, our businesses of animals, it’s saving lives. It’s not the same as two corporations going at it who want to squash each other and are out solely for profit, right? Our sole mission is mission-based, but at the end of the day, we have payroll. We have to have a building. We gotta pay the electric bill. We got everything that goes along, and we have staffing. We have everything that goes along on the business side.

And so those are some of the interesting conversations I have when I have with male counterparts on the business side of things as we start talking business. But then it’s making that transition to, that nonprofits, not just mine or animal industry, all nonprofits. They are a business. It creates a really interesting challenges that I think others are learning. No, and I love that you said that because I say that to people a lot. It is still a business. You can still have a bank account, and you still need to operate like a business, right? You can’t constantly be upside down because you’re never gonna survive. Yeah. And you have to think about how you could do things and how you can grow things in scale, and what does the future look like? It’s an unfortunate fact.

There’s a lot of animal rescue organizations that come and go every year because they can’t get that sustainable business model. Right. So playing that business minds that I believe is very important to any organization in this industry being successful. Well, I believe it is, too. Again, that’s part of the challenge is that it’s relatively easy. I’ll speak for the state of Illinois, you know, I’d built through this former 501(c)3s. So the entry into the market into this industry is relatively easy, but it’s so highly emotional. So when people go into it, where if you were going to start your own business, you would be looking at financial statements and you would be planning out 3 to 5 years of finances and making sure that you have the money to survive, And then at some point in that 3 to 5 years, you want to start making a profit yourself to take home a paycheck as the entrepreneur. Not only do we–not enough of us look at it like that in our world. I think it’s almost looked down upon.

I mean, if you say nonprofit, the name implies, “don’t make money,” and that’s not true. We’re allowed to make money. We’re allowed to profit. We’re allowed to have a rainy day fund. We can have money in the bank, and then you need that money in the bank because you need to be able to weather the storm. When they say nonprofit is we’re not making profits for a person or persons. So there’s no investors who are making money. There’s no owner of this company whose making money as the company makes more money. So I think that that’s a general misunderstanding in the world. And again, I think people just jump in because they care about whatever mission it is, and we’re talking about animals today, so the love of animals, but it could be cancer research, it could be helping the poor, it could be children, or anything. And you get in and then you find out, you know, you gotta make money or bring money in it, let’s put it that way, in order to fulfill your mission.

So I’m curious. Now you’ve been there for quite a while. How are things changed at Hinsdale during your time? So I’ve been here for about two and a half years, and we moved into a new building. So we went two and a half times the size of our original building. Wow. So it was brand new construction, so we grew tremendously overnight. So on October 31st of 2018, we’re in a small 6,000 square foot facility, and on November 1st, 2018 we’re now in a 16,000 square foot facility. That’s pretty impressive. So obviously it wasn’t born overnight. We knew it was coming, but nonetheless our animal intake doubled our expenses. We had all the new expenses that we never had to incur before. So everything, you know, kind of came at us all at once. So it was very exciting. It was one of those situations that sometimes you grow your business slowly, you kind of, that’s your endpoint.

We had an opportunity and we took it. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity for the building we got. It was just one of those too good to pass up. Sure. So we when I say we, the board of directors and myself set down and said: “let’s make it happen.” So it’s going really well. We just celebrated our one year anniversary and things are going very well. But again, it is very different in the past, when we were smaller, the donations were relatively comfortable. We had enough donations to make it comfortable. We weren’t definitely not rolling in the dough. But now we are like most other shelters, were making it. We’re in the black—all that kind of fun stuff, we’re definitely not like we were. Yeah.

So just out of curiosity now, what is your intake per year? So our intake per year. So we have contracts with 10 local villages to take their strays, and all, so. So we take in, this first year, we’re about 1500 or 1600 animals in that area, we had over 1,200 adoptions. We returned 200 to 250, I think the number is, to their owners. So in the past our number was around–total intake was closer to 1,000. So we increased our total animal’s health in the first year alone by 500. And our goal for next year is to do 1500 adoptions, probably the same up—about the same number returned owners. That’s kind of normal. So we’ve been taking 1800 to 2,000 animals. We’ve seen that coming for different reasons.

Where do they mostly come from? I mean, are you starting to see a change in where the animals are coming to you from? No changes, just the volume. So as far as the original source. So we do get strays in from, like I said, the local villages, we get owner surrenders, so people bring them to us. I think we’re starting to see a greater volume of these again. As we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve become a regional facility versus a local facility. So we were, at our previous size, we pretty much served Hinsdale and some of the collar communities for the most part because of our size. Now we’re very centrally located off of one of our major interstates, and we’re starting to get requests from 20-25 miles away to bring animals in as well as we do transfer animals in from other facilities. Some here in Chicago land area, and we will help out during emergency situations from other states if needed to.

