The following is a conversation between Dr. Robin Ganzert, President and CEO of American Humane, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: American Humane was founded in 1877, committed to ensuring the safety, welfare, and well-being of animals, but only a decade ago, there was a real question whether the organization was going to survive. In an instructive and enlightening new book, their CEO shares a story of how the organization was brought back from the brink to become one of the top-rated charities in America. She is Dr. Robin Ganzert, the president and CEO of American Humane, and author of Mission Metamorphosis: Leadership for a Humane World.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Robin!
Robin: Thank you, Denver. Thanks so much!
Denver: American Humane was the First to Serve™ in promoting and nurturing the bond between animals and humans. Share with us some of the history of the organization.
Robin: Well, Denver, a lot of people, when they think about humane organizations, they’re really thinking about American Humane. We were founded way back in 1877, and we’re our country’s very first national humane organization. I’m really proud of that. And every single major advancement that we take for granted today for the protection of animals was actually promulgated by American Humane.
Everyone already knows us through our No Animals Were Harmed® Hollywood program that’s about 85 years old. Our rescue program is well over 100 years old. Our farm program was the very first in our country. Our conservation program was the first of its kind in the entire world. So many firsts, but the bottom line is American Humane has been here for well over 144 years, and I’m working hard to make sure it’s going to be here for the next hundred.
Denver: Well, it’s good for all of us. Let’s talk about a couple of those programs, starting with your rescue program. You guys are on the frontlines in time of crisis. Share with us, Robin, some of that work.
Robin: Yes. So, you think about the fires and the floods, and all of the horrific disasters that occur due to Mother Nature, and you think about families being separated from their best friends. Our rescue program goes into communities that have been devastated — by fires and floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes — and we rescue and reunite our four-legged best friends who are our family members.
You know, Denver, this program got its start way back in World War I. It was American Humane was called overseas to go and take care of the cavalry horses, the work horses, the mules that actually served in trench warfare. We don’t even really think about it today because we can’t imagine war using horses. It just is so foreign to us. And this was the last time cavalry was used, was in World War I.
American Humane was actually asked to go overseas and serve, before US boys went overseas, back in 1915 by the US Secretary of War, which now serves as our Secretary of Defense; that’s the same position a hundred plus years later. So, we’ve worked alongside the military for well over 100 years, now taking care of military animals in a different way, but it started on the battlefields of World War I.
It was actually the Secretary of War who created the name of our program, Denver, which is so very cool. He said, “You’re going to be the American Red Cross for animal rescue.” How cool is that? So, it’s called Red Star Rescue, and we thought that was wonderful. So, the old animal ambulances we had back in that time had the red star on it. It was very, very special. We still have some of those special flags that went on the battlefields in our archives. If you come to our Washington, D.C. office, you’ll see one of the flags framed. It’s a really special time in history. We cared for 68,000 warhorses a month, well over a million before we deployed back home.
Denver: Such an interesting piece of history. And when I’m allowed to go outside again, I’m coming down there to see that.
Robin: Yes. When we’re all allowed. I want to go back to my D.C. office again, too. And I love it there.
Denver: You mentioned farms, and the vast majority of Americans are concerned about the welfare of animals in US agriculture. How do you assure that this is being done humanely, Robin?
Robin: I love this question, Denver, because I, too, when I came to American Humane a decade ago, I, too, shared those concerns: How are animals in food production treated humanely?
It was actually in the year 2000 that American Humane developed the very first independent, third-party welfare standards for farm animals. It was actually created with Dr. Temple Grandin, who’s a legend in the space, and many other agricultural scientists– those who actually know the best about the welfare of animals on farms and ranches; and ethicists, which is very important. So, they developed for American Humane independent third-party audit standards, and today, we audit well over 15,000 farms and ranches. This program has grown dramatically. A decade ago, we audited about 50 million. Today, it’s close to almost one billion animals on US farms and ranches.
