A dog’s life – How leaders in the Animal Welfare Sector are addressing the challenges of COVID-19

A dog’s life – How leaders in the Animal Welfare Sector are addressing the challenges of COVID-19
Published: 11 June 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has had a monumentally damaging effect on the fundraising income of many not-for-profit organisations. The focus in the media so far has been predominantly centred around ensuring the survival of NHS charities and other Human-focused organisations but there is a sector which is in danger of being overlooked in this crisis - the Animal Welfare sector. In this article, Holli Gilley in Berwick Partners' Not for Profit practice speaks to Peter Laurie, Deputy CEO at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home and Honorary Secretary at the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes and Lisa Morris, CEO at The Greyhound Trust to find out how leaders in the sector are managing the crisis.

Recently, the RSCPA hit headlines when they launched their emergency appeal for donations to help them continue their important work in rescuing and caring for vulnerable and neglected animals. More locally, smaller independent animal sanctuaries were seen turning to social media to ask for dog and cat food donations due to supply chain shortages following the panic buying and stockpiling in the early days of the lockdown. Charities like the RSPCA depend almost entirely on public donations and fundraising from charity shops, public events and legacies, all of which are proving to be problematic sources of income in the current climate. Peter explained, “A lot of charity shops are run by volunteers, many of whom come under the vulnerable status, plus charities are often still paying rents on charity shops which aren’t trading. A lot of small to medium sized charities will really feel the pinch with loss of retail and loss of events.” Fortunately following recent government announcements, non-essential shops look set to reopen this month, but mass participation events are still banned for the foreseeable future. However, aside from the shops themselves, charities across the sector have been hit by a more challenging problem, the loss of the volunteer base they rely so heavily upon. After all, it’s all well and good reopening the shops as long as you have staff to run them but with the vast majority of volunteer bases consisting of retired individuals, a huge number of them fall into the ‘at risk’ category which means they are unlikely to return to their volunteering posts any time soon.

The impact of volunteer-led work

This problem has become greatly evident at the Greyhound Trust, whose volunteer base is primarily made up of individuals who have retired but wish to volunteer their time to a cause they care about, unfortunately however they also happen to be one of the first groups to have restrictions imposed on them when the pandemic hit. Lisa told me that, “Having a volunteer led branch network is a huge asset but it’s also our biggest risk because you don’t have the control that you do if they are paid members of staff. What we’re seeing is the real impact of having such a volunteer led network.” One such impact is the associated costs,  “the core cost of looking after a dog is not impacted by COVID-19, the cost is exactly the same and sometimes you could argue, even more expensive, because we have to do much more kennel enrichment as we’re not getting the volunteers through the door.” It’s difficult not to comment on the reactivity of public response to this crisis when over 750,000 people reportedly answered the call for NHS volunteers, most of which took months to approve due to an oversubscription. This is without a doubt a hugely positive upturn in charitable action; however, I can’t help but wonder whether this surplus of volunteers could be put to better use if they were to be shared across sector. It seems likely to me that if an emergency appeal for volunteers across the animal welfare sector was launched, it would be extremely successful in the current altruistic climate, but for now, it remains a challenge for the smaller to medium sized animal welfare charities.

As a larger charity, Battersea is less reliant on volunteers to deliver its core services and does not operate any high street charity shops but has taken the decision to furlough approximately 25-30% of its workforce. Peter noted, “What’s interesting is that on the furloughing scheme, you can’t volunteer for the organisation that furloughed you, but you can volunteer for a different organisation, so some of our furloughed operational staff are volunteering for other charities that have had to furlough staff too. In the charity world we are very collaborative, so if there’s a rescue in trouble, those that can support will. There’s a great camaraderie there which I think will get a lot of rescues through this.” This workforce exchange system seems to have been effective in the short-term and the developing alliances across the sector is a reassuring sign for the sustainability of these charities going forward.

