Creating Thoughtful Community Collaborations that Support Pets and Their Owners
Animal welfare professionals are increasingly developing programs and services to provide owners with the support they need to care for their animals. Over the years, the ASPCA has introduced new programs and services (Community Engagement, Community Veterinary Centers in Miami and New York City, the Equine Transition and Adoption Center in El Reno, OK, and primary pet care services in Los Angeles) that help keep people and their animals together. These efforts have provided the ASPCA with successes and learnings that may be helpful to other groups doing this important work. Below are 4 steps and dozens of tips to help you support even more pets and their families as you introduce new services in your local communities.
1. Do Your Research
Before developing your plan of action, it’s important to learn about the community with which you’d like to collaborate.
Take note of the many ways the community is thriving. Identify its existing strengths and resources, as well as potential partners—human service agencies, local government officials, faith-based organizations, schools, community gardens, educational institutions and other animal welfare organizations. Explore how their missions can connect with yours (e.g., how can the local emergency management office’s disaster preparation and response planning incorporate families’ pets, how can human food pantries include pet food for their clients, etc.)
Gather information on the community’s demographics and culture. Determine primary languages spoken, religions, modes of transportation, etc. Check with the Census or the local government planning and/or a GIS (geographic information system) department to see what information is available to the public.
Identify specific neighborhoods, areas, or subsets of a population within the community that may not be receiving important services. Focus on making your organization's work accessible to these locations.
Attend community meetings. Learn about what the community needs, what the current concerns are, what the priorities are from the people who are living there—both long-time and new residents. Check with the municipality’s town hall, library, police station, or community board for a list of existing meetings to join.
Speak directly with residents, potential clients, organizations, and local elected officials such as council members, state assembly members, and senators, and other community stakeholders, including, friends and family members of residents, people who work in the community or who belong to a local group or club. Ask questions such as: What is the best way to get the word out about how we can support residents? Who else should we connect with to deepen our impact? What should we keep in mind as we plan? Local elected officials may also be able to provide you with contact information for their constituents to further your reach.
Identify internal connections at your own organization. Perhaps one of your staff or volunteers already lives in or knows the community and would be interested in representing your organization. Posting a generic ask on a workplace forum or all-employee communication will prevent anyone from feeling pressured to fill this role and open up the opportunity for people you didn’t realize had a connection to the community.
Consider implementing a survey. Ask community members and potential clients to share their input with you so that you can provide informed services. Be sure to create inclusive surveys that can be used by people regardless of what language they speak, or their ability to access a computer or the internet. You may find that focus groups may allow more people to participate in your information-gathering.
2. Communicate with Stakeholders
Open communication will help ensure that you are effectively meeting the needs of the community.
Ensure that all community members are aware of your goals by transparently communicating the intentions of your program and/or services.
Look for ways to include the community in the activities you have outlined to achieve your goals (e.g., a grand opening event for a new brick-and-mortar facility.)
Explore the possibility of joining a community event that's already happening—like providing your organization’s information, pet food, and/or pet supplies at a block party (e.g., National Night Out, etc.), a soup kitchen, or a voting center.
Prepare for translation needs to ensure your services are equitable and accessible. This includes translation vendor relationships, translated literature and materials, and availability of staff and volunteers who can speak the language.
3. Build a Flexible Plan
Being open to changes in your program design allows you to serve people and pets in the most meaningful way.
Be willing to adjust your plan based on the community’s feedback.
Make sure the community knows you’ve heard their feedback, and share what changes you’ve made in response, even if they are not exactly what they might have been hoping for. Communication and transparency are paramount in building trust and goodwill.
Build flexibility into your budget. Expect the unexpected to come up and have a cost associated with it!
4. Create Program Feedback and Assessment Loops
Consider your learnings when developing your program’s key performance indicators. Revisit your initial goals to ensure that they incorporate the community’s feedback.
Prioritize the partnerships you established while developing your program. Whether it’s an elected official or community garden volunteer—create metrics of success and transparency across all partner interactions. Establish a communication protocol that provides partners with relevant updates, whether it’s a recurring in-person meeting or a virtual newsletter sent out once a month.
Include community partners in the implementation process to encourage support and collaboration, and to follow through on the communication goals set in the planning process.
After your program’s launch, continue to attend community meetings. Remain engaged with all stakeholders (residents, leaders, agencies, businesses) so you can learn about the community’s evolving needs and concerns.
Revisit your goals to ensure that your agency’s objectives and interests still align with partners and the community at large. If there are differences, keep communication open and transparent to continue building trust.
Closely and routinely monitor the metrics and goals created in the planning stage. Success metrics should include not just the services provided but also the work being done to generate services (e.g., outreach tactics).
Ensure program and service feedback is communicated both internally with your organization and externally to stakeholders as appropriate.
This work isn’t always perfect! Sometimes unpredictable circumstances, like a global pandemic, prevent programs from running smoothly. Here are some of the takeaways from the ASPCA’s community-based programs as well as fellow New York City-based animal welfare organization Animal Care Centers of NYC.
In April 2020, the ASPCA set up an emergency mobile veterinary clinic in the parking lot of our future Community Veterinary Center in East New York, Brooklyn. Given the nature of disaster response, the planning was quick and did not involve an extensive communication plan to residents and businesses. With little notice to the community, this led to confusion about the ASPCA’s intentions. In retrospect, implementing a communication plan is something we could have done simultaneously as we launched. To address the confusion, we hosted a virtual town hall for community members, which included an extensive outreach plan and the time and space for a Question & Answer session. A dedicated webpage was also added to the ASPCA website to address any further questions and concerns.
All local businesses appreciate getting to know their new neighbors and establishing rapport. When possible, source locally (e.g., order staff lunch and event catering from nearby restaurants, delis, etc.) and prioritize communicating any relevant services or updates to your neighbors.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Animal Care Centers (ACC) of NYC’s Community Pets Program formed a partnership with a local human food pantry whose usual attendance had soared. The pantry was happy to have ACC supply pet food to them, which they could then distribute to clients who had pets. The abnormally long lines and some unexpected challenges of how to best distribute human and pet food to different clients created frustration among both the clients and food pantry staff. Despite being in crisis-response mode, more planning and direct communication with the pantry’s staff and volunteers would have gone a long way to prevent some challenges. For instance, spending time up front to make sure ACC and food pantry representatives across all levels understand and honor each other’s organizational mission is crucial. Assuming missions are in alignment will lead to operational setbacks and unhappy clients. Organizing a “debrief” session after the first few days of food distribution would have allowed the team to share best practices and lessons learned handling this higher volume of clients, and having ACC on-site to observe and assist may have also aided in smoother operations. Finally, scheduling one or more virtual meetings rather than relying on email as the primary communication tool would have allowed for clarity and shared understanding.