And what I love about that is you can go to the grocery store today, and you can make a responsible and ethical choice if you care about animals, and you can look for our seal — the American Humane Certified™ seal. It’s on about 95% of the cage-free eggs in our country. If you had a Butterball Turkey for Thanksgiving, it’s certainly on that. Really proud of this program and the growth, and it does allow consumers, moms like me, to make that point-of-purchase decision that shows that I do care about animals in the world.
Denver: Good work! You know, then there is Humane Hollywood, and you’re helping ensure the safety and the humane treatment of our animal actors. I think a lot of listeners are probably familiar with that. Tell us a little bit more about it.
Robin: This program started way back in the day when animals were just treated like commodities. It was actually in 1939, that one of the best friends of American Humane, a gentleman by the name of Henry Fonda, he saw, in horror, a horse being charged off of a cliff to make the movie Jesse James. That horse broke its neck for the making of that movie. And he said, “That’s wrong. We have to call American Humane into Hollywood.”
It’s because of Henry Fonda that in 1940, we opened up our first Hollywood office. So when you think of the likes of Rin Tin Tin, Lassie, Benji, all these incredible animal stars that we grew up with– on Disney movies, all sorts of movies, well, frankly, they were all protected because of American Humane. So, 85-plus years on the set.
Denver: Let me pick up on Rin Tin Tin and Lassie, and that would be the American Hero Dog Awards. What’s that?
Robin: Yes, I’ve got my shirt on today! We celebrated the 10th anniversary of the Hero Dog Awards. You know, Denver, when I first started at American Humane, we recognized that we needed to celebrate the human/animal bond, particularly the bond with working dogs. There needs to be such education provided regarding the value of military working dogs, police dogs, therapy dogs, service dogs, guide dogs. We also have a category for emerging hero dogs. These are ordinary dogs who do extraordinary things. I have ordinary dogs, and their extraordinary thing is they just love me unconditionally, so I’m really lucky. But they are couch potatoes.
But these working dogs do so many amazing things that for 10 years now, we’ve been letting America nominate and vote, and Denver, this is actually like the Academy Awards for dogs. And so, we go to Hollywood every year. We have a red carpet full of paparazzi, lots of human celebrities. But the real celebrities are these incredible dogs and their handlers who share their stories of hope, healing, compassion, and love.
Denver: Paparazzi. You sound like you have a lot of fun with that one.
Robin: I love it!
And the story of Mission Metamorphosis is how American Humane found the heart again of what our mission is, and importantly, drove a culture of accountability and excellence towards a laser-focused mission.
Denver: Well, also when you came to American Humane about 10 years ago, you found some really serious financial circumstances. Tell us what you found when you arrived, Robin, about 10 years ago.
Robin: About 10 years ago, I found a non-profit that had struggled, really struggled with mission drift, bloated budgets, revenue that was not based in reality by any stretch of the imagination; huge, huge problems with culture; huge problems with what programs look like and how they can be held accountable — Are the programs really driving excellence to the mission? Unbelievable fault lines that we found. And sometimes, organizations that are a hundred-and-some years old have ghost supporters out there too, and people that supported programs that are no longer relevant, timely, timeless, et cetera. So, this was a chance for us to really make a huge difference.
First of all, we had to shore up that financial condition. We were bleeding after that 2008 recession, and particularly with some bad financial decisions that were made, programs that weren’t aligned to mission; we had to find our way. And the story of Mission Metamorphosis is how American Humane found the heart again of what our mission is, and importantly, drove a culture of accountability and excellence towards a laser-focused mission.
Denver: Let me pick up on a couple of those things. Let’s talk about your financial deficit. If you’re leading an organization that’s running a big financial deficit, what do you do? What are the first steps you take to get the ship righted?
Robin: Yes. So, Denver, firstly, for me, I come with an accounting and financial background. Five accounting and financial certifications, a BS in business, an MBA, and then I got a PhD in nonprofit finance. So I know numbers, so I was really lucky. So, when I talk to organizations that don’t know numbers, I say, “You have to find someone who can understand the numbers because you cannot be sustainable to that glorious mission that we all strive for in the social sector if we don’t understand the numbers, and really have a discipline around that.”
