Connecting with your community is more important than ever. Which is why we are republishing this blog from 2022 with the now former Executive Director of Plainfield Area Humane Society, Elijah Brice-Middleton.
Looking for ways to better connect with your community? Whether you’re looking to diversify your staff/volunteers, share information about the programs and support you provide, or you just really want to find out what your community needs, grassroots efforts can help.
Elijah Brice-Middleton, Executive Director of Plainfield Area Humane Society (PAHS) in New Jersey shares how grassroots efforts like going out into the community has paid dividends for his organization, and how it can for yours, too.
“No matter what size your company, you want someone on the team that is responsible for going out to community speaking to people,” Brice-Middleton says. For his small shelter, it’s usually him, some volunteers and a board member, whom he gained from these efforts.
What does it mean to “go out into the community”?
There’s no right or wrong way to do it, just start reaching out and sharing information. For Brice-Middleton, “I just started reaching out to all the organizations that are around me via our town’s version of child protective services. I’d give them tips on the connection between animal abuse and child abuse/domestic abuse. I also went out to different high schools and talked with them, as well as elder organizations, hospitals, housing developments and local businesses. I dropped off flyers anywhere where I could to reach people that didn’t even know PAHS existed.”
Brice-Middleton shared that a lot of people didn’t know that they had a shelter in their town or that they had a place to send their animals. They also didn’t know that animal sheltering was a career path.
“I just do it whenever I get the chance and it has become part of my daily or weekly routine. I’ve got so much merchandise in my car. Sometimes I’m driving around the town by myself with a bunch of flyers, a camera and I just go anywhere that people will let me into the doors. Sometimes it’s setup and pre-planned where I give talks. You’re not allowed to put flyers into people’s mailboxes but stuffing and roll it into the fence [is okay]. Sometimes animal care officers go out and canvas what’s needed.”
Doing so has brought such a diverse group of individuals and talent into their shelter and spread the word about what they do.
Finding the time
Brice-Middleton says like with anything else, time is an issue and a sacrifice. Sometimes it’s arriving a little early, staying a little late or going out during your lunch. “If I have 30 minutes in between anything, I use that time,” he said. “It’s a juggling game but I can assure every shelter professional that they will see their work paid dividends.” Naturally, Brice-Middleton has to show his board the return of his efforts. “I have to share what we see in terms of animal pet retention with or animal surrenders, how many people use programs or attend events etc. Whatever our goals are.”
He continued, “No matter what, you’re going to have to find out what’s particular to your community and what’s particular to your shelter in your organization. Understand what your shelter needs and what the community needs and to make sure those tie together.”
PAHS volunteer numbers have increased greatly, to the point where they now have to find things to do for our volunteers because they have so many coming to the shelter. Brice-Middleton recommends finding out if your local schools require the students to have volunteer hours.
Representing the community
One of Brice-Middleton’s on-going goals is to make sure his organization – including staff, volunteers and board members – represent the community they support.
“I reached out to our county prosecutors because they do a lot of prosecuting for animal cruelty, child abuse and domestic abuse. I asked if there was anyone that I can be put in contact with to help extend my reach into the county even outside of our municipalities that we service. I ended up getting in contact with the system prosecutor there. She’s now on our board, and we both teach classes and talk with the community,” he explained.
What about social media?
Brice-Middleton says social media has a purpose, but it’s just one tool. It’s not enough. When he first started at the shelter, the marketing was pretty much just posting on Facebook and Instagram.
“We do have a very widespread social media but it wasn’t doing what I needed it to do. If we want to reach the demographic that really needs us, they might not have access to all the social media that we think everyone has access to, or the technology,” he said. “So it’s really important to have someone on the team that can go out into the community. Someone who can go out to different neighborhoods and canvas, asking what people need to keep their animals in their home and then, whatever their needs are, bring that back.”
PAHS tries to reach as much of the community as they can through a mixture of grassroots, social media and community events, including one large community event per year. This year, it’s a community BBQ. Marketing for the event has included flyers all over town, social postings and directly reaching out to as many people from the community, including politicians.
Listening to community
“When I first got here and the pandemic started, I had created a pet food pantry. I wanted to provide food to as many people that needed it and I couldn’t understand why people were not coming for the free food,” said Brice-Middleton. “We were putting it on social media, we were doing everything we thought we could and still no one was coming. I finally go out and we start telling people about it and I learn about transportation issues, as well as fear of animal control among certain community members. Knowing this, we took the pantry food to our human pantry.” Partnering with their local human pantries allowed community members to get to know PAHS and they became more comfortable with them.
“It’s one of those things where like if we just put on our social media, we might not know why something isn’t working or programs aren’t as successful as it could be and there’s a reason for it, we just have to figure out why.”
Advice for other animal organizations
“Start at the main centers in your community where there are gatherings of people. For us, it’s schools and churches. You can go anywhere and everywhere – it doesn’t have to be animal related at all. Make a connection with them because usually there’s an animal lover somewhere and they want to do something to help. And we want to do something to give back to them as well.”
Watch Maddie’s® Candid Conversation featuring Elijah Brice-Middleton.