Weezie was a bit older than 10 years old at the time, but still has the energy of a 6-year-old :)
The photo of us hiking together is from her last hike as part of the Brother Wolf Outward Hounds hiking program, as it was her adoption day. While she has slowed a bit, she still loves hiking and getting outside.
I am dedicated to raising awareness about adopting senior pets as they have often, like Weezie, been in family homes for many years, and adjusting to a shelter can be difficult. While they may come with unique needs, animal rescues and shelters can work with you to find the right match for you and your family, and a senior pet can be a wonderful companion - I know my senior pup has been a welcome addition to the family.
Leah speaks to how she has helped build communication channels and fostered feedback from all key stakeholders (17:42)
How Leah and the team have managed change while fostering their organizational culture (27:29)
Creating the line of sight from an individual’s role to the broader vision and strategy. Hear how diverse communication actions implemented as small steps help build a stronger communication process over time. (33:46)
Mapping your ecosystem - how does Brother Wolf partner with other organizations to amplify their shared mission of animal welfare. (41:29)
- To learn more about Brother Wolf Animal Rescue you can visit their website or follow them on Facebook or Instagram (@brotherwolfanimalrescue)
- You can keep the giving going and support the companion animals at Brother Wolf by donating items from their Chewy.com Wishlist
- Learn more about how TEAMES & CO builds effective and empowered teams that deliver results.
Want to learn more about communications. Check out our episode “How to Foster Culture and Accelerate Growth with Communication.”
Listen to Episode 19
Episode 19 Transcript
Tracy Eames (00:34):
Hi, everybody. Welcome to Building Teams with TEAMES & CO. Today, we're excited to welcome Leah Craig Fieser, the Executive Director of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue as our guest. Welcome Leah.
Leah Craig Fieser (00:45):
Thanks so much for having me.
Tracy Eames (00:46):
We are really excited. It's April. And April 30th is Adopt a Shelter Pet Day. So in honor of that, we wanted to invite you as our guest to be able to talk about the wonderful work that volunteers and staff members around the country do to adopt out shelter pets. So thank you for joining us for this special episode.
Leah Craig Fieser (01:07):
Absolutely. It's my favorite topic.
Tracy Eames (01:09):
We will let the listeners know that we had a very special requirement for this podcast, which is I actually had the pleasure of adopting my pet from Brother Wolf. So we have a special connection and really excited to kind of learn more about the organization, learn more about your team, and also the work that you do with other shelters.
Leah Craig Fieser (01:30):
Tracy Eames (01:31):
So maybe we could kick off that way. Maybe you could just tell us and our listeners a little bit about Brother Wolf, about your role at Brother Wolf as the Executive Director, and we'll get started.
Leah Craig Fieser (01:41):
Yeah, thanks so much. So Brother Wolf has been around since 2007, and our mission is to better the lives of companion animals and the people who love them. We care so much about that human animal bond. I think many of us who have pets in our lives, or have at one time or another, really understand how much joy and laughter, companionship and comfort they can add to our lives. And we see the beauty of that on both sides. We see how happy it makes that pet to be a part of that family and to have this wonderful existence of toys, and treats, and companionship on their end. And this is really what becomes this vibrant lifestyle between the pet and their family. You find yourself doing things that you might not otherwise. I know a lot of people during COVID were so happy that they had their pets with them at home, had someone in their home to spend time with, and that also gets them out of their home to walk around their neighborhood. Maybe you meet other people that have pets.
Leah Craig Fieser (02:48):
It's just this really wonderful ripple effect that happens. And we care so deeply about that connection, we want the pet to have the best life possible. And we know that humans are just as an important piece in that. So for us, we're really trying to serve our community to bring this joy and this love, and this companionship into the homes of people in our community, and to place these animals into homes that are going to give that love right back to them.
Leah Craig Fieser (03:18):
So it's a wonderful field to be in. I always knew I wanted to go into animal welfare. And every day is different. You never know what's going to come through your door. It's a challenging field to be in. And there's so many amazing heartwarming stories. It's just really the best thing in the world.