Income uncertainty

Following the suspension of Greyhound Racing due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines, funding was withdrawn from The Greyhound Trust overnight.  Devastatingly, they were only 12 weeks away from their first ever centre being finished, a 60-kennel capacity, £1.6million build, they had been working towards for the past 4 years. Lisa told me “We were very much on our investing to grow path, we weren’t building up our reserves, we were saving for a planned capital expenditure to build the very first centre and it’s such a shame that just as that was coming to fruition, we were hit in such a way.” Peter explained that “the big challenge and probably the bigger headache in the medium term is the fundraising and the uncertainty around income.” Battersea is typical of most other animal charities in that an important part of their income comes from legacies and those legacies are dependent on the sale of property to liquidate the bequest. Peter tells me that “it doesn’t really matter how healthy your legacy pipeline is, if you can’t sell the properties, you can’t generally release the funds and the property market is essentially frozen right now so we’re not going to be able to realise the volume of legacy income we would have expected. That’s a challenge.” Fortunately, this problem is only temporary as the property market is beginning to move again so Battersea has called this period “more of a rephasing than a loss.” However, for the Greyhound Trust, the uncertainty surrounding their income remains and Lisa tells us frankly, “We don’t know whether we will survive this.”

Balancing the surge in demand

If their biggest challenge is not funding or the reduction of staff, it may still become apparent, as animal charities face the additional and somewhat unique challenge of a potential surge in demand for their services. The number of animals in their care is forecast to increase substantially. When asked about the recent reports of a huge surge in successful adoptions at Battersea, Peter told me, “We sensed the lockdown was coming so in the week beforehand, we had a massive push to get our animals out. In the week before lockdown we rehomed 155 animals, which is probably our best rehoming week for 10 years.” When comparing the figures from the same week last year, the numbers of animals finding their ‘forever home’ had more than doubled.

The hugely successful pre-lockdown adoption rate was a direct consequence of a seriously thorough business continuity plan, a pre-emptive emptying of their rescue centres was crucial for a number of reasons. Firstly, for the wellbeing of the animals as they feared being unable to rehome animals for the duration of the crisis; secondly, to reduce the number of staff needed to deliver the same exceptional standards of care and finally to make room for a sudden and increased demand for their services. Peter asked himself, “as more people get ill and more people sadly pass away or are made redundant and can no longer afford to look after their animals, are we going to be asked to take in a very large number of dogs and cats?” They are yet to see the expected increase in numbers of emergency intake demand but it’s still early days.

Sadly, the sudden rise in adoptions may create an even bigger problem for these charities in the long run. Year after year, following the Christmas festivities, animal shelters and rescue teams are inexplicably inundated by discarded, neglected and unwanted animals. The yearly phenomenon all but overwhelms the charities on the frontline, but now they are facing the biggest battle of all. With decreased funding and increased demand, it’s an impossible equation to be solved and could lead to casualties of an unknown scale. “What I hope of course is that when people go back to work, they don’t all come and give their animals back. I hope by then people will have fallen in love with their pets and will keep them but there’s always a slight risk that when people’s circumstances change, the pet returns to the rescue.” I can’t help but think we may need to coin a new version of the famous Dog’s Trust slogan – a dog is for life, not just for…coronavirus.

When speaking to Lisa, she shared Peter’s concerns, “A lot of the inquiries coming through are what we would consider risky homing inquiries because people haven’t really given it a second thought. What we’re worried about is even if we get a lot of dogs out, we still need to be able to manage whatever return rate we have – and we envisage the return rate would be much higher with people making these spontaneous decisions.” She went on to explain why, “A dog in lockdown is all well and good but when you get back to normal you are going to struggle with the separation anxiety that will probably happen with the animal that you’ve taken on. Greyhounds are much more likely to show separation anxiety than any other breed of dog because they’ve gone from a very insular life as a racing dog and a working dog, you then take them into a home environment, flood them with all the stuff they enjoy and the human contact - so taking that away again is quite a challenge.”

A focus on business continuity

I am struck by the depth of Battersea’s impressive business continuity planning in the run up to lockdown, as Peter tells me of their “worst case scenario” plan where they stocked up their three centres with camp beds, sleeping bags and food so if need be, they could have a skeleton team of staff living at each of their sites for 28 days to look after the dogs and cats if transport was disrupted or worse, suspended altogether. He told me “it’s tested everybody’s business continuity planning and I think charities will pay more attention to it in the future. At Battersea we’ve been looking quite closely at leanness as a matter of approach, about how to strip out waste and drive efficiencies. The challenge with a ‘lean’ approach is that it may not leave you as resilient to crises like these, so I think charities will be looking quite closely at their resilience, their reserves, their fundraising model and their business continuity planning. I think all businesses will be asking, are there ways of working now that are more compatible with a population that may have to maintain social distancing over a sustained period, and I expect there will be a greater reliance on digital customer journeys and experiences.”