Now, one of the things I love about you is that this wasn’t enough, right? So now you’re Executive Director, and you went, “I’m kind of bored here.” Right? “I need to do more,” right? That’s right. Tell us a little bit more about what you’re doing. Now I have to get a shout out, and no one knows this one, gonna give me a shout out to my board, because without the Board of Directors support on this, it truly would not be happening. But when we’re going through this growth physically of our new building, I sat down, had a conversation with my board and said, “Look, this is great. I’ll never complain about having this brand new, wonderful building, but it is a four walls. And it’s brick and mortar, and that’s great except that we have visions of being part of helping to a greater extent.” And I say ‘part of,’ it means we’re not going to solve the world’s problems. We’ll never be as big as the biggest guys right now, and I have no desire to be that big because I don’t think that’s what we need as an industry.

What we need is we need to work together, and I think that if we as a–in the industry would do, put away some of those chips on our shoulders and thinking that “I’m the only one who knows that I take care of animals,” and we start collaborating more with each other, we’re gonna help more and more animals out. So we’ve undertaken, at the same time, we started a new database. It’s a technology platform that allows different shelters to work on that same platform so we can actually work together. The shelters and rescues and all the entities are still legally separated. There’s no merger. There’s no legal takeover, no nothing. They’re all separate, and everyone runs their own shop. Everyone has their own policies and procedures. No one tells each other what to do. But what it does is it allows us to communicate directly through the system, and we can actually start to share information across the system on some of the animals that we have that are either up for adoption or possibly transferable.

So if you think about, I’ll make an example, let’s say there’s a shelter in the south somewhere that is overcrowded and they had a terrible storm, so they need to evacuate some animals instead of having to send a bunch of emails out, and a bunch of phone calls, and trying to find people, then having different response rates and saying, “Oh, my gosh. Well, you know, Chris over here in Wisconsin said he could take this particular dog, but that was three days ago, and now somebody else is claimed it.” Everything would be done right through the system. So in my terrible example of you up there with your own shelter, you could see those animals right online, and you would then be able to make arrangements to have them transported up and it improves the communication lines. And then nicely, now, when we start working together on something like that, that opens up the door for all kinds of other collaborative efforts down the road. So that again we’re not—I mean, we’re working better to save the lives of animals. But now we’re also working smarter, and we’re not duplicating efforts when we don’t need to.

So think of it as a shelter that was five miles from you, right? You’re both doing exact same thing. I’m not saying don’t adopt out animals or help animals, but there’s all kinds of other things that are done redundantly that you could probably work together on, in my example, to reduce that, make use of your resources better, and that more funds go right to the mission. I absolutely love that. I have the same philosophy, working together, and I mean, we’re all in this for the same cause, the same purpose. And looking for ways to collaborate instead of looking for ways to compete, because, as you pointed out, there’s shelter organizations within a few miles of each other, and it’s kind of surprising to figure that they don’t always work together. They’re not always collaborating and trading animals. And, you know, as I use in the industry try and get rotating the inventory, right? Yeah. Try and give the animals a different chance at a different audience because I’m sure that the population in the community in Hinsdale is different than it is up where I live in Milwaukee.

It’s absolutely true, and the example I give everyone when they ask me about it, and I’d start to explain it, I say, “Have you ever seen the movie Miracle on 34th Street?” famous Christmas movie, if anybody hasn’t seen it, go watch it. But in the movie Santa Claus is at, I think it’s at Macy’s and he sends the customer to Gimbels. And because the Macy’s didn’t have the present that the customer wanted. Well, he gave away that customer. He sent money to the competitor, in that particular case, but he gained a customer—he gained a future customer because they loved it so much, they came back to Macy’s, shop there and told all their friends and everything else. So in a way, that’s what we’re talking about. If I give another shelter one of my animals, that’s gonna get adopted, so one that animal gets adopted sooner, So that frees up space in my shelter for another animal. So that should be enough of the reason. But at the end of the day, it’s not gonna hurt me financially because again working together, and those customers will talk positively about both shelters, to their friends and family and other people who might be getting animals from other sources. And those people will come in and adopt a more animal going forward.

So at the end of the day, and then you know, the more animals we saved, and we’ll be fine–better financially, if we work together. But there is a mental block. We’re so used to competition, We’re so used to corporate think of “I’m not going to give my competitors, one of my customers.” Yeah, it’s kind of I call it illogical thinking. I mean, as you pointed out, the Macy’s-Gimbel’s example’s a great example. But if you walk into a Macy’s today and you find something you want and they don’t have it in your size, they go online and they look and they say, “okay, well, we have it at this store, you can go get it, or we’ll have it shipped to you.” Right. Why are we not helping each other out and recognizing that it’s about the animal? And it’s about building that lifelong connection with an animal and family, that right fit? And it’s like if you give that out, you’re gonna get it back. If you’re helping these other organizations, they’re gonna help you back. I agree. And I think that what we should all be forced to do is get tattoos that say, “it’s not about us.” Yeah. And take the volunteer mantra.

