Lynn Olenik talks with us about what it is like to be an executive director of an animal shelter. She gives insight into the operations of the Humane Animal Welfare Society (HAWS), how she got to her position as executive director, what skills, training, and talents are needed to manage a shelter and how you can get involved with your local shelter. To learn more about HAWS you can visit their website, https://hawspets.org/
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In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Lynn Olenik. Lynn is the executive director of the Humane Animal Welfare Society, also known as HAWS, located in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Lynn has been involved in animal sheltering for over 20 years and has been in Potters Paws for the last 14 years as the executive director. Lynn has always had a passion for animals, and it started with her own dog-training business, and through working as a veterinary technician. Lynn had the opportunity to fill the role as the interim director of HAWS, which led her to where she is now as the full-time executive director.
Hi, Lynn, Welcome to the program.
Thanks for joining us. Tell me a little bit about you. Give us some of your background.
Well, I’ve been involved with sheltering for over 20 years. I’ve been here at the Humane Animal Welfare Society we call HAWS for 14, as executive director.
Okay, how did you get into this? Is this something you always wanted to do?
Not in my wildest dreams. I wouldn’t think I would end up here.
Where did you start? What were you going to do?
Well, as a kid, just like everybody else who loves animals, I wanted to be a vet, but in the dark ages, they really only took a few people from Wisconsin to the Minnesota vet school because we didn’t have a vet school here. Of those two or three people, they usually didn’t take women. I go back to the Women’s Rights generation where women just didn’t really always have the same opportunities as men. Fortunately, that’s all changed and really, in the humane industry, women outnumber men, probably for the one which is interesting. So it actually is a really good opportunity for a woman with a business mind to be able to lead.
I started with dog training when I was 15 and I had my own dog training business. I worked as a vet tech. I worked in a dog kennel. I also did 15 years with McDonald’s Corporation, where I learned to manage chaos, US$2 million a year, done in US$3 increments per customer is a lot of people, a lot of staff, and a very, very fast pace, which really was a good training ground for managing people in Humane Society. Things here happened quickly.
So 14 years ago, you just decided one day, “I’m going to go over to HAWS and see if they have a need.”
Well, 14 years ago, I was running a training business, dog training business, and I was on the fence with whether to continue it or not. It was at that three-year breaking point where invest and get bigger or keep it the same size and, make it a minimum income, part-time income type of situation, because just at that point where you need to make a financial investment or back off. I had been involved with – My background is HR, Human Resources. I had worked at the Elmbrook Humane Society also, and I worked at Washington County for a short time. With my background, I got recommended to come fill in as an interim director for a few months while they did a national search for a director for here because there was some HR issues that they wanted to clear up. I was here for about six weeks. I interviewed. They decided that they like me and they kept me.
Fourteen years later here you are.
Fourteen years later, I am here. I did have a background in public kennels, public dog training. I did work in a vet clinic, but those were all part-time things that I did while I was learning business background from McDonald’s Corporation, finishing up my education. You can take a little bit of what you do in every job, pull the best things that you’ve learned out of every job, and you’ll have an opportunity to apply them, at some point.
Yes, so tell us what’s a day in the life of a shelter director? What’s your job like?
Well, first job I have is to get up and get my four dogs ready for work. Usually at least two come to work every day, usually not all four, but two or three. That’s one of the perks of working for Humane Society. I have an office I can bring my fuzzy friends, so that to me, is just great. It’s just great to be able to bring your dogs to work with you. It’s a fun thing, and most of my staff work 10-hour days. They work four tens, so they get to bring their dogs. If you work in the kennel and you don’t have an office, you can keep him in a kennel. If you work in an office, you can keep him in your office. So it’s just a nice thing. It’s something that we do for our employees. Again, if you can’t do it at humane society, where could you do it? More places should let you bring your dogs to work. So that’s goal one, it’s getting out of the house with the fuzzy kids. Once I get here, I really try to take a walk through the building.
The building has gotten quite a bit bigger. Over the last few years, we’ve had two major expansions and one minor one. We have a lot of different things that we do but kind of get a pulse for where everybody is for the day, how the staff are all doing, and what the flow is like. Then hit the email and see what wonderful things that have broken overnight from everywhere, just like everybody else in the world does. Predominantly in my position now, it’s about organization development, employee support, and looking for funding, whether that be grants, whether that be working with donors, bequests, or corporations. We have a US$2 million budget. We do not get a check from the county. We get 110,000 but with that, that leaves us US$1.9 million that we have to fund. Some of that comes through adoption fees, but not much, because adoptions usually cost us more money to get an animal prepped and ready to go.