Tracy Eames (03:41):
That's wonderful to hear, and I can definitely resonate with that. It's lovely to have your pet, especially during such a challenging year. But also, just really, really wonderful to hear all of the other heartwarming stories in terms of people adopting pets and caring for those pets. And maybe you could tell us a little bit about the programs that you have at Brother Wolf. It looks like from your website; you have a pretty extensive kind of set of services that you use to kind of fulfill your mission.
Leah Craig Fieser (04:10):
Absolutely. So just to kind of give you the landscape of what we're working in in North Carolina, it might be surprising, but North Carolina is the third worst state in the entire country for the euthanizing shelter animals. So that means that more shelter animals sadly are dying in North Carolina than almost any other state in our country. So Brother Wolf is vital to helping these animals.
Leah Craig Fieser (04:36):
One of the main things we do is we partner with other shelters. Because there are so many shelters that are just over capacity all the time, and they get to the point where they're having to make really hard decisions because you have all of your kennels full, and people keep bringing more animals to you. So, what we do is we go to these shelters that have lower foot traffic than we do, that have traditionally a lower population in their community, meaning less adoptable homes are just there, and we talk to these shelters and see how we can help them. And most of the time, that looks like getting animals out, because they need to make more room for the animals that are continuing to come in.
Leah Craig Fieser (05:23):
So we take animals from shelters within Western North Carolina, some degree to Western Tennessee and Northern South Carolina. We work right now in about a two-and-a-half-hour radius for helping animals and bringing them here. And it's so incredible. We just actually this week, we went to a shelter partner. We got a van load of dogs. They were completely full. It's so stressful for those people who are working at this small, rural shelter. And they're so overburdened by the number of coming in the door. They're so thankful for us to be able to help them. And then we get to turn around and tell them amazing things. Like literally, we unloaded that van of dogs, and one of the dogs went home within 15 minutes because someone saw that dog get unloaded from the van and walked into the Brother Wolf adoption center and was like, "I want to meet that dog." And it was a great connection! The dog obviously really enjoyed them, and they connected with the dog right away.
Leah Craig Fieser (06:27):
And this is a dog that had been sitting in a shelter for weeks. It's just about here, we have the luxury of adopters flooding in, and we're so glad to live in a community where people champion adoption. They really want to adopt an animal. So we are connecting the dots, and by doing so, we're saving lives.
Leah Craig Fieser (06:50):
At Brother Wolf, we never euthanize an animal because of lack of space or because they've been here for too long. We're always really addressing the individual animal's need. We do lots and lots of medical care for these animals. Animals come to us in all kinds of conditions. So we take each animal as an individual case and meet their specific needs and of course, our end goal is always getting them into an adoptive home.
Leah Craig Fieser (07:16):
And while that work is so important and it's something we do every single day, at the same time, we need to be aware of working on the other side of that issue, right? So there's animals flooding into the shelter system and we need to help them once they're in that shelter system, but we need to stop the flood of the animals into the shelter system in the first place.
Leah Craig Fieser (07:40):
Another critical component of what Brother Wolf does is affordable spay and neuter. We have a mobile unit that travels to traditionally rural counties and also our county in Asheville, North Carolina here, and we offer affordable spay and neuter services because spay and neuter is one of the most impactful way to decrease the number of animals that are going into your shelter system. So, if animals are having less unwanted litters, then those unwanted litters aren't ending up in your shelter and causing that shelter to be overburdened, and it's kind of just the cycle continues. We want to work on both sides of the issue. We want to help fix the problem of shelters being overburdened and crowded in the first place and having to make decisions based on space. We never want that to happen. We never want an animal to lose their life only because they were in the wrong spot at the wrong time and we want to take those animals and bring them here where we can get them into great homes. And we also want to make sure that we're helping the community solve the problem at the component of spay and neuter from the first point.
Tracy Eames (08:52):
Now to do that, I imagine you have a pretty maybe not big team internally, but a lot of team members within your staff. And then also, volunteers. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how do you lead an organization that has both an internal team and then a lot of volunteers who are ready and willing to help support these companion animals as well.