So when you speak to a volunteer and ask a volunteer and you find someone who comes in when it’s 10 degrees below zero here in Chicago or Milwaukee and the volunteer’s coming in, and walking the dogs, or helping in to shovel the sidewalk or whatever they’re doing. Obviously they’re not doing it for themselves. That’s not a fun thing to do in that particular situation, right? So they’re giving out themselves for the animals. And I think that we, sometimes in our industry, it’s about our ego and the fact that we want that adoption. We want to solve the world’s problems. “I want to be the one that—I’m the only one who knows enough to save these animals.” And I think that I don’t think it’s a conscious decision. I don’t think people are actively thinking that way. But it’s just human nature. And I think that if we were to step back and say, “you know what? We’re part of one big, humongous crowd.” And at the awards ceremony, we’re gonna have 50,000 people that have to walk across the stage who was responsible for saving these lives instead of that one person who gets the shiny little of award and the more of us that can do that, the better it’s gonna be.

Yeah, I love that thinking, and I really hope that we can infuse that into this industry and to recognize that we don’t need to compete, and we, as an industry made significant progress in the last decade, and we still have a lot more to go. But we’re only going to get there if we continue to work together and find ways like you’re talking about, collaborate, share information, recognize that it’s a purpose. And I love that I’m gonna get a tattoo: “It’s not about us,” right? It’s not about you. It’s not about me. It’s about the animals, and that’s why we do this. And that’s what fuels their passion. Absolutely. And the greatest thing is, is that at the end of the day, so we’re talking this whole time about how much this is a business, and it’s like a for-profit business in many ways. But there’s a really, really big difference that we have to remember is that, if I can help other shelters or other shelters could help each other help me become stronger and better. We’re all better, that’s what I want. That makes my mission of saving lives, I’m able to do that better.

So where competitors don’t want the other to succeed, they want to put the other one on a business so that the only one in the market, that would fail miserably in our industry, we don’t want that. We want others to be strong. So I want to find out why I have resources that I can use to help others and vice versa. I don’t want to do the same thing somebody else is doing. If they’re doing it better than I am, let them do it, that’s awesome. Yeah, like a big melting pot, it’s like you’re throwing your skills and “how can we help each other?” Right, absolutely. I look on the Internet, 1.5 million charities out there. That’s where the struggle is, is that it’s real you know, there’s so many charities. At 1.5 million shares in Illinois alone, there’s 35,000 charities. We’re all going for the same money. If we as an industry, forget everything else we’ve said today just for pure survival. If we want to survive, we have to start using our resources better because there’s not enough charitable money to go around. That we’re gonna outgrow our donor base, our donor’s abilities at some point, and so we need to be using the funds we do get, more effectively.

Yeah, I like that philosophy, and I can clearly see your business mindset and background coming into this. It’s a very logical approach to something that, as you pointed out earlier on, it’s an emotional industry and we’re dealing with living sentient beings and the unfortunate reality of what’s still happening in the U.S. with euthanizations. But you know, we have the means with us to fix this, right? Together, we can fix this. We do, and I think that all of us, myself included, every day should ask ourselves, “do we think the world is generally good or evil?” Right? And I think the answer is, it’s generally good. Yes, there are some pretty bad people out there, but for some reason in our industry, we need to look at it that way, and we need to stop fighting with each other. We need to–not only need to work with each other, but quit fighting with each other, quit calling each other names. Yeah, if there’s an organization that’s doing something horribly wrong with the animals, get him reported, let the proper people take, you know, I don’t care about that. If they’re doing something wrong. I don’t care. But you know all of this. I’m gonna put you down to make myself look better, even though you’re not really doing a bad job. But I’m just gonna try to make myself look better by stepping on you. That nonsense has to stop. It’s not productive, and it’s really, really detrimental to everybody involved.

I love that logical thinking time. And I hope that more people start to think like that, in the industry and that we can be that beacon of change and help them to understand that there’s more power together than there is, individually. When you get your big tattoo, Chris, you know you get that big tattoo I’m telling you about, on your back and you walk around without a shirt on, we’re gonna get the message across. You’re gonna be a walking billboard. That’s right, that’s what I gotta do. I have to check with my wife to see if that’s okay. We’ll get you a big Letterman’s jacket. We’ll put “It’s not about you” on the back. I love that. Tom, this has been really exciting and fun talking to you. So anything else you want to mention before wrap things up today? No, I just want to thank you for doing this. I think this Podcast is an excellent way of collaborating. I think it’s a wonderful example of working together and having conversations. And hopefully, people will just start to have the same conversations in their communities. And that’s why I thank you for having me on today. Well, thanks, Tom. I really enjoyed having you on, and I’m sure we’ll talk to you again in the future. All right, sounds good.

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