So, we really had to look at those deficits and make really hard decisions and program cuts. If the program wasn’t funded, if it wasn’t a marquee historic program that was timely and timeless, we had to make the hard decision to cut it. It’s not easy.
Denver: The mission. You said the mission had drifted some. How do you go about then, about really sharpening and defining that mission to go forward?
Robin: You know we brought in an external consultant, and I asked her a very simple question: What programs of ours make a unique difference? What programs of ours truly today are First to Serve™? And we identified four. Four. Out of 41 programs, four were key and critical in the Humane movement. So, we started paring it down, and that decision is extremely, extremely tough, but those were the right decisions we made. Now, we’re up to a program platform that’s robust and rigorous and leads in the world on the places that we do business in, and the protection of animals in certain lines. That’s really important.
Stay focused. Mission drift can absolutely kill you, particularly when resources are tight. And Denver, as we know, resources are always tight in the nonprofit sector. You never have enough money to build a more humane world. We have to do a lot more around that, and that’s my goal — is to be very efficient about every dollar that comes in.
…what makes American Humane so very special…is because we’re all about the healing power of the human/animal bond.
Denver: And you’re so right. When you chase the money, you get the organization in trouble because you get in places that you don’t and shouldn’t be, and are not going to be very good at, and the clarity is lost. Let’s talk a little bit about brand. How do you refresh a brand, Robin, that has been around since 1877? How do you dust that off?
Robin: Boy, you should’ve seen some of our logos, Denver. They were like, “Oh my Lord! That was clip art back in 1981. This is not good.” We brought in a group to work with our board and closely with our marketing and comms team, and we really, again, looked for a very sweet spot: Where are the other organizations in the humane space playing? But most importantly, what are we about?
And that allowed us to realize very clearly that what makes American Humane so special is the large hoof print/fin print that we do, and importantly, these incredible programs that have made such a difference around the world. So how could we laser-focus on those programs and build our brand? And that’s when I realized what makes American Humane so very special, and why I’m absolutely in love with this organization, is because we’re all about the healing power of the human/animal bond. Wow.
In today’s times, when I look at the pandemic and isolation and loneliness and the facing of such a horrible, scary situation that’s not only a public health crisis, but an economic crisis of unparalleled horror, I look at this and I think: What’s keeping me going, and what’s keeping a lot of the people that I know going is the power of the human/animal bond. And that’s what I’m just devoted my life to uplifting.
Denver: Hard to beat that mission, that’s for sure. And boy, I feel sorry for a lot of these dogs when people go back to work, because I know a couple of friends, they’re being spoiled. They’re getting their four walks a day and treats when they want.
Robin: I know! I know. Now, I’m not sure how many of us are going to go back and work the same way.
Denver: Yes, it’s going to be interesting to see.
Robin: We might be using “Fido” as the excuse. “Fido can’t do without us.” So, I’ll just tell you, as soon as the pandemic happened, we encouraged the adoption of a pandemic pet. It was like we’ve recalibrated within a week and got that campaign launched, and that really helped to empty out a lot of the animal shelters because we recognize that they need…
Denver: Unbelievably. Yes. For sure. So how did you jumpstart your fundraising? I know how hard it is to raise money for an organization that’s running into a deficit. People hate to fund it. And any potential donor is going to take a look at those financials and say, “Not for me.” So, what did you do to get that on track?
Robin: This is really the key. You have to build relationships with people. Fundraising isn’t a black box; it’s just not. It’s about relationships, trust, and about having an incredibly strong value proposition, with accountability and excellence. You know, I had inherited an organization that’s major gift was — sit down for this one — $250. That was considered a major gift. I just about had a heart attack. I’ve raised money my whole life. I’ve been responsible for large philanthropic assets. I think I’ve raised, by that particular point in time, like $300 million to $400 million in my career before I took over American Humane.
