Nothing to hide: The benefits of transparency

By Julie Castle

What animal agency couldn’t use a great public image and more volunteers, adopters, foster caregivers and other supporters? There’s one far-from-secret key to getting all those things: transparency.

Before you roll your eyes and say, “We already share our data,” or maybe “We can’t share our data because then they really wouldn’t support us,” I’d like to explain something about transparency.

What do we mean by transparency?

It’s true no organization can be transparent if they don’t share their data, but data is only a tiny piece of a culture that values openness, honesty and engagement. Still, it’s a big obstacle for a lot of shelters, so let’s start there.

The numbers (how many animals a shelter takes in, houses, provides care to, returns to their family or habitat, or finds adoptive homes for) are essential to understanding how that organization is spending taxpayer or donor dollars. There’s no glossy annual report that can replace a simple accounting of the number of animals cared for and saved. It’s the bottom-line measure of performance and return on investment (ROI).

Why transparency is important

Without internal reporting of those numbers, the shelter can’t improve performance, plan for the future, or make its case to donors, funders, legislators or taxpayers. You’ll be unable to set a goal or know when you’ve reached it.

In even simpler terms, if you don’t know where you are, you have no way to figure out how to get somewhere else. You won’t know how to deploy your available resources, or even what resources you’ll need, to make the trip. You’ll lack the ability to even know if you arrived at your destination or ended up somewhere else entirely.

Without external reporting of those numbers, the consequences are equally dire. The reason can be expressed in a single word: trust.

OK, now you’re really rolling your eyes, because many organizations are criticized for their numbers. If yours don’t meet the expectations of your community, you might figure that publishing them will only trigger attacks and a reduction of public support.

And it’s true that when an organization that has previously not shared its data starts publishing it, criticism can follow. But, news flash! If you are not sharing your data, the public already believes the worst of the rumors about your operation, and opening your records is nothing more than ripping off the Band-Aid to let the wound underneath get some air. It hurts, but as long as you genuinely embrace a culture of ongoing transparency, and share your plan for increased lifesaving, that pain will last only a very short time and the gain will far outweigh the pain.

That’s because transparency is so much more than reporting your numbers. It’s opening up to your community, and sharing your goals, successes and failures with them. It’s starting to trust them more, to invite them into your organization to see how you operate and where you could use some help.

It’s about treating your volunteers and foster caregivers as trusted partners rather than nuisances. It’s about welcoming your adopters and treating them with respect and dignity. It’s about jettisoning outdated policies and programs, and replacing them with those based on principles of transparency, accountability and trust.

One of the most critical areas in which a shelter needs to adopt transparency and accountability is in setting and achieving goals. A glance at most animal welfare organizations’ mission statements will reveal saving animals’ lives as a top goal. Does their data back that up, though?

It’s a matter of trust

Look at it this way: If you were a donor or a taxpayer, would you feel comfortable supporting a shelter that claimed to want to save lives but instead spent their resources on initiatives that made them look good or raised money but didn’t increase their animal lifesaving? Could you trust that organization?

Animal shelters cannot succeed without trust. When people trust an organization, they’ll be far more open to donating to support its programs. They’ll follow it on social media, remember it in their wills, suggest it for employer matching donation programs, and volunteer for everything from dog walking to photographing its pets to grant writing.

When a shelter builds a wall around its operations, fails to maintain consistency between its stated goals and real actions, hides or fudges its numbers, and treats its volunteers, adopters and community with suspicion, the shelter is inviting apathy at best and a pitched battle at worst.

So, our advice to every shelter in the country is to open the doors and windows, and let the community in. After all, you need them to adopt your pets, fund your operations and tell your story on social media. Don’t they deserve your openness and trust?

If we’ve learned one thing over the years, it is that the public is the solution, not the problem, when it comes to killing in shelters.

Together, we will Save Them All.

Julie Castle


Best Friends Animal Society