Maddie's Fund 25th anniversary

As our 25th anniversary celebration continues, we’re looking back “then and now” style at some of the grants we’ve given over the years, and the amazing impact they’ve had on their communities since then. We’re kicking off the stories with Maddie’s® Projects in Alachua County, FL.

“The project originally started as a five-year project in 2002 to save all healthy shelter pets,” said Shelly Thompson, Director of Grants at Maddie’s Fund®. “Midway through, Maddie’s Fund adjusted its strategy and changed it to a 10-year project with seven years of funding from Maddie’s Fund to save all healthy and treatable pets.”

In January of 2009, the Alachua coalition reached the point where they were no longer euthanizing any healthy animals, which was a long way from where they started (29% live release rate). Not long after, in Year 11 of the project, they achieved a 90%+ live release rate and have maintained it ever since. They also continue to work as a coalition and collect, report and share monthly and annual statistics.

Jeanette Peters, a non-profit consultant who has been on the project since the beginning, said that building relationships and trust and using data are the two big things that revolutionized the community, thanks to Maddie. “From Maddie’s Fund, we learned the strategy of ‘here’s some resources but in order to get them you need to play nice, partner and report on your statistics.’ All of which makes an effective project.”

Of course, it wasn’t always smooth sailing. The first few years dealt with a lot of partnership maintenance.

“After receiving the grant, there was a brief celebration of the good news and then the realization that we all had to really work together,” said Peters. “Back in 2002 that was a new concept for animal rescue groups in a lot of communities. I know it still is. We immediately fell into disarray and disagreements.”

After two years of turmoil, it took professional mediators to get to the point where they could work together and move forward. “Some people dropped out of the project and that’s okay. The rest continued and more joined.”

The lesson learned? “The animals don’t care if we like each other, they just need us to work together. Attaining the mission that Maddie’s Fund set for us required everybody to set aside personal likes and dislikes,” said Peters.

The other big lesson they learned, thanks to Maddie, was the incredible value of data.

“When we started nobody was keeping track of anything and it led to very low expectations,” explained Peters. “For example, in 2002 our lead agency Alachua County Humane Society was doing 99 adoptions a year and they were pretty proud of that. Today, they’re adopting more than 2,000 a year and they’re regularly exceeding a 99% live release rate each month.

She continued, “That exponential jump in performance and effectiveness has been the case for each of our partners. Once they started defining and measuring success, they realized how much more they could do.”

Each of the individual partners (five non-profit rescue organizations and one government shelter) have learned how to build true sustainability and a varied menu of funders, long after the funding period for the Maddie’s Fund grant ended.

Fast forward to 2017. Although the rescue partners had long since achieved 90%+ live release rates individually, 2017 was the first year Alachua County achieved no-kill status as a community.

“Until our government shelter was able to maintain a live release rate of over 90% for a full year, we did not call any of ourselves no-kill. That was kind of a sea change for us. Each member of the coalition is responsible for every pet at animal services and we don’t get to say that we are individually ‘no-kill’ as long as there are still healthy and treatable pets dying in our community.”

How do they maintain the no-kill status?

In order to sustain no-kill status, the coalition chooses to focus on preventing the primary reasons pets end up in shelters. This means the creation of a low-cost veterinary clinic in 2015 to address access to affordable veterinary services, an expansion of Operation Petsnip, the community’s only low-cost, high-volume spay and neuter clinic, and the implementation of surrender prevention tactics like a pet food and litter pantry that the community can access seven days a week. Furthermore, the Alachua coalition sends a delegate to weekly meetings at Alachua County Animal Services to discuss outcome pathways for pets at the shelter.

“Over time, we realized we needed to expand our services beyond intake and adoption so we consulted years of data to devise a strategy that would address the prevailing reasons pets were winding up in our county shelter and provide a social safety net to keep pets in homes,” said Heather Thomas, Executive Director of the Humane Society of North Central Florida.

As for what’s next? Expanding the community.

After working closely together for over a decade, in 2018 three of the original participating organizations – Alachua County Humane Society, Gainesville Pet Rescue and Helping Hands Pet Rescue – decided to permanently join forces and now operate under a new name, the Humane Society of North Central Florida. Heather Thomas and her team developed systems within the coalition where resources are shared across the partnership. The Humane Society has an Associate Director on the ground at Alachua County Animal Services almost every day working with the staff to evaluate animals and move them to where they need to be.

“Our partnership and all of the trust built up over the years make it possible for our staff to be present at Animal Services making placement decisions for all of the groups in our coalition. A role like that would never have been possible before,” Thomas said.

Sustainable success in Alachua County also allowed the Alachua coalition to look beyond its county borders. “Once we achieved no-kill in Alachua County, we discovered that pet owners were bringing their pets to Alachua County in hopes of keeping them safe. We knew we needed to expand our scope, take what we have learned as part of the Maddie’s® Projects, and replicate that success in our surrounding counties,” Thomas said.

“Heather and I have both done a lot of technical assistance trying to work with other communities once we achieved no-kill status for two years,” said Peters. “The Humane Society changed its mission to include surrounding counties so it’s time to bring them along.”

Peters continued, “In fact, participating in Maddie’s® Pet Adoption Days taught us that over two days we could find homes for more than 800 animals and the entire state would rally around us. So we are continuing to do pet adoption days locally. It also demonstrated to our partners that these huge events are doable, effective and they don’t result in the huge number of returns that some in the field feared.”

When asked what advice she’d give communities trying to form this type of collaboration, Peters replied, “Find someone that is from outside of the system that everyone trusts. That was my role. I was not in animal welfare and did not have any bragging rights, but I stayed in communication with each of the organizations, sometimes daily.”

Peters continued, “Find a partnership facilitator that everybody trusts and respects and can keep bringing people to the table and keep the overall goal in mind. If you look at the Stanford Model for Community Change, that’s a big part of it. It’s very similar to the model we used, although it didn’t come out until 2011. Maddie’s Fund was ahead of the times!”

“Maddie’s Fund gave me the opportunity to work on a social change project long enough to actually see the impact,” concluded Peters. “Now everyone is working together. Our humane society is thriving. Thanks to Maddie, I’ve seen the organizations grow and develop. We have happier, healthier animals who are leaving the shelter alive, and fewer are going in. Our intakes are down more than 50%. It’s the capstone of my career in nonprofits.”