Every Village Needs a Mayor
In 1999, Geauga Humane Society was a small, worthy, but underfunded organization working from an uninviting, substandard shelter that made good husbandry almost impossible and attracting adopters a major challenge. Within just two years, the organization raised over $2 million and opened Rescue Village, a new state-of-the-art facility where people of all ages now come together to care for and celebrate animals. This is the story of Hugh, the plain brown street dog who became the centerpiece of the campaign to build Rescue Village.
Our capital campaign strategy was pretty conventional – raise 80% of the funds through major gifts (in our case enough to pay for the construction of the facility itself without taking on any debt) – then break ground and launch a broad-based public campaign to raise the money for furnishings and equipment. Hugh’s wedding helped us wrap up the first phase and pave the way for the second. But it was the election that brought the whole thing home.
Like virtually every other area nonprofit, Geauga Humane Society sets up tables at events around town to raise awareness and collect donations. For me, staffing those tables was one of those necessary but frankly not very rewarding parts of the job. Sure, we got to talk to some people and sure, we got some donations, but all in all, it was kind of a yawn for all concerned. Clearly, if we were going to get the community’s attention, we had to come up with something new and engaging.
Since we had already named our new facility Rescue Village (a clear attempt to play off the whole “it takes a village” idea and engage the community in our work) and every village needs a mayor, Hugh would now have to enter the world of politics. But who would be his opponent?
As luck would have it, a handsome tuxedo cat named Marino had been returned to the old shelter several times because of litter box issues. We shamelessly decided to pit the cat people against the dog people and run Marino against Hugh.
At all the summer events, instead of our usual education booth, we set up a voting booth with giant ballot boxes, banners, bunting, Souza marches – the works. We charged $2 a vote and encouraged stuffing. Hugh, of course, had a distinct advantage, as he thoroughly enjoyed meeting his constituents in his new red, white, and blue coat. Marino was no campaigner but we made sure to have his picture liberally splashed around the booth. Our most enthusiastic volunteers and GHS Ambassador Dogs were on hand to entice voters.
To prepare Hugh to meet his public, we got him a personal trainer – not so much to get him in shape, though all the treats were starting to take a toll on his boyish figure, but more to teach him the tricks of the political trade – high five, shake, jump through hoops (ok, in his case walk through hoops). Sharon Harvey, a hospital administrator and dog trainer who had been spending some time providing enrichment for the dogs at the old shelter, took on the task. Talk about bringing great new people to the table. Working with Hugh opened a whole new career path for Sharon. You may know her now as the very able executive director of the Cleveland Animal Protective League.
But I digress. To broaden the message, we had two sets of magnetic campaign signs made and passed them around to staff and volunteers who frequented different parts of the county. Intentionally enigmatic, the signs simply read “Hugh for Mayor” and “Marino for Mayor,” causing people in parking lots to wait by our cars to ask what they meant. Nice opportunities to spread the word and hand out our Rescue Village literature.
The mayoral campaign ran throughout the summer. Here’s how we announced the results in our fall newsletter.
Mayor-Elect Presides at Rescue Village Groundbreaking
The results are in and the dogs are celebrating. By a vote of 790 to 489, Hugh has been elected the first mayor of Rescue Village. In his first public appearance as Mayor-Elect, Hugh joined jubilant shelter animals, staff members, capital campaign committee members and members of the board of trustees on October 12 for the long-awaited Rescue Village groundbreaking. Weather permitting, Hugh will be sworn in at the Grand Opening in May 2001.
Hugh took the electoral victory in stride – but Marino, his feline opponent, was visibly relieved. A reluctant candidate at best, Marino much preferred sleeping on top of the refrigerator to pressing the flesh at GHS events. In a show of reconciliation, Hizzoner appointed Marino Chief Constable of Rescue Village. From his new perch in the cageless cat community, Marino will continue to keep an eye on all the comings and goings, making sure those unruly dogs – and people – don’t get out of hand. Hugh, of course, will be front and center, greeting visitors and collecting treats for his constituents. Marino’s biggest challenge will be making sure the mayor doesn’t eat the treats!
The groundbreaking marked the successful completion of Phase I of the Board’s campaign to build a state-of-the-art shelter and center for humane education…Under the direction of the Capital Campaign Committee, the campaign has generated $1.2 million in major gifts from foundations and individuals. The committee is now reaching out to members, friends, and the public at large to raise the final $300,000 for furnishings and equipment.
The local papers picked up the story of Hugh’s electoral triumph. Once again, he was the darling of the media and Rescue Village was the talk of the town. Shortly after the groundbreaking, we sent out our public appeal. The donors cooperated and, by spring, the final $300,000 was in hand.
Of course, this is northeast Ohio, so the weather did NOT cooperate. It took a year after the groundbreaking for Hugh to take his place as Mayor of Rescue Village. We dubbed it “The Year of the Move,” a year during which we were able to build excitement for the new facility, raise essential operating funds, develop new programs, and prepare for Hugh’s inauguration.
Next: Hugh’s Inaugural Ball
P.S. Every year may not be an election year at your shelter, but now is a perfect time to pull out the stops in engaging your community; it will be essential to the ASPCA $100K Challenge. We’re hosting a series of upcoming webinars on this topic for sheltering professionals interested in the Challenge.