At Battersea they have already begun the implementation of digital innovations to continue rehoming and combat the potential increase in demand they may face in the coming months. In his capacity as Honorary Secretary for the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes, Peter tells me, “we’ve produced some operational guidance for the sector – in how can you bring in, look after, and rehome animals within the framework of the government restrictions around social distancing and non-essential travel, and in the context of the government saying, where possible we want businesses to continue operating, but we have to do that in a responsible way that manages risk very carefully. We have now published that guidance to the sector, supported by DEFRA”. This new guidance for the sector has allowed rehoming to recommence, once again creating capacity. Their traditional rehoming model would include an online application, a visit to one of their centres, meeting the animals and hopefully taking one home. The new model would replace your visit with a video interview where they discuss your preferences and the sort of animal you’re looking for, and then introduce you to an animal they think might be suitable on a video call. If you are interested, they will now deliver that animal to your doorstep - if it’s a cat, they will leave the cat in a carrier on your doorstep and have a safe conversation with you from a distance, if it’s a dog, they might introduce you to your new dog in the garden and spend a bit of time there at a distance checking you are comfortable with the animal. Peter explains that although it is not necessarily more efficient as a business model, it is more customer orientated and therefore could be a service they continue to offer in the future, “there’s a saying isn’t there, don’t waste a crisis and if this crisis leads to all sorts of businesses, including charities, finding new ways of working that allow us to be more sustainable and more productive then we should of course embrace those.”

Short-term help for charities

I’m interested to find out what can be done in the short-term to help the charities that are struggling, and Peter tells me that “through the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes, we are talking to corporate and other grant givers about establishing an emergency grants fund. It will award an emergency cash injection for those charities that are running out of reserves.” So, is there government funding available for animal charities? “As of yet we haven’t received any government funding, but we are in discussions with DEFRA about the impact of the virus on the animal welfare sector and opportunities that may exist to access some Government support.”. However, Lisa is concerned that the government funded resilience loans have been designed in a way that aren’t going to help charities. She tells me that to qualify for a resilience loan, “50% of your income has to come from trading and for the standard charity operating model, there’s no way 50% of your income comes from trading.” This could prove to be a devastating obstacle for those charities who are quickly running out of reserves. 

The long-term impacts

In closing each conversation, I wanted to find out what long-term impacts Lisa and Peter envisaged for the charity sector, is there light at the end of the tunnel? Although Lisa felt strongly that if there was a need for a charity before COVID-19, the need would still be there once the crisis is over, she also expressed a concern that “the biggest risk for the charity sector is that they could end up losing very good people. I think you’ll start seeing people looking to move around the sector because they are looking for security, not because they have a sudden love for a certain cause.  They will be looking to see the organisations that are recruiting during this time, those that are in a financially stable position.” Regardless of passion or expertise, following a time of such uncertainty, it’s only natural that people will seek security above all else once the crisis is over, but could this be damaging to the sector in the long term? Peter however, felt that there was much potential and opportunity to be found in the wake of this crisis. As Battersea is busy successfully implementing their new rehoming model and welcoming new innovations and opportunities, Peter told me, “I think the sustainability of the sector is really going to be tested by this crisis and it may well sharpen people’s minds to the opportunity perhaps to enter into new partnerships and maybe even seek out merger opportunities. The economies of scale that would come from some of these charities coming together would be quite profound and maybe this crisis will be a jolt that will bring some of that about.” Historically, there has been less enthusiasm for merger and acquisition within the charity sector than what you would expect to find in the corporate world but perhaps that’s about to change to enable survival.

Only time will tell whether a long-term impact will be felt across the Not for Profit sector. Let’s hope that this crisis will not only provide catalyst for altruism that our society desperately needs but that it will also provide the building blocks for increased collaboration and camaraderie across the charity sector in the future. 

For more information, please contact Holli Gilley in Berwick Partners' Not for Profit practice.

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