By Linda H. Parker, CID, LEED AP
The past few years have been a trying time for community-based organizations. Non-profits that rely on private donations as well as funding from local governments have been operating on limited resources while searching for creative ways to continue and try to better serve their client base. After nearly 25 years and through seven different locations, Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS) has been fortunate in its strive to secure a facility that meets the needs of its unique mission.
PAWS is an organization that provides for the comprehensive needs of companion animals for low-income senior citizens and persons living with HIV/AIDS and other disabling conditions. John Lipp, moving on from his role as PAWS’ Executive Director, shares with us what it has been like during his seven-year tenure improving fundraising efforts and then ultimately able to acquire and renovate the organization’s new facility in spite of the economic headwinds.
John: PAWS is part of what was known as the San Francisco model, which was a group of non-profits formed in the late 80’s to address the AIDS epidemic. PAWS was born out of that movement, and true toSan Francisco, it was a very specialized need that people sought. PAWS was originally a food bank at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, where we observed people were coming in to get their personal food rations to feed their pets. The light bulb went off that no one should be forced to choose between feeding a pet and feeding oneself.
From that, PAWS’ guiding principle has been the core belief that animals are so important to human health and well-being. Though we began as an organization focused on HIV/AIDS needs, we expanded our clientele over the years, because we realized that this is a good model and there’s a greater need in the community. As we’ve grown, our volunteer programs have grown, too. We now have 550 active volunteers and 12 full-time staff members, but we are all volunteer coordinators at the end of the day. Our job is to motivate, inspire and train the volunteers and give them the tools to go out into the community.
Linda: With a size of 550 volunteers, do you think that has changed the community-based foundation of the organization?
John: The fact that we have so many volunteers is a testament to how important it is to have PAWS in San Francisco. Without the community behind us, PAWS would not exist. We are completely privately funded. So, it has to be the community that believes in this mission and keeps it going.
Linda: How did you manage to expand that community interested in helping PAWS?
John: We realized that the human-animal bond cuts across age, gender, and political affiliation – it’s actually a unifying force in our community. Once we realized that, we could expand beyond the HIV/AIDS service community. If you have pets in your life, you understand how important their unconditional love is; everybody can relate to that.
Linda: Has PAWS been involved with any research studies focused on this bond between people and pets?
John: Yes, we realized that there are demonstrated health benefits of the human-animal bond, and to truly change public policy, we have to help document studies. First, we became a center where we can collect this information and disseminate it for various research efforts. Then a few years ago, we partnered with UC Davis, and we helped to study the impacts of pets on people with HIV and AIDS.
Linda: Do you know if those studies have been expanded to include people with other kinds of illnesses or disabilities?
John: Throughout the country, there has now been a lot of work looking at companion animals and senior citizens. There are some interesting studies on how having a dog will decrease isolation. It motivates senior citizens to get out and have a dialogue with their neighbors. It’s also healthy; seniors who walk their dogs are more active and therefore stay fit, maintain a healthy weight, and are more engaged.
Linda: What are some of the ways you have expanded the services since you had started with PAWS?
John: In 2007, we began a pilot program funded by Dorothy Graham of the Graham Family Foundation to serve low-income seniors. We realized instantly there was a huge need for this demographic, and then we noticed that our initial clients who are living with HIV/AIDS are now becoming seniors, too. In a way, we have been on the forefront of looking at aging services for people with chronic illnesses.
Linda: In regard to PAWS’ fundraising efforts, has Petchitecture been different than any other event you had taken on?
John: Truth be told, I was not a huge fan of events, but I’ve come to love them from working at PAWS. They are not just about fundraising but about friend-raising; you can cultivate a whole new group of donors and volunteers in the way you position the event. When I first started PAWS, I spent three months observing the planning of Petchitecture. I realized the event involves a lot of work, but it wasn’t bringing in a whole lot of money. The architects and contractors invest greatly in creating very one-of-a-kind pet habitats. So, I thought about how to build upon the enthusiasm of working with the design community and how to increase the proceeds so it’s worth everyone’s time and energy. Since then, we have been able to quadruple the annual income we bring in from Petchitecture.
John: We looked at where we could increase revenue: corporate sponsors, individual donors, and ticket prices. More importantly, there is a perception of value at play. If you give a fundraiser away, people perceive no value in it. So once we raised sponsorship levels and ticket prices, the perception was that the event was serious. At the end of the day, you have only one opportunity to bring that many people together, and you better make the most of it.
And seeing the event through the eyes of the design teams, I sense each firm makes their individual pet habitat a priority, as if it were a project for a client. This is just as important as the fundraising, and that inspires everyone at PAWS.
