In November I shut down the successful nonprofit I founded 10 years ago. Here's why - Generocity Philly

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Feb. 3, 2021 2:44 pm

In November I shut down the successful nonprofit I founded 10 years ago. Here’s why

"I’ve nailed down a few key missteps that I believe were the demise of what was a highly regarded organization, and they all occurred within the first four years of our start," says guest columnist Jennifer Leary.

Jennifer Leary with an injured dog rescued through Red Paw Emergency Relief Team.

(Courtesy photo)

This guest column was written by Jennifer Leary, a Philadelphia Fire Fighter and founder of the Red Paw Emergency Relief Team (Red Paw).
Like a lot of businesses, Red Paw was not immune to 2020. Like many nonprofit organizations trying to survive, we have long been confronting sustainability (and burn out) issues, however, this past year was a doozy.

Between COVID staffing and precaution issues, civil unrest during responses, increased gun violence in the city that directly put our responders in harm’s way, along with high unemployment rates which directly affected donations, 2020 proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.

As of November 2020, Red Paw Emergency Relief Team [the disaster relief nonprofit that rescued pets trapped in their homes after fires and others disasters] was no more.

And although we were able to loosely train some of the Philadelphia Fire Department members to provide some of the Red Paw services on-scene, I’m left disappointed and wondering where it all went wrong. I’ve been trying to process this question.

But by all accounts, newspaper articles, TV interviews, social media praise, awards, citations, etc., Red Paw was a successful nonprofit organization, I mean heck, we were featured as a 2014 CNN Hero.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this and I’ve nailed down a few key missteps that I believe were the demise of what was a highly regarded organization, and they all occurred within the first four years of our start, which could be why according to Forbes, over half of all nonprofits are destined to fail within their first few years.

I’m sharing those missteps now to help process what happened and to close out 2020, but also to provide some insight for others. Feel free to use them as a cautionary tale.

Red Paw was unique. It was the only organization of its kind in the country, possibly the world, providing 24/7/365 emergency response for families with pets affected by residential fires and disasters, as far as we could tell, and we did a lot of research.

I am a firm believer that you should not start an organization if the organization that you are starting already exists in your area. According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics there are more than 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the United States. Why not take your time, energy, know-how, drive and resources to help a nonprofit that is already working and probably struggling to fill that need?

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If there had been another organization providing these services, trust me, I’d absolutely have reached out and helped them. But our problem was not that we were replicating services, our problem was that there were no existing services to replicate.

Issue number one: Just say no

So, what went wrong? It started literally on day one.

When Red Paw began, it was supposed to be a pilot program in Philadelphia, working in conjunction with the American Red Cross in Philly. I was a Philadelphia Fire Fighter at the time, and I was also a disaster responder for the Red Cross. Starting a brand-new emergency response organization in a major metropolitan city that assisted people and pets during an emergency incident is tricky. You can’t just roll up onto a disaster scene and expect access.

Because of my background I was able to pitch an idea and get an agreement with the Red Cross and the Philadelphia Fire Department (PFD) that would allow us to do so, but only after the Red Cross got called to a fire or residential incident by the fire department when residents were displaced. The Red Cross would check to see if the affected residents had pets and then call us to respond if those residents needed our assistance.

Because Red Paw was not an established emergency response organization yet, and although not ideal, it’s how we needed to start to get some street cred.

The Red Cross in Philadelphia is part of the Southeastern PA Chapter (Philadelphia, Delaware, Montgomery, Chester and Bucks Counties) which means all five counties are overseen by Philadelphia. Within hours of Red Paw being activated in Philly, word got out to the other counties about the services we were providing, and we started getting calls from their coordinators asking for assistance.

Red Paw was a legit grassroots organization. Yes, we were a nonprofit, yes, we had a board and by-laws and a mission statement that would evolve over the years, but at its core, behind the scenes we were a “scrappy” grassroots organization.

Which means I was making most of the day-to-day decisions on my own, on the fly as they were whizzing at me like bullets. Back then, I had a hard time saying “no” to people. I’ve learned that exhaustion and burn out makes saying no to things much easier, but at the time, running off the adrenaline of being a new organization and wanting to prove that what we were doing was working and valuable, I said yes, every time.

Just to paint a picture for you of what that means; one response I had out in Chester County during the first week of Red Paw’s existence took me six hours round trip. And that’s not counting the on-scene time. Six hours is how long it takes to drive to Boston!

And this went on for years. For years I would drive all over the five-county region seven days a week, all hours of the day and night, in snowstorms, torrential downpours, on back roads, up mountains. It was insanity. Admittedly of my own making. But in my mind if I said no, even just once, that would be all it would take to ruin our very new and very fragile reputation as an emergency response organization.