We have some programs that do bring in some income, but a lot of them are break even. If we didn’t have community support and public support, we couldn’t keep our doors open.
How much of your time is spent on fundraising versus running operations.
I have some great people working for me. I have well-seasoned department heads. Two department heads that are relatively new, but very well-educated that I spend more time with them than with the seasoned ones. Maybe 20 to 25% of my time is spent on organizational supervision. They really do the majority of that. I like to pay attention to what’s going on. Between 25% on organizational development or organizational supervision, 25% on administrative things, making sure the bills are paid, doing cost analysis, those types of things, and then 50% of it is making connections and continuing to look for funding sources. So 50% would be fund raising.
Do you enjoy it?
When I’m successful. Most of the time, we are so fortunate in Waukesha County. We have a very educated demographic. We are one of the most financially sound counties in the state. I think Dane County is probably ahead of us and Ozaukee and us, back in fourth, but it makes our challenges much easier than someone who is, say, in Vilas County or in Racine County. It makes our job easier because we do have people of means and because we do have a lot of people that believe in animals. There’s a rural contention though here that brew up with animals that are still living in the area. We also have people who are, as I said, well-educated, that are suburban, and have moved in from different places. That’s why we’re working so hard on the no-kill community here. We don’t want just a no-kill building. We want the entire community on board.
So what does what does that mean? What does a no-kill community mean?
Well, you could have a no-kill shelter just by closing your front doors and saying, “Okay, we’re full today, so you have to go somewhere else.” Unfortunately in Waukesha or maybe fortunately for the animals, we don’t have a municipal pound. If there are animals that are in need, they come through here, we’re considered open admission, and we will take them and help them. Some of the interesting things that we’ve done in the last maybe 5 years to 10 years, is really reach out to other partners, whether they be rescue groups or other shelters or even individuals that when we have the building full, we start making phone calls even before we get full. So that it’s, “Hey, could you guys take a couple dogs? How are you guys doing for cats?” It’s community-wide that everyone in the community that either works with animals, or even people who live in their own homes, we’re hoping people will open up their homes to barn cats. So, we really dropped the euthanasia numbers, and they’re continuing to drop.
We’re looking for our entire community to embrace those philosophies and help. Not just saying, “Okay, today you can’t bring your animal here because we’re full. Too bad, so sad, take it home.” That sounds great, but there are people in need who have crisis, and they also have situations where the animals shouldn’t stay with the people it’s with. So we’re dedicated both to that open-admission philosophy. Again, we don’t have a pound here and getting our community on board to have all those No-kill philosophies where every animal that is treatable, whether it be physical or behavior treatments, can find a home. We don’t adopt out dogs that we consider dangerous. It doesn’t always mean that if the Chihuahua bit grandma, we’re going to automatically put that to Chihuahua down because of his bite record. Those are old tapes. We try to work with the animals through as much of that as we can, but if we do have one that we feel is unsafe, we have to make a really tough call. Probably the hardest part about the job.
The other aspect with kittens and cats is our free, outdoor spay/neuter program, which has really lowered the incoming number of stray cats by 47%, I believe, in 10 years. That’s huge. We’ve got to drop in another about 20% in order to, I think, match the homes available with the cats available without feeling a lot of additional pressure, or having to move them onto other organizations. We feel hopeful and we’re well on the way. I would say within five years, we should hit that what they consider a 90% live-release rate for everything. We’re already there with dogs and small animals.
It sounds like things have changed a lot in 14 years.
Things have changed overall in 14 years. I would think that one of the biggest thing that’s changed is how people value animals now. Before you had a dog, it probably spent a lot of time outside, not on a leash, or on a chain, free roaming. Now, I think probably 50% of the dogs in the world sleep on their owners’ beds or in their bedroom. It’s just a very different value that people put on, whether it be dogs or cats. That’s very helpful. Because people’s attitudes have changed, we’re allowed to start embracing these philosophies and really moving things forward. There have been some organizations in cities that have been able to go completely, to be No-kill communities. I really think in Wisconsin, Waukesha County, we should be able to do that in relatively short order.