Leah Craig Fieser (09:15):
Yeah. Last year, we impacted over 9,000 animals, and we have a team of about 30 people, so it's a lot of things to do. The people who work at Brother Wolf are extremely passionate, obviously very hardworking and a lot happens here every single day. So internally, we have about 30 people and it's so important in any non-profit to really be connected to the mission that you're serving. And we're so lucky to have team members who are just very, very passionate about what we do.
Leah Craig Fieser (09:50):
And then we do have hundreds of volunteers who are very intertwined with what we do on a daily basis. In the last year, we had hundreds of people sign on as foster homes. This has always been a huge component of what Brother Wolf does, and about 70% of the animals we take in will spend time in a foster home.
Leah Craig Fieser (10:13):
So imagine if we didn't have that resource. I mean, we would not be able to help a fraction of the animals who depend on us. Because when we go to these other shelters and they tell us that they're really full and that they need help, we're also full sometimes too, right? There's a lot of animals who need help, so we rely on our fosters. We send them these emails saying, "These are all the animals that are in this other shelter that need to get out." and then they go to work and say, "Okay, I can take this one."
Leah Craig Fieser (10:48):
And it's great because it's a commitment that can be short for people. You can save a shelter dog's life by just providing a safe place for them to land for three days. It can be a really short commitment, but you're critical to that flow of saving lives and what we do. So our volunteers are so important to us, and we also have volunteers who of course are boots on the ground at the shelter.
Leah Craig Fieser (11:17):
Our most popular activity here with volunteers that Tracy was a part of, is our hiking program. We're lucky to be in Asheville, North Carolina. We have wonderful hiking trails surrounding us. Of course, the dogs love getting out on the trails and no matter what, a shelter is going to be stressful for an animal. The best situation is for that animal to be in a home, so we love to see our animals get out of the shelter for half the day, go hit the trails, get their energy out. Have time seeing other people, seeing other animals - it actually helps us really in better understanding that animal.
Leah Craig Fieser (11:57):
So how did he do on the trail? How does he do in the car? Some dogs who we get, we don't have any history on them because they might've been strays when they originally entered the shelter system.
Leah Craig Fieser (12:09):
So, it's really useful to have all these volunteers who are supporting us in everything that we do, because with 30 people and with the facilities that we have, we're limited in what we can do and if we didn't have these volunteers, we wouldn't be able to impact nearly as many animals.
Mike Vaggalis (12:28):
Leah, it just sounds like you've got such an amazing community that you have built and been able to integrate into both with existing shelters in your region where you play a critical role, but then also within your immediate community where you've got this amazing number of hundreds of volunteers. Can you just talk a little bit to the work that you and the team have put into the community building aspects of Brother Wolf?
Leah Craig Fieser (12:55):
Yeah absolutely. Brother Wolf is very lucky to have a community that really supports it. I mean, we are a private non-profit organization. We don't receive any government funding. It costs about $2 million a year to do what we do and all of that comes from donors, most of who live in this community and then on top of that, you have all the fosters that live in this community. All of your volunteers that come to work at the shelter are living in this community. So, many people are connected to what the work that we do on a daily basis.
Leah Craig Fieser (13:30):
And I think that sometimes, non-profits can be an unknown thing to people. You don't even necessarily know the resources that exist for children, or adults with disabilities, or things like that in your community. Animal welfare is not like that and I think that a part of that is because of what we were talking about earlier, that connection that people have with their animals.
Leah Craig Fieser (13:56):
Once you have an animal in your life and you see that love that develops from that relationship, you care deeply about your dog, and your cat, and your hamster, bunny, or whatever it is for you and people extend that care beyond just that animal. Most people will only enter a shelter once or twice in their entire lives because they're just not adopting every year. Right? So, it's really important to us to be community mindset so that we're reaching out to our community and saying, "Hey, this is what's going on here." And when people hear that you need help and that by helping you, it is saving lives of dogs and cats, and they care so deeply about those companion animals, it's just this beautiful, natural thing that happens. I mean, we literally have people show up at our door and say, "Hey, I've heard about you for years. I don't really know exactly what you do or what help you need. But I just lost my senior dog. This is his bed. These are his harnesses. This is his leash. I want to give you this thing that was left behind from the love of my life. And then what can I do to help? How can I be a part of this?"