Denver: That’s a lot of $250 gifts to do that.
Robin: Yes. They were definitely not at that $250 range. But I was like, “Oh my goodness gracious! What’s going on?”
And I had an angel. I had a couple of angels, Denver. One was my board chair, John Payne, who’s a leader in the animal space. And when he said, “Robin, I’m going to be your board chair, and I’m going to back you and your leadership and your transformation of American Humane,” that told the industry, “We’re behind this. We’re betting on this humane leader and this group to make such a difference.”
And then secondly was a wonderful woman by the name of Lois Pope, one of the world’s big philanthropists. She’s larger than life. And a great lesson for those fundraisers listening today — Lois’ team called the 1-800 number to meet me. She had seen a photo of me in the paper. Always important to get your CEO in the paper for a good pounce of news. She saw the photo, she said, “I want to get to know that woman. She looks interesting.” She picked up the phone and called the 1-800 line. You have to have somebody answering that 1-800 line. Just a few months later, she gave me a significant seven-figure gift, and she’s been a wonderful donor ever since. You need angel investors, and you definitely need a strong board leadership, particularly a board chair.
Denver: That’s a transformational gift. That’s for sure. You’ve also said fundraising is a team sport. And we all understand that to a degree, but it’s not that easy to do inside an organization when you have very specific silos, and many people within the organization ain’t crazy about fundraising. How did you orchestrate and manage that?
Robin: I do, and I think we all know fundraising is a team sport and when it works well, everybody has a great energy about it. Everybody’s proud of their work. We now have our rescue team that understands “Rescue inspires our donors.” Our rescuers on the frontlines of hurricanes and tornadoes and fires and floods — they are humane angels out there doing this work. And occasionally, a donor wants to experience that.
So, it was so wonderful when the rescue team opened up and realized that “We’re going to bring in a donor or two to see exactly what you do. And by the way, I know that they’re going to want to get involved, so you better let them walk a dog. And best of all, you better train them to be safe and secure when they’re deploying in a horrible time.”
So, we caught the spirit, and it was all about… by the way, I hope our country can come together like this because at American Humane, we realize we were facing dire times; we were all in the same boat, and I didn’t want it to be the Titanic. So everyone had just gotten on board and they said, “You know what? We love this organization and we love what we do. We’re going to open our doors to donors and be completely transparent.” And that was game-changing, Denver. Absolutely game-changing.
Denver: It was that way. And I love another one of your mantras, Robin, and that is: “Bring in revenue every single day.” How does that impact an organization?
Robin: This was a gift from my dad. So, when I took over this organization, I was like, “Argh!” It was overwhelming what had to be done, and in a short time because we were bleeding left and right. And my dad said, “Robin, it’s very simple. What revenue are you bringing in every day? Think about revenue every single day. And if you do, that’ll drive your energy and your actions to fixing the problem. You have a huge revenue problem. Stay focused on the revenue, and then everything else will come.”
And my father was right, and he’s still today. He read the book. He loves the book. And I said, “Dad, it’s because of you and your revenue mantra.” So, he’s mighty proud. Rob Roy in Charleston, South Carolina is mighty proud today.
…this organization was too special to let it die on the vine. And you have to have a leadership who absolutely are true believers. And if they’re not, they shouldn’t be in a nonprofit organization.
Denver: Well, there you go. I guess it’s true that “father does know best” like that show. But that is such good advice because sometimes we get too caught up in our grandiose plans. But when you have to look at the end of every single day about how much money you brought in, that’s what really drives the train; and it does change your actions and your behavior in a lot of ways.
You said when you came in, you were so overwhelmed. So, the question I have for you, Robin, is: Is it better to tackle these problems sequentially so you can really focus? Or do you really need to do it all concurrently?
Robin: I was left with such a situation that there wasn’t a lot of sequential thought to it. There was always what I call the whack-a-mole, the whack-a-mole problems, problems that had been kicked down from prior generations, everything you could possibly imagine. So, we weren’t left with much breathing time.