Issue number two: Put the right people in the right positions

Red Paw was an army of one at first. Me and my VW crisscrossing the region alone.

It’s so frustrating now looking back because it’s not like I didn’t plan and research and meet with people to make sure I was starting the organization off on the right foot, but we were starting from scratch.

What I figured out later on, probably too much later on, was that I recruited the wrong people for the wrong jobs initially. Hindsight and all. The organization that I was building in my mind was not the organization growing in real life. The actual organization had a mind of its own.

Because we were helping family-owned pets after a disaster, all of the people who were volunteering to help were “animal people.” Again, what I realized way too much later on was that for the organization to actually fill the void that I had started it for, we needed qualified emergency responders. The people I did have trying to help didn’t have an emergency response background and clearly did not understand what they were getting into. So, what started as a long list of volunteer responders quickly whittled down to pretty much just me.

It turns out that most people, especially if they are volunteering, do not like having to wake up in the middle of the night nor do they want to leave their family dinner mid-bite or stop halfway through grocery shopping to go on a response.

These staffing issues left me trying to respond to every call in every county while still working full-time at the PFD. To this day I firmly believe that you cannot run an emergency response organization with volunteers. This is a hill I will die on.

Issue number three: Mission creep

This is really where things started going off the rails.

In the end, all of the issues singularly weren’t enough to sink the ship on their own. They were just small holes that could be patched and eventually were. But mission creep is a killer.

In my mind, originally and eventually, what Red Paw would become was a bona fide emergency response organization whose job it was to provide emergency services for peoples’ pets on-scene of an incident. Including: search and rescue, emergency medical care (o2 and care of cuts, burns, etc.), emergency transport (to a hospital or family members home or a hotel) and emergency shelter (pet hotel). But it was impossible to limit services since the calls were coming in fast and furious, it was a runaway train and I lost control.

Let me explain. When the fire department responds to an incident, they do what they need to do on-scene, for instance, if a resident is injured, they treat them, put them in an ambulance and then they head back to the station. Same for the Red Cross. The Red Cross volunteers respond to the scene, do what they need to do, for instance, if the residents have nowhere to go, they send them to a hotel and then they leave the scene.

I would quickly find out that we could not just stick a displaced dog in a cab and send it to a hotel or put an injured cat in an ambulance and then leave. We, for lack of a better term, got stuck with people’s pets. Now, it’s not like I didn’t plan for this as well. I had. We had a list of boarding facilities that signed on to provide emergency shelter for families with pets immediately following a disaster in their home.

But the agreement they had signed onto was unrealistic. What started out as a three-day hold for families, turned into two weeks, then it turned into 30 days, and then it turned into 60 days. We had one family’s pets for a year!

And when I say we, again I mean me. I had them in my house.

We were taking in pet after pet after pet who had a host of issues that we were having to deal with outside of what displaced them. Almost none of the pets we were taking in had been vaccinated, most had never ever seen a vet. To go to the boarding facilities that agreed to help for emergency shelter, the animals needed up-to-date vaccinations. We had dogs in our care at these facilities going into heat, cats having kittens, pets with fleas or ringworm, pets needing medicine or operations unrelated to the fire or disaster they came into our care from.

And then there were the pets who were actually injured in a fire that needed round the clock care, medications and bandage changes.

None of this was in my wheelhouse nor was it what I had started the organization for — or thought I would be spending my time doing. I was a firefighter, for crying out loud, not a vet tech!

By 2016, we had accumulated $25K in medical care debt for these pets and the last standing boarding facility willing to help was beginning to experience their own burn out.

So, we eventually had to recruit volunteers to help take care of the animals, help foster the animals, help drive the animals to appointments or pick them up from a boarding facility and move them to another boarding facility or reunite them with their owners.

All of this brought its own host of issues, volunteer scheduling, trainings, orientations, paperwork. Then there were the inevitable volunteer issues. Volunteers not showing up to pick up a pet or canceling last minute, volunteers getting scratched or their car breaking down mid-transport. It was never-ending and it took over the organization.

Issue number four: Funding categories

With all of the volunteers and animals we were now having to manage, we needed to hire people qualified to handle them. Which meant not only did we have to pay for all of these pet issues we hadn’t originally planned on, but we also now had to pay people to deal with them.

The funding issues for an organization like ours was a constant uphill battle. We didn’t fit into any one category neatly. We weren’t technically an animal welfare organization, we weren’t technically fire service, we technically didn’t respond to large-scale disasters, we weren’t an animal shelter or an adaption agency, although we did have to adopt out many of the pets we took in those first several years (also unintended mission creep) because their owners were unable to take them back after their disaster.