Leah Craig Fieser (15:16):
It really is so much love concentrated here. Because people are passionate about helping the things that they love, and when we have those connections with animals, luckily people want to help. And they don't want to see dogs and cats be euthanized at shelters just because of a lack of space so they champion what Brother Wolf does, that we're going and taking these animals, and giving them a safe place to land.
Leah Craig Fieser (15:45):
And luckily, it's also good that there's really easy ways to step into a volunteer role at a shelter. You can walk dogs, you can foster in your own home, you can do short-term things. It doesn't have to be a really long-term or lengthy thing that you sign up for. So I think it's a bite size volunteer opportunity. That's really good for people too. It feels comfortable for them as an entry point. And we really try to do a good job of connecting with our fosters and our volunteers, and really learning what they are passionate about. Because if we can find out just like you do with your staff members, what are you passionate about? What do you really want to do?
Leah Craig Fieser (16:32):
We have a volunteer who's really into taking scared cats, that kind of shut down in the shelter because say they've been in a home with a senior their whole life and then that senior goes to live in an assisted living community, and that cat can't go with them. Coming into a shelter environment from that life that that cats had for 10 years is extremely traumatic to that cat and they do not always do well with that. So having these volunteers that you learn, "You really like taking scared cats and helping them." Seeing them come out of their shell and setting up your home in a way that's best for them to really relax and finding those things that make people feel fulfilled.
Leah Craig Fieser (17:15):
And then we do as good a job as we can of showing gratitude. We really believe that gratitude is so important. So finding the route that's best for volunteers so that they are happy with what they're doing and it's meaningful to them, and then us continuing to thank them and tell them how impactful it is. That's the best fit for us.
Mike Vaggalis (17:38):
Tracy Eames (17:39):
Yeah, that's great. I can't help but think that you've mentioned a few things Leah, around communication, right? You early on mentioned communicating with the community, communicating with other shelters, communicating with volunteers. I know you're not brand new to your role, but relatively new. Been there for a couple of years I believe. And maybe you could just kind of talk to us around, a lot of our listeners are new leaders. They're trying to build communication within their organization. They're trying to build communication with their customers. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you went through that process of trying to build these communication channels. And then also, how you fostered that to continue to get feedback. Whether it's feedback from team members about how the organization is doing, or feedback from volunteers as you mentioned around how does a particular animal do on a hike. How do you build all of that communication as an organization to make sure you're hearing feedback from all of your stakeholders and moving forward?
Leah Craig Fieser (18:36):
Yes. Oh my gosh, we have so many communication channels. When I first got here, I believe very much in honesty and transparency. So that was really critical to me, especially the organization was going through a period of transition. And we really needed to be open, and honest, and communicate beyond what you even thought you had to communicate with the public. So, we immediately launched into doing public communications that were bringing people into exactly what was happening with the organization and I think that by doing so, we built a lot of trust with the community. Because there was good news in that, and there was also some really troubling news in that. We were in a real financial disaster when I came here, so the only way I knew to move forward in that role was to be honest and truthful with people and say, "This is where we're at. We're in a spot where we could close because the finances are so bad right now." I had some people say to me, "You have to hide some of that stuff, because people aren't going to donate to an organization that is telling people that they're in such financial distress."
Leah Craig Fieser (20:01):
But I didn't think that would be the case. If I was a donor, I would want to know what was going on. Because people care about what happens here. They're invested in the outcomes that this place produces for the animals that they care about. So for us, we have really focused on transparency. Our website, of course, like most non-profits has all our financials. We also have all our outcome data, so you can look on our website and see the numbers of all the animals that came in, the avenues through which they came in, and then their outcomes. Of course, an outcome is usually adoption, but there's other outcomes as well for animals who might be too sick to go onto a home.
