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A Happy Place: Facility Refresh, New Strategic Plan Help More Pets Find Homes

With new leadership and fresh approaches to measuring impact, the Atlanta Humane Society is changing the way people perceive and interact with companion animal shelters, both in the Atlanta region and around the southeast.

This photo (and all featured in this story) showcase Atlanta Humane Society volunteers caring for their animals.

Equipped with a new strategic plan and more marketing muscle, the Atlanta Humane Society (AHS) is working hard to overcome the notion that an animal shelter must be a sad, desperate place. The early results show more would-be pet owners are finding their way to AHS shelters, having positive experiences, and bringing furry friends home with them.


An Atlanta original

According to AHS president and CEO Cal Morgan, “we have a tremendous past here in terms of serving,” nodding to AHS’ status as one of the oldest private charities in Atlanta, tracing its roots back to 1873 and a legendary visit from Robert E. Lee. Folk stories describe how Lee came to Atlanta after the Civil War and was appalled at the working conditions for horses tasked with building the city. These animals were invaluable to the Reconstruction era, but they were often treated poorly.

In fact, the organization was originally chartered as a direct result of Lee’s visit, to protect women, children, and animals, and remained a child protection and animal welfare society for several decades. According to Morgan, it wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that people began to bring dogs into their homes and care for them as pets, rather than treating them as working animals. It wasn’t until the 1970s, he added, that humane societies began supporting cats. Today, two out of three households own pets, and in recent years, spending on companion animals has outpaced virtually every other category of consumer spending.

The Atlanta Humane Society is an independent organization, but part of a trade federation of local animal welfare organizations called the National Federation of Humane Societies (the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which advocates for federal and sometimes state legislation, is a separate entity). In all, AHS has 90 full-time staffers between its two metro Atlanta locations, which adopt out some 7,500 animals annually, and put to work nearly 1,000 volunteers, who help staff care for and socialize with the four-legged guests.


Thinking differently to inform strategic planning

Morgan led the Michigan Humane Society for thirteen years before coming to Atlanta in 2014. Together with staff and the AHS Board, he has focused on creating a new strategic framework to address the root causes for animals becoming homeless.

When he arrived at AHS, Morgan convened an all-hands meeting that brought employees from the entire organization together with the AHS Board to talk about strategic priorities. This gave the board a chance to listen to front-line staff and get a much closer view of the mission. Morgan says his leadership team came out of that experience with a long list of ideas and suggestions to inform a new strategic plan.

“We are in the process of remaking AHS from the ground up,” said Morgan. “We’re taking our foundational programs and developing a long-term strategic plan for each of them to increase our scope and our impact on animal homelessness.” 


Zeroing in on impact

In addition to sheltering and caring for homeless animals, AHS offers low-cost spay and neuter programs, microchipping, and adoption resources that blend preventative and voluntary support. The organization started thinking differently about measuring the impact of these programs, for example looking at animals’ length of stay in the shelter, determining the factors that prolong it,  and putting more resources into driving it down.

“Animals thrive when they’re in a home, not a shelter,” Morgan said. “Less time in a shelter means less stress on them, and greater quality of life.”

“We know from national surveys that shelters are perceived to be sad places. Our message is, ‘Come and check us out.’ People will walk in and see that it’s a happy place. It’s a place filled with light and happy, healthy animals. It’s not dark.”

Morgan noted that, for animals at AHS, there is no time limit for their stay. With the exception of an estimated 3 percent found to be hopelessly sick, all of the companion animals at AHS go home.

Another of the 180 different measures that AHS has begun examining regularly is the number of onsite animal disease incidents, leading to changes in maintenance methods for cages and tool handling as well as additional training.


Overhauling facilities and defying expectations

Morgan associates years of well-intentioned cause-related messages depicting sad-eyed animals in deplorable conditions with coloring the perception of many people about what a shelter looks like on the inside. His team has worked hard to change that perception, investing heavily in facility renovations and getting the word out with coordinated marketing campaigns.

“We know from national surveys that shelters are perceived to be sad places,” he said. “Our message is, ‘Come and check us out.’ People will walk in and see that it’s a happy place. It’s a place filled with light and happy, healthy animals. It’s not dark.”

AHS is also taking on more adoption promotion activities. The organization brought on a new marketing and communications team to develop and launch a campaign centered around “HOPE” for animals, with billboards around Atlanta, movie theater ads, direct mail and print ads in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. A savvy “Puppies on Demand” promotion with Animal Planet in late-January made it possible for people to send animals out on loan to cuddle with significant others, and an online component asks adopters to share their “Stories of Hope”.

“We’re trying to do creative things to make adoption accessible and fun for people, and raise awareness that shelter animals make wonderful pets,” Morgan said.

Traffic in the past six months at AHS shelters has continued to grow. Recently, Morgan said, more than 100 animals were taken home in a single weekend, a new high-water mark for AHS.


Mobilizing expertise for the region

When a situation calls for urgent intervention to rescue mistreated animals, AHS gets the call, assisting not only in Atlanta but also around the Southeast. AHS staff were on the scene with several other organizations at an illegal puppy mill in Mississippi in 2014 to assess and rescue animals, martial resources to rehabilitate them, and move them to shelters.

AHS has also worked with law enforcement on several occasions in response to dog fighting rings that are a part of criminal culture in many cities.

“We’ll often get a tip from a concerned citizen about suspected illegal activity and we’ll contact local law enforcement and work with them,” Morgan said. “We help gather evidence and help authorities get these ringleaders who exploit animals into the criminal justice system.”


Sustaining partnerships and a strong donor base

The Atlanta Humane Society has cultivated a strong network of partnerships with local employers that’s been deeply rewarding in support of all kinds, from funds and dog food to medical supplies and volunteer support.

AHS is one of only ten charities in the U.S. selected by Purina for a long-term commitment to supply pet food, worth millions of dollars. In addition, Purina workers based out of the company’s manufacturing plant in Fairburn regularly travel to AHS shelters to work volunteer shifts. And Duluth-based Merial provides flea and heartworm treatment and supplies at no cost.

The Buckhead Rotary Club partners with AHS on “Companion Pets for Vets,” a program that pairs companion animals with military veterans for no-cost adoptions.

AHS also gets substantial general operating support from individual donors. “It’s an apple pie, all-American organization that everyone can relate to,” Morgan said. “Our donors are far and wide.”

The organization has also worked to build collaborations with other animal welfare groups in the area, meeting with local rescue and breed affiliates to create a more comprehensive and coordinated safety net for animals.


AHS strengthens the case for pet adoption as a fun, positive experience

Through new investment in facilities that reframes the visitor experience, and strategic partnerships that offer holistic support for adopted animals, AHS is making the case for adoption as a first option for more would-be pet owners in the region.

“There is a perception that an animal from an adoption shelter is less than perfect or not as healthy,” Morgan said. “We’re changing that perception. It’s a new time at AHS, and we’re focused on expanding our reach.”


Brian Carr is communications consultant for GCN.

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