So where do you see them? You’ve talked a lot about obviously how people’s perceptions and their relationships with the animals have changed. Where do you see animal welfare and animal rescue going? How do you see these trends affect you?
Well, one of the really good things that’s come out of it is that foster homes are more the norm than what they were in the past. People are willing to take on those animals short-term so they don’t have to stay in a shelter. It helps keep you from getting backed up so that, you reach a point when you’re at capacity that unless you can get those animals somewhere, temporarily foster care something on that order, you really can’t care for them. There’s a capacity to most buildings, most organizations. So without working with rescues or public fosters, we wouldn’t be able to do that. I see shelters as we move forward, being more educational resources, being kind of a hub for people who love animals, and trying to embrace the public’s philosophies, even though everybody is different now. Everybody has their own individual thought that they want to put in use, and trying to be a center for all these organizations rather than be a stand-alone. This is how we do things and we are here. You guys are over there. Moreover, I think you’re going to see the shelters, the larger shelters and communities, anyway, opening their doors to new ideas, opening their doors to helping the rescue groups, and the individuals to be successful with the animals that they have.
That’s interesting, because I know in the past, shelters and rescues haven’t always gotten along.
Well, it’s kind of interesting because we’ll get an animal and say, “I’ve got a pure-bred Collie that comes in bad, comes in ugly, comes in needing a dental, maybe needs an eye exam, because Collies are notorious for problems with their eyes, comes in unkempt, and unclean. We’ll get it up-to-date on vaccines. We will spay and neuter it. Chances are we’ll get the eye exam and get it to a groomer. We don’t just shave animals down anymore. We try to do what’s best for the animal. We’ll call a rescue group if we don’t think we can adopt it out. If we can adopt it out, to the right home, that’s great. Sometimes you’ll get these dogs in there, so shy or, maybe they’re just shutting down, uncomfortable here, and we’ll call a rescue group and say, “Hey, would you like this Collie?” One of the things that was always said is, as we rescued this Collie from a shelter “Wait a minute, the shelter rescued this Collie from some idiot in the world and did an awful lot, put an awful lot of resources into it.” We’re not the enemy that you rescued it from. It goes back on the person who didn’t care for it in the first place.
That statement used to make people’s hair stand up and it did cause some barriers. Now, that’s in shelters I worked in. There are shelters out there that are just like rescues. There’s good rescues. There are rescues that are not doing the animals any favors. There are great shelters. There are some shelters that just aren’t doing the animals any favors. You can want to be humane and get blinders on, and it’s easy to do when you can’t say no. It’s really easy to out extend your resources when you think you’re the only one who can do it. By everybody working together, I think we have a much better chance of saving more animals. Shelters and rescues are getting along much better. In our spay/neuter clinic, about one-third of what we do there is help rescues with affordable care for anything that we can do. We do there CVIs, we do there spay/neuter. We don’t have all the bells and whistles, like an X-ray machine and some of those things but we will do whatever diagnostics we can do and try to do it for them, for a minimal cost so that they can put other resources into they’re animals. We can’t do everything, but we do a lot and a third of what we do pretty much is for the rescue groups. Then we do low income, we do our animals, and then we have the outdoor kept cat program, which is free spays for Waukesha cats that live outside, free spays and neuters.
It sounds like as an executive director, you’ve got a lot of balls in the air. You’ve got to maintain relationships of rescue groups. You’ve got to run your operations. You’ve got to do fundraisers. I think you have a board that you’ve got to man. How do you do all of that? What skills do you need to be able to do all that?
Well, I would say I’m in a very fortunate time in my life to have this job. I, my family, I’m a little older. Not that I don’t know some dynamic, young shelter directors, but for me, I can stay here till nine o’clock at night. I can meet somebody for coffee the next day at seven o’clock in the morning. I have a completely flexible schedule. It’s Saturday and I’m here. I’m not limited to Monday through Friday and running kids back and forth to soccer games and such and always having that pressure of being in the wrong place at the wrong time that a lot of people deal with, whether male or female. It’s hard when you’ve got two priorities on the same day.