Leah Craig Fieser (20:44):
And so, for us internally also, we have been trying to really amp up the communication with our team. That was something when I first came in that I got feedback, I did a survey with our staff to kind of get a feel for what I was walking into. So within the first two weeks, we did a staff survey. I of course had individual meetings with all of leadership, and a lot of people who reported to those leadership roles as well.
Leah Craig Fieser (21:14):
I had worked for the organization in the past, so I had been gone for about three years in another role and then came back. That was obviously very, very helpful to have been here. I understood the organization from the inside. I had been there, and seen the things, and heard the things, and remained in touch with a lot of the people who were there.
Leah Craig Fieser (21:35):
So that was extremely helpful. And to really understand the things that people don't tell you in a job interview of what's going on, but you really need to understand what's actually going on for these employees that work on this team. So, it was a blessing in that way too. My understanding of the baseline that we were at was probably higher than other people who are going into an organization they've never been a part of. But we had to do a lot of digging to find the details in the systems. There weren't a lot of systems that were built here. It happens all the time, right? People are so passionate about non-profit work, and you just focus so much about the task that need to be done for your mission as far as getting the animals in, getting the animals out. Getting them medical care, food, water, cleaning, all that stuff. And of course, we have to do that all day every day, but we also need to run a business. Because running a non-profit, it's really important that you're using sound business practices. If you care deeply about what you're doing, you need to make sure that that non-profit is going to be there for years and years.
Leah Craig Fieser (22:50):
We did a lot of education with our staff as well. We were introducing a lot of systems, and that comes with paperwork and things that aren't great. It's not thrilling to have to turn in detailed reports of spending, but those things are really important. So, we had a lot of discussions with our team about why we were implementing these things, and how we were going to continue to involve them in those things. So, "Yes, we're asking you to fill out a detailed financial report of every single cent that you're spending, but we're going to come back and we're going to show you how your piece of the puzzle fit in with everyone else's piece of the puzzle."
Leah Craig Fieser (23:39):
And I know that for me in roles at other organizations in the past that had been a missing component, I was always wondering, "How's the organization doing as a whole," right? "I know they're showing me stuff for my department, or I'm creating reports for my department. So I kind of understand my how my department is doing, but I don't know how the organization as a whole is doing."
Leah Craig Fieser (24:03):
And I spend time really trying to educate our staff during our all staff meetings, of why we look at certain metrics, and there's mission metrics. There's also business metrics for us to make sure that we're sustainable, and I really hope that some people at least find that to be an educational opportunity and just a way to put all those pieces together. And I think it also helps them be more accountable to say, "Okay, I understand how my piece of the puzzle is impacting everything else that is going on in this organization, and I understand what the leadership is looking at on their dashboard."
Leah Craig Fieser (24:50):
We've tried to really bring everyone into the fold. In non-profits, people are not getting rich, right? They're not here because they're making a lot of money. They're here because they connect deeply with what you do, and my job is to say, "Okay, I know that you're not making six figures. What else matters to you?" And usually for people in non-profits, "It matters to me to be heard." And I'm sure that goes for corporate America too, but if we're not going to be able to pay people a ton of money, then they really need to be in on what they care about.
Leah Craig Fieser (25:34):
For example, we're upgrading our cat housing right now. We're super excited about it and we are getting input from every level of the organization. So the people who clean the cat housing have input on it, the people who clean dogs every day have input on it. People who are adoption counselors, because they're interacting with cat housing in a different way than the people who are cleaning it, they're having to use that housing to show the animals to adopters.
Leah Craig Fieser (26:02):
And then their managers are of course a part of the conversation, and I love that process. I like getting feedback from a lot of people, because it helps me make better decisions. And even if someone suggests something and we don't go that route, they feel better for having been a part of that conversation and having made that suggestion, and they then understand why we didn't go with that option. So, we're always following up and saying, "This is what we've decided. This is why we've decided that."
Leah Craig Fieser (26:37):
And for me, that's also been a thing that has been missing in the past with other organizations - is kind of like, but why? Why did that happen? Or why is this thing that's happening impacting me, and I wasn't ever a part of it?