So, we didn’t qualify for those funding sources. It was ridiculous. And, although we were usually able to get some of the care of an injured or displaced pet covered from social media posts, getting staff funding was a whole new challenge.

Plus, those social media posts needed photos, videos and content, which took time and energy to produce. Both of which I was quickly running out of.

Issue five: Burn out

Eventually, all of these problems were solved. I got a partner in crime, in our chief operations officer (COO) to help run the day-to-,day behind-the-scenes stuff. She had been informally working alongside me since day one, watching as the train started to go off the rails, and then finally pulled the emergency brake.

Five years in, we scaled back from responding in the counties. We provided over the phone resources like pet hotel fees, food and supplies, emergency vet care deposits. With the exception here and there for larger incidents like apartment building fires where we would provide search and rescue.

This freed us up to do what we should have been doing all along, focusing on responding in Philadelphia.

We also started hiring full-time and per-diem responders who had a background in emergency response. We got two designated response vehicles. We signed Memorandum of Understanding (MOUs) with the Office of Emergency Management: stared getting dispatches from the Fire Communication Center and no longer had to wait for a call from the Red Cross, which helped immensely with response times.

We eventually stopped taking in pets and only took pets that were seriously injured to a hospital for the owner or to a pet hotel. We worked out an agreement with the Red Cross that if there was a displaced family with pets on-scene, they would send the family to a pet friendly hotel. We would transport or pay for a pet friendly Uber. They would cover the hotel fee and we’d cover the pet hotel fee.

We also stopped paying for or assisting the owners with anything for their pet that was not fire/disaster related.

Instead, we stayed in our lane and we gave the family resources for spay/neuter/vaccination clinics and pet food pantries. We recommended boarding facilities that would work with the families for longer term needs, we provided info for emergency grants and “angel funding” to cover other medical needs, etc. “There are hundreds and hundreds of animal welfare organizations. We are not one of them,” we would constantly say like an affirmation.

When you’re the organization’s emergency responder, animal caretaker, social media manager, communications director, public relations manager, government liaison, volunteer coordinator, social worker, logistics manager, etc., it’s hard to see the forest for the trees.

It took 10 years to get to what I believe is the perfect response model for the organization. But those 10 years took their toll.

It took 10 years to get to what I believe is the perfect response model for the organization. But those 10 years took their toll. Just when we were finally hitting our stride as an organization and we had gotten to the point where we could finally come up for some air, 2020 happened, and every flat tire, dead battery, bent axle, every responder who called out, every issue on-scene, every client and/or pet who needed more than what our org could provide was too much.

We/I had no more energy or desire to deal with any of it anymore. I had been done for a long time but now when we needed to fight more than ever to keep going, I was done, done. Left settling for a shell of what we had started.

There is so much that I’d do differently now if I could go back in time.

The end of Red Paw as a response organization may have come as a surprise to many, but we had been in talks with OEM for several years trying to have our services integrated for a more sustainable model. In 2019 we provided the PFD with a proposal and advised them that we would need to cut services if the proposal was not implemented. Although they did not fully implement the proposal we provided them, we were able to come to a compromise (read more here) which still gives the residents of Philadelphia with pets some much needed services on incident on-scenes.

In October of 2020 we were able to train the Fire Department’s Community Action Teams on Red Paw’s best practices on-scene, with an agreement that our emergency line would stay on for any additional resources or assistance they may need while on a scene with pets, along with our continuation of phone assistance.

While I’m happy that we are still able to help families affected by residential fires and disasters by providing over the phone assistance with pet hotel fees, pet food, medications and supply replacements, emergency vet care deposits, and pet Uber fees, I’m sad at where the organization has ended up.

Sixty-seven percent of U.S. homes have pets in them. Which means more than half of the house fires and residential disasters that fire departments and emergency management agencies respond to will have pets affected. Our organization proved that having dedicated emergency responders on-scene for resident’s pets is an asset to the residents and the responders.

But what does it mean for Red Paw as a nonprofit that after a decade we were unable to sustain our core mission? What does it mean for us an emergency response organization that the fire service never fully embraced what we were doing? What does it mean for public safety, that those in charge didn’t fully see the value in the void we were filling?

What does it mean about the city we served that they let these proven services go? What does it mean about philanthropy and funders that they couldn’t understand what we were doing, or how to fund us? What does it mean about me as a founder that I couldn’t keep it going?

Most importantly, what does it mean for the people of Philly and around the country affected by residential fires and disasters who have pets?

While I have my personal opinion on each, I’ll leave that for another day.

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Listen to the story leading up to this column in this podcast from August 2020.

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