And to be honest with you, too, Denver, when someone’s taking over the helm of an organization that needs a really true, huge transformation, you have to look inside yourself: Are you able to spend the kind of time — and it could be seven days a week for a year or two — and do you believe in it enough to where you’re going to stand up and make those tough decisions and stand behind them?
And I think that was what the situation was. It was a seven-day-a-week job, and I’m really glad I did it, devoted that time. The family understood it was a seven-day-a-week job because this organization was too special to let it die on the vine. And you have to have a leadership who absolutely are true believers. And if they’re not, they shouldn’t be in a nonprofit organization.
I think that it takes a lot of moral courage to make the decisions that you need to make… It takes a tremendous leadership team and devotion to finding the right people in the team that align with your core values.
Denver: Speak a little bit more about transformative leadership. It gets kicked around pretty indiscriminately. People talk about it. What is your philosophy about leadership and particularly, transformational leadership?
Robin: I think that it takes a lot of moral courage to make the decisions that you need to make. What I did at American Humane was work with an incredible leader team, where we all understood a group of guiding principles and core values. And the core values were that we were going to handle things with — all of our issues — with respect, with kindness, with compassion, with dedication to mission; that loyalty to the mission was key too; and also that huge lens on the financial implications of those.
Once we had a group of guiding principles and had an incredibly well-heeled and well-talented executive team, then I wasn’t in it alone. I could have a beautiful team to work with, of incredible colleagues, many of whom are with me today. And I’m so proud of that. What does that say? Been at it 10 years, and we’re having more fun today than we ever could possibly imagine. So it does take moral courage. It takes a tremendous leadership team, and devotion to finding the right people in the team that align with your core values.
And then, it takes a positive attitude. I never thought we would fail. I knew we wouldn’t fail. I knew if we said: this is going to be a winner, including the Hero Dog Awards…our very first year, I just knew we were going to prevail because the mission is too needed; it’s too noble. It has such a historic platform. It’s too loved, and we were going to make the right decisions to deliver that institution in this new era.
Denver: Optimism is such an important characteristic of a leader, particularly well-grounded optimism, not just pie-in-the-sky optimism, but it really does make a difference.
Well, a corollary of that leadership team is that you remade the corporate culture, the workplace culture at American Humane. Now, I know so many people who all want to go about doing that within their organization, but they don’t know how. What advice could you share with them?
Robin: First of all, you have to be patient. I remember the first town hall I went to, people were so negative. Everybody was like this “Grrr” and then I’m thinking, “Oh my! I guess if I had these financials, I’d feel that way too,” and then defensive with the new leader. I brought everybody cookies the first day. So, I’m human. We’re all human. Let’s build a family culture.
Importantly too, is look at your facilities; of course, this is in post-pandemic time. What does your facility say, if you’re in bricks-and-mortar, about your culture? We had walls everywhere. We had walls. We had divisions. There was no natural gathering spot. There was no opportunity for people to build those bonds. And I think that really hurt the institution. So, look at your physical spot. I sold that within nine months of being on the job. Sold that building — best decision I ever made — and created a cultural heartbeat out of our office in D.C., which now goes to Florida and to Los Angeles.
Denver: That’s good advice. People sometimes don’t think about their environment. I was reading something the other day that we think it’s our character that really determines things, and maybe our environment plays a little bit of a role, but research shows that 70% is the environment. So by creating the right environment, you can get outcomes that you’re seeking in a much easier way than trying to go up the river and trying to create a cohesive team when you just don’t have a space that lends itself to it.
Robin: And Denver, speaking of like the character side of this too, and I want to share this with you. As soon as the lockdown occurred, we knew right away that we had to keep the culture going because we built such a wonderful culture pre-pandemic — How could we keep it going?
And what we decided to do was to allow… of course, everything went virtual right away, but we also created water cooler chats every week for people to have a virtual water cooler chat. We created the various Zoom toast. I sent a card, a personal card to every employee just thanking them for their efforts, gave everyone an opportunity to go into professional development…I found a piece of the budget I could reallocate. I said, “Use your downtime to build your skills, to make the world better for animals; so here’s a list of courses. Please go and learn more so we can be our very best in a post-pandemic world.”