Leah Craig Fieser (26:51):
So I really try to bring our employees in on as many things as I can, and we are constantly having conversations with people like how can we improve that? Because we have a goal of being transparent. We have a goal of being inclusive and hearing from our employees. But we can always do better than we're doing today, so we're constantly having conversations about creating those lines of communication just better and better.
Mike Vaggalis (27:23):
Leah, it seems like you've been obviously very busy over the past couple of years. You've been implementing a whole lot of systems. You've been really listening to your community, both the volunteer and broader community, and really a lot of your employees. You've taken a financial situation that wasn't in the best place and it sounds like you've really turned that around. What's the cultural aspect of the organization been like? I'm sure that people were maybe resistant to doing some of those things like paperwork, but I'd love to hear the cultural transformation that's occurred.
Leah Craig Fieser (27:57):
Yeah. There's been a huge cultural transformation here and part of it was because when I came in, the organization had started down a path that was more of a sanctuary path. So, there's places that are sanctuaries that take in animals who cannot be adopted out for one reason or another. Maybe because of aggression issues, or other behavior issues, or maybe because they're nearing the end of their life, or they have a lot of medical cases.
Leah Craig Fieser (28:27):
When I came in, it was for some employees, the first time that they had heard a lot of information about, say, there's so many animals waiting at the gate. And our employees don't ever always see those animals. For me, it's really important to say how can I help the greatest number of animals with the resources I have? There's so many that need our help. And for our new leadership team, what was really critical was taking a step back and saying, "North Carolina is one of the worst places for animals in the country right now. How can we help to the best extent, right? How can we impact the greatest number of lives? How can we create change that ripple effects and really touches multiple communities?"
Leah Craig Fieser (29:18):
So that was a big shift and not everyone was on board with that shift. And that's okay too. We were very honest, and open, and communicated heavily with our community and with our employees to say, "Hey, we're going to start doing things a little bit differently because this leadership team and this board of directors really believes that the best thing Brother Wolf can do with their resources, is help the greatest number of animals possible, because there are so many who need our help."
Leah Craig Fieser (29:48):
So our team changed a lot and we got some wonderful new people who were really into what we were talking about. We talked heavily about that change throughout that whole first year with internal and external, and the culture started to really shift. We went from a culture where there before had been a lot less communication with employees, a lot less employee input on things. There had been not a lot of transparency before with them. So we were continually saying, "Hey, here's the statistics about what's happening in North Carolina. Here's the statistics about what's happening in Western North Carolina with animals, and this is how we're making decisions." So not just saying, "We're going to do this," and not giving any reason behind that decision.
Mike Vaggalis (30:48):
My presumption was you come in; you've got sort of a negative financial situation. You've got really passionate employees and people that care about what you're doing, but there's sort of a lack of transparency. There's a lack of systems, and you've implemented all these changes. And some of those are not fun. Nobody likes doing paperwork. But the result of that has been an improvement across the board it sounds like in the impact that you're able to make.
Mike Vaggalis (31:17):
So I'm curious how gaining employee input and integrating some of those systems, and even if people don't necessarily like crossing the T's and dotting the I's, in hearing you talk about, it sounds like there's been a very real cultural transformation, even though there are some of those more painful elements to the processes that you're installing.
Leah Craig Fieser (31:43):
Yes, and our focus with our employees was how can we also make their day-to-day lives better? Because they were going through massive change, and change is really hard for people. I have learned just how hard change is for people. And I kind of like change. It makes me excited. I get into it. So that was a learning experience to say, "Change is very stressful for people." So the more clear we could be about the change and really being upfront and saying, "This is exactly what we are envisioning going forward with. These are going to be the values of our organization." We rewrote our mission statement. And so getting our team to realize where we're going and then focusing too on making their day-to-day lives better kind of helped with that transition and saying, "I know this is a lot. If you're on board, there's going to be some hard work to be done, and at the same time, we're going to care for you."
