Animal welfare professionals are in the business of helping living beings thrive. Every day we interact with animals from different backgrounds with varying needs and we work to make them feel healthy, safe, and happy. As an industry, we create best practices in shelter medicine, design, and management that take into account both the physical and emotional needs of the animal. We are acutely aware of the impact that a change in environment has on the animals we serve and we take steps to decrease their stress and increase their feelings of comfort and safety. We talk to adopters about attending to not only the physical needs of their new pet, but their emotional needs as well.

We do all this because we care deeply and also because it works. We’ve experienced the cat picked up as a stray who acts more like a raccoon than a housecat until they have time to settle in, to get care, and to have positive human interactions. We’ve met the scared dog shaking in the corner of his kennel on day one, only to be seen days later bounding happily through the play yard because of staff members’ work to help him feel safe and confident.  

Living beings thrive in environments where their needs are being met. Animal welfare professionals know this deeply – our daily work reflects our current knowledge of how to best attend to needs that help pets thrive.

So in an industry where these things are top of mind, it’s perplexing to see some organizations spend so much time attending to the wellbeing of their animals and so little time attending to the wellbeing of their staff. This is something that has always stood out to me, so when I stepped in to lead Brother Wolf in 2019, the wellbeing of the animals and the people who care for them was top of mind.

In 2019, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue’s new leadership team was tasked with turning the organization around. There was a million dollar funding gap, a failed capital campaign, mission creep, a shelter operating far outside of best practices, and a mostly unhappy and frustrated workforce. Brother Wolf’s leadership team had to take immediate steps to stabilize the organization and we understood that addressing the wellbeing of our staff was going to be key every step along the way. We each had experienced working at organizations whose policies and practices did not help staff thrive and we wanted to do it differently.

Our first goals with staff: listen to their feedback, give them the tools they need to do their jobs, be transparent with them, and honor their days off. This all needed to be achieved within an environment that, at that time, was full of chaos and mistrust…and we had to lay off more than half of our staff members due to necessary budget and programmatic cuts.

Three and a half years later, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue participated in UNC-Charlotte’s Shelter Employee Engagement & Development Survey (SeeDs) and scored in the top 1% of results in North America within the last 20 years. 

SeeDS includes 55 items that evaluate a wide range of organization aspects on key issues related to organizational health and well-being (peer support, engagement, euthanasia practices, communication effectiveness, stress and burnout, employee morale, supervision and leadership, job stress, teamwork, pay and benefits, interpersonal climate, standard operating procedures, volunteer perceptions, job satisfaction, training, etc.). Of the 52 categories that have research established industry norms, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue scored stronger than those norms in 46 categories.

We know that in order for our programs to make the greatest impact, they need to be fueled by staff members who are thriving, resilient, and equipped with the support and tools necessary to remain in this important work long term. Creating safety, care, and joy for living beings works to bring out their best selves, whether they are two- or four-legged.

Today, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue strives to approach management of people with the same patience, compassion, openness, and empathy that we show the animals in our care. We believe that kindness can and should be woven into everything our organization does, for people and animals.

Without a concrete roadmap to follow for creating a workplace where employees and programs thrive (and with limited resources available to do so) our team had to get creative. Below are some of the practices we follow that we believe helped us achieve the results we experienced from the SeeDS survey:

  • Our core values of adaptability, accountability, caring and collaboration are woven into all we do and are part of regular discussions, including interviews and staff reviews.
  • We send welcome emails to all staff members during each new employee’s first week that includes their photo and some fun information about them for conversation starters so that existing employees can be sure to make the new employee feel welcomed. Each new employee’s start date is put on everyone’s calendar and they receive a campus tour.
  • Our executive director meets with new employees within their first 90 days to discuss the history of animal welfare, what the landscape looks like for animals in our state, why Brother Wolf chooses to run our programs the way we do, our organization’s values, our business model, how we prioritize mental health in highly emotional work, the role that everyone plays in making the organization successful, etc.
  • We take employee feedback seriously and many changes within the organization have taken place due to employee feedback. One of the most impactful ways we’ve learned to get valuable employee feedback is through stay interviews, which we conduct annually with each staff member.
  • Management is expected to model work-life balance, boundaries, positivity, high levels of customer service, transparency, care, cross-department communication, and continuous improvement. 
  • Managers routinely send emails to all staff members expressing joy and gratitude about things that have taken place or been achieved – such as happy adoption updates that are received from adopters or nice messages from donors.
  • Staff is kept up-to-date about changes within the organization that may impact them. A monthly staff newsletter is distributed by email that includes kudos, administrative updates, upcoming training information, open staff positions and more. 
  • On each staff member’s work anniversary they receive an email with anonymous, positive feedback from other staff members. We routinely hear that it’s one of the most touching emails staff have ever received.
  • We host opportunities for staff to get together for fun and connection outside of work.
  • We hold quarterly team support sessions with a licensed therapist. The theme for 2023 is nonviolent communication and 2022’s was resilience and psychological safety. We also have an employee assistance program that provides free counseling, job coaching sessions and other resources that can help employees in their daily lives.
  • Growing staff members’ skill sets is a priority and we often promote from within.
  • Thorough exit interviews are conducted and shared with leadership.
  • Rates of pay and benefits are continually addressed at the board level and board members are supportive of using resources to bolster staff satisfaction, engagement, education and retention because they understand that investing in our people is investing in the organization.

Many of Brother Wolf’s leadership team members have worked in animal welfare for years and have experienced being bled dry and replaced. We’ve also seen really great people leave animal welfare forever because of the way they were treated. The animals need smart, compassionate, hard working people on their side because our programs are only as good as the staff who run them. So every day we work to create a place where all living beings thrive.

This work has led to bolstered results in every area of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue’s operations: staff turnover has been cut in half, the number of donors giving $1,000+ gifts has increased by over 350% and the number of total donors giving to the organization has increased by 70%, daily operations are now in line with animal welfare best practices, our reputation as a good employer brings strong candidates our way, and volunteers and adopters have overwhelmingly positive feedback about their interactions with the organization.

SeeDS recently added a new question to their survey to indicate how much of a helping culture there is within the studied organization. Ninety-six percent of Brother Wolf staff members indicated that people in this organization help each other. You can’t fake that, and that feeling of care, comradery and in-it-together nature positively permeates into what we experience as staff members each day. Animal welfare is always going to be a challenging field to work in. By caring for each other, we can do this work better and we can stay in it longer, and that’s what the animals need from us.

Leah Craig Chumbley

Executive Director, Brother Wolf Animal Rescue

A shorter version of this article was published by The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement in August 2023, you can read that here.