Many non-profits never get to the point of purchasing their own building, much less do it in the amount of time that PAWS has existed. With your move, what are the key things that have made a difference?
John: Certainly morale is better. Our staff, volunteers, and clients feel better coming to such a beautiful and functional space. That is important, because their work is difficult. We were able to build a storage facility for our food bank and a veterinarian clinic space. The resources we now have will better position PAWS for the future.
One of the most exciting moments was when we sent letters to our clients announcing the move. When we told them that we bought a building and this was our last move, we initially were a little worried. Will they understand how important this is for PAWS’ long-term viability? Surprisingly, we received many phone calls and notes congratulating us.
Linda: Were you worried that your donors would think you were spending your money on a building and not your clients?
John: Absolutely. When you invest in a capital project, it is a long-term investment that takes away from the immediate need. That can be difficult to reconcile, so I had to constantly communicate that this endeavor was for PAWS’ future. Twenty years from now when there is a need out there, and there will be that need, our community will still be able to take care of our pets.
John: Having your own piece of real estate definitely shifts the playing field with corporate donors. People have always loved and given to PAWS, but now they feel like they give to an organization that will be here for the future. The new facility has done a lot for donor confidence.
Linda: Conversely, is there a potential you might lose donors that would prefer to work with smaller, grassroots organizations?
John: 2008, 2009, and 2010 were tough years for every non-profit, and we are now seeing our donor base starting to grow again. There are probably people who only want to focus on the very small non-profits, but we are attracting more donors who are investing in PAWS in hopes that we grow.
Linda: What would you share with other non-profits that might consider purchasing and renovating a building?
John: It all goes back to planning; for a lot of non-profits, it might not make sense to own your own building. It really depends on the direct services you provide. For PAWS, it made perfect sense, because we needed a huge food bank center, and we have people bringing their pets on site. My advice, once you get behind the cause, is to hold on. The process may start slowly but then moves quickly, and you have to adjust your expectations along the way. Once we were in the process of acquiring a building, it took us six months of going back and forth with the previous owners to close the deal.
Linda: Is there anything about the construction you would have done differently?
John: I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. The key is to have the right project team in place in order to have a good relationship and be able to talk honestly about limits and expectations. PAWS, our architectural team, and our general contractor, Jim Moore, all worked together so effectively. We didn’t have the luxury of solving problems with money, so we had to be creative in responding to the many unknowns and variables that arose during the project. We were fortunate to have Sidemark and Teknion donate furniture for our workspace, too. It’s about an open dialogue and not worrying about who gets credit – that’s what I learned to make this happen.
John: In hindsight, we were probably a little short on the amount of planning required. We could have spent a half-day to meet and throw everything on the table. But at the same time, you have to be flexible with a plan once you have it down. Planning is important to get all parties on the same page, but you can’t get so wedded to it that you can’t move from it.
Linda: As you move on from PAWS, what do you hope for the organization as it approaches its 25th year?
John: I truly believe in transition being healthy for organizations. It’s good to bring in new people, energy, and ideas. With the new building, its amazing staff, and vast volunteer pool, I feel this could not be a better time for PAWS. Looking forward, there are many opportunities, and the hardest thing will be to figure out where to go from here to further promote our mission. Being at PAWS has been a very special period in my life and a rare opportunity. I’m excited to continue my part as both a donor and volunteer.
Linda: How has PAWS planned for expanding nationally in the future?
John: We really believe the PAWS model is so important, and we have talked about having PAWS or a similar organization in every major community in our country. To that end, we’ve put together a very comprehensive start-up kit. We can now give prospective groups ideas on how to start, the forms and documents to use, and even technical assistance. Two and half years ago, we worked with Partners United for People and Pets inNew Yorkand helped them rethink their operations. The result became PAWSNew York. We have different governances but provide similar services and share resources. I’d love to see PAWS branches throughout the country with the same identity. Our challenge has been that there are many organizations named PAWS, but they are not affiliated with us. From a fundraising perspective, there is more potential for corporate sponsorship being in a national marketplace.
Linda: Do you have any last thoughts you would like to share?
John: For this new facility, we started the process six years ago with a visioning exercise. Do you remember we envisioned what the perfect space would look like? When I compare those early ideas and renderings created when we did not have a building in mind to the final space now, the similarities are uncanny. I would like to express how much I really appreciated everything the project team at Huntsman did for PAWS. In the scheme of building projects, we know this was smaller and probably a challenge due to limited resources. However, we were treated with so much respect and felt like the most important client to your team. The working relationship was more than just a business relationship, and it’s really about working with great, compassionate people. ◙
John Lipp is now the Executive Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and has authored The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Recruiting and Managing Volunteers.