Leah Craig Fieser (32:49):
Just the most simple things like having the tools you need to do your job. I mean, it sounds kind of crazy, but I've been in so many situations in the past where people just don't have the tools they need to do their job. They're using a computer that takes 10 minutes to load their email, and then when they bring it up, it's like we don't have resources for them.
Leah Craig Fieser (33:13):
Well, we didn't have resources for anything really, right? We were in this total financial disaster back then, which we have recovered from and are very, very excited to walk down that path. And it was a great learning experience for us. We came out victorious on the other side, and now things run with systems. I think that our team sees the value of that now because the discussions went from a time of crisis to not a time of crisis and during the crisis and now, we still try to support those team members to have conversations about what does your future look like here?
Leah Craig Fieser (33:51):
For example, we instituted exit interviews because we want to get feedback from people who are leaving the organization, and that had not been previously done. And when we were doing these exit interviews, we were getting all this really valuable information.
Leah Craig Fieser (34:07):
It made us think, it would have really been great if we knew this before this person was leaving. So doing more check-ins with employees and taking those exit interview questions, some of them, and putting them into a 90-day check-in or a six-month check-in no matter how long you've been here, or your annual reviews, to really understand.
Leah Craig Fieser (34:32):
I mean, these people are so passionate about what they do. They want this organization to be just as successful as I want it to be. They're not working at a retail store that they don't really care about. This is a place they care deeply about. So when they have input, I love it. It's good. It's useful. It helps me do my job better. And then they do their job better too, because they're so energized by giving that feedback and seeing real change. I mean, something so simple as asking employees what they think we should stock at our retail store. We have a retail store so that when people adopt from us, they can outfit the things that they need for their new cat or their new dog.
Leah Craig Fieser (35:20):
And just simply asking employees, "Are there things that we don't have at our retail store that you're hearing from adopters that they want?" We got amazing answers from them, things that I would have never thought of. Or things that I thought in my head, "Of course we have that." And we don't have that. It's such a great group of people that we have here now because we have been very clear of what we're doing here. These are our values; this is our mission. This is how we tackle the problem. Because in an animal welfare, there's so many different ways to tackle the problem. You have groups that have different beliefs in how the problem should be tackled, so we try to educate our staff on what the problem is. We answer the questions with them and say, "This is how we believe this is best to serve the greatest number of animals and save the greatest number of lives. That's what's most important to us." This is how we do that and then getting their feedback into things and being really transparent with how things are going.
Leah Craig Fieser (36:25):
I don't always feel like I'm the person that has the greatest pulse on what the culture is. It's so hard as the head of the organization to always get the most honest feedback from people, but we use consultants to do surveys with our staff so that we can get anonymous feedback from people. We sit down with people and have conversations. Because yes, anonymous feedback can be useful but also, we don't want to create a culture where everything has to be done anonymously. We want people to have real conversations, even hard conversations face-to-face and go through that learning process. We're continually getting feedback from the adopters too.
Leah Craig Fieser (37:07):
We've had some feedback recently that our facility when people walk into the facility, a shelter historically, people kind of see it as a sad place to go, right? Some people say, "I don't want to go to a shelter." They may have never been to a shelter in their whole life, but they have this feeling innately or because of things they've seen on television or things they've heard that they don't want to go to a shelter because it's sad.
Leah Craig Fieser (37:31):
And we have gotten some feedback recently that our lobby area, the first place that people see, it's not really joyful enough. I mean, I agree. I agree. It could be way more joyful, and it could be more elevated to the truth of what the organization is. I mean, this is a place that is full of love and joy. So when people walk through that front door, they should feel that. They see these animals, they see they're very well cared for but it's a shelter, and people have emotions about going into a shelter.
Leah Craig Fieser (38:05):
So, we've had conversations with our employees recently about, "How do you think we could transform our lobby? So that when people walk in, they don't have anything in their head that is confirmed that a shelter is sad, or dingy, or not joyful? How can we have an experience for customers, our adopters to walk in the door and be met with, 'Oh my gosh, this is a joyful place'"?