So we really invested in our people because you’re only as good as your people, and I have the best team in the world at American Humane. I love them all dearly.
Denver: What do you think you’re going to keep from this virtual world when we get back to normal? Because there’s some real benefits to come from this that have forced us to do certain things that we otherwise might not. Do you think there are going to be elements of your culture that will be amplified by what we’ve been through for the last… almost a year now… nine months?
Robin: When you do have multiple offices around the country, you miss that face-to-face time. We’re going to be continuing to Zoom. So our people in L.A., our people in Colorado, our people in Texas, our people in the United Kingdom, they can all still see each other face-to-face and build those bridges. We will still keep a Zoom water cooler chat. We’re going to keep some of these incredible values and lessons learned.
But most of all, I’m going to keep pushing that one-on-one contact. I had a coffee chat with every single employee at American Humane during the pandemic. I said, “Just schedule it. I’m going to have a cup of coffee with you during the pandemic.” And I’m going to continue that because it allows me to get to know these incredible folks who are really making the world better every day for animals… got to know them personally and their children and their dogs.
Denver: Oh, absolutely! No, you’re inside their homes. Really, there is a bond and an intimacy. But that’s a great takeaway to take from this very difficult time.
Let me close with this, Robin. You talk about looking ahead and preparing for the future. That’s a big, important thing. I sometimes find that people have a hard time doing that. When they prepare for the future, they take what’s happening today and they extrapolate. They just say, “This is what we’re doing. We want to do more of it. We want to do it better, but there’s a big piece of it where you have to put and immerse yourself into the future and the world that is going to be. How do you break that cord from our present, to really looking at the future, and then maybe working back from there?
Robin: What I did and what we did as an executive team at American Humane is we looked at: Where are our animals throughout the world who don’t have a voice? Where are they? And how can we apply what we know best to protect animals in a program that’s meaningful? That’s why I launched the conservation program we have, and I just released a brand-new documentary film featuring Helen Mirren as our narrator, Escape from Extinction. It’s just one of the best environmental films…
Denver: I saw. Congratulations!
Robin: Thank you. My very first documentary film. I’m so proud of it. But it talks about where we are not getting enough serious action and energy, and communities of collaboration for meaningful change. We created that.
We created the “new deal” that absolutely is a 10-point plan that we sent to 100 world leaders and every single governor, and of course, both President and President-elect in terms of their offices, and every single member of Congress. So, we are always looking forward because we know our population that we’re trying to serve has literally no voice. So what can we do to serve that group? And then how can we go about finding the funding and a meaningful program to make systemic change?
So with that, we’ve developed our strategic plan. We developed our new deal for a post-pandemic world, in the pandemic times. We’ve developed two new programs that as soon as the world opens, we’ll roll out, that are global in impact. I’m very excited about these two new programs. So, it’s all about looking forward, seeing who you’re not serving now, and how you can take those core values you have, those points of excellence, and put them forward to make sure that you’re always serving your mission.
Denver: Very smart. It’s a lot easier to raise that money when you have that vision, and so many people try to raise it without the vision. Let’s take this in two parts, starting with American Humane. If people want to learn more about the organization or help financially support it, tell us about your website and what they’re going to find on it.
Robin: You can visit americanhumane.org, of course. And you can learn about all of our program planks, and you can certainly follow us on all social channels as well. So americanhumane.org. And we would love to have any contributions, of course, so we can continue to be the voice of animals around the world.
Denver: And the name of the book is Mission Metamorphosis: Leadership for a Humane World. It really is. There it is. It’s two books in one. You can learn more about American Humane, but boy, you’ll really do pick up some invaluable advice on how to improve your organization.
I want to thank you Robin so much for being here today. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Robin: Thank you so much, Denver. Happy holidays to you!
Denver: To you as well.
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