In my case, right now, I’m very fortunate I have the time to put in, and this type of a job takes a lot of time. The other thing that I’m fortunate in is, I’m blessed with very good people. Some people that I’ve hired, some people that have been here 20 years that are just outstanding. It’s hard to hold on to those people because there is a burnout factor in shelter work. We really try to focus them on the positive things, like the kitten shower today. We’ll adopt out about 30 kittens today. It’s very exciting. We have a lot of happy stuff going on. It’s a fun thing. It’s an energy boost for everybody, including the staff.
So that’s one thing having the time to dedicate to a cause. To be a nonprofit manager, you’re not going to make what you make in the for-profit world in most cases. You are going to work as hard, if not harder. There’s no security where you can just raise the price on something to make that extra 5% because you’re running tight on your electric costs this month. You have to be able to balance those things. From a lifestyle standpoint, I’m in a good spot in my life to be able to dedicate time to this. I have great people, and I can’t say enough about my board of directors. My board of directors are all volunteers. They make it very easy for me to ask questions and get help when I need it.
For instance, we have an attorney on the board, when we had a content that contested a state. I was able to just pick up the phone, and work with my attorney. He made a few phone calls. We came up with a strategy we were able to move forward. I’m not an attorney. I know what questions to ask, but I don’t know what the appropriate course of action is. We have accountants on the board. We have endowment specialists to work on our financial investments, to be able to keep the facility secure financially into the future. So when you look at your board of directors, you have to find people with a passion, with a business sense, and somebody you can develop a good rapport with. Whether you like him or respect him, you’ve got to have one or the other to be able to work with. I feel bad for shelter directors that have one of their directors that they’re always butting heads with. So I’m fortunate to have a great board. We have volunteers here that do a lot of the heavy lifting. They help with a lot of the animal socialization. Volunteers like that are vital to an organization too.
What advice would you have for somebody that’s interested in getting into shelter management and becoming one?
If you’re interested in becoming a director, pull everything from every job that you have and volunteer. You may not be able to just walk in and say, “Okay, here I am. I want to be a shelter director. You have this job. I’ve run a business. I know I can do this.” Maybe, but do you understand the level of passion that your employees, your volunteers, the public pressure, and the things that you have to balance? You need to get involved on some level to really understand what sheltering in an organization like this is all about. You need that business experience. You can’t just love animals, but you have to love animals and have that business experience. It’s really important, but with that said, if you don’t like people, you’re not going to succeed. So you almost have to have that Tri-Factor. That’s not everybody that’s out there.
I have people on my staff that certainly could do my job. They want nothing to do with it. They think it’s too much pressure. You have to be somebody who’s willing to take a risk. Stand up for what you believe in but build a lot of bridges. You’re more pushing a pendulum to get things to change, than just walking in and saying this is what I believe, Chris, you need to think just like I do cause people don’t think the same. You need to be able to find common ground and start working on a common project. As a leader in charge, you really, I really had to learn how to listen to people and open up to know that I could learn something. If I would embrace some of the differences out there, I could do a better job than just going the way I’ve always done it, and this is what I’m going to do it now. Being open minded is also helpful.
That’s all great advice. Is there anything else you wanted to share before we wrap things up?
There are a lot of professional people that need to live on a six-figure income. The chances of you having a six-figure income in shelter work is probably not there, especially to backpedal, and go from six figures down to 50 to get the learning and the education that you really need to do a good job. There are boards of directors. There are committees. Look for an organization that your vision for animal welfare can kind of mesh with. Get involved and help. Give of your time and give of your talents.
There are a lot of places that are struggling with financials because they don’t have somebody who is looking at the numbers. There are places that are struggling with human resource and employee development things so that they’re turning people over on a regular basis. Help them. Help them develop training programs. Help them work with the people, or maybe, find a better source for finding stronger people, or looking at their pay scales and helping them develop one that income coming in, so that they can pay people. So they are not wasting money on training all the time and that they can work on keeping these people long-term and having very low turnover rates. They’ve got experienced people. There’s a lot of things that are being done in companies that you need in your shelter, but you can’t afford to have an HR department, a legal department, a finance department and investment. People watching your investments and then maybe veterinary. There’s a lot of different things out there from a volunteer standpoint that people can help with. They can keep their six-figure income and give some of that to us too. Shamelessly asking for money, consistently. Part of the job.
Well, thank you, Lynn. I appreciate you coming on the program, and I appreciate your time. No problem.
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