Leah Craig Fieser (38:33):
We've had these great conversations, and out of it came, what if we hired a muralist? Because that's very, very popular. In Asheville, we have these wonderful, talented artists who do these murals and we are now starting to work with a muralist and updating the cat housing. We're getting new lighting put in the lobby. Because we now understand who we are, and our staff understands who we are and they understand that we want to portray ourselves in a way that is the most transparent and visually obvious to people who walk in of what we're trying to accomplish.
Leah Craig Fieser (39:12):
We also blew up our outcome reports. Our outcome report says, "We did this many adoptions. We spayed and neutered this many animals. We put this many animals into foster homes. We had this many volunteers." We have that blown up now and in our lobby.
Leah Craig Fieser (39:26):
I think having those continual conversations throughout this time with people at all levels of the organization has really solidified who we are to people so that now, from the hiring point on, we're having these conversations at every level and everyone gets it. Everyone's like, "This is what we're trying to accomplish. This is how we accomplish it. This is what it feels like to work here. And this is what we want it to feel like for people who come here to adopt."
Tracy Eames (39:57):
Leah, that's great. I think that Mike and I are probably hearing a lot of themes that we speak to organizations about a lot. So really love the fact that you're trying to create that vision between somebody's individual role and the overall organizational mission. That alignment we find is incredibly impactful.
Tracy Eames (40:16):
And I think the thing that you touched on that I really think I want our listeners to know is it doesn't always have to be big, right? Sometimes obviously, there are big changes. It sounds like there was a lot of difficult circumstances that you and your team went through. There are those times in any organization where there's a lot of change happening. But I like the idea of the little conversations, right? Like what should be in the retail store, what should be in our lobby. That kind of continuous feedback and continuous communication with your teams.
Tracy Eames (40:48):
Sometimes folks say, "I just don't have the time to build a new communication process. How do I do that?" And we always say, "You just do it a little bit each time, right?" Each day, you ask your team how they're doing. You ask your team what resources they need. You have those conversations every day, and it just becomes part of your normal process, versus having a special meeting to figure out how you're going to build a new feedback loop. You just start asking for feedback and start acting on that feedback, and it starts to happen as part of your process. So, I really like hearing some of those themes that are coming out in terms of how you support your team, your volunteers, your community.
Tracy Eames (41:28):
One of the things we often work with companies and non-profits around is what does that full stakeholder map look like, and who are the other people in our ecosystem? It sounds like you and the organization are getting out there and trying to work with other stakeholders. So maybe you could tell us a little bit about how do you use partnerships and ecosystem partners and stakeholders to amplify your efforts and their efforts, right? How do you work together to achieve a shared mission of improving animal welfare?
Leah Craig Fieser (41:59):
So, in animal welfare, there can oftentimes be this kind of infighting because we all care passionately about making the world a better place for animals, and we have different ideas about how to best do that. When I first came to Brother Wolf, I knew that there was a history of the organization having a hostile relationship at times with other places, and we knew from the beginning we had to change that.
Leah Craig Fieser (42:28):
So, we went in-person to so many places, and we actually still do today. We show up in person to other shelters. It's something that really doesn't happen a lot. I don't know if many other people from other shelters have been here. But just showing up at that place, and being a genuine person, and asking them questions that matter to them, and not coming at them with judgment. We are a private non-profit organization. We're not a municipal agency. A lot of municipal agencies and animal welfare, they have to take the animals that come to their doorstep, so they are confronted with huge numbers of animals and really need help dealing with that issue.
Leah Craig Fieser (43:14):
What we did is we reached out to them and said, "Can we come talk to you?" Because I just feel like talking to people face-to-face is so much better for a relationship building, and it's something that we don't see happen that often as far as taking ourselves out of these really busy days at animal shelters and going to another animal shelter and saying, "What are you guys struggling with? How can we help you?" Those conversations just don't happen that often in animal welfare and I think that they're so valuable. Because, there can be this division of how you see the world and how you see the answers to the problems, that's okay if people see the world differently than us. And that's okay if they see the solutions to the problems differently than us. There's probably some point where we can overlap. There's probably some point where we say, "Hey yeah, we totally agree on this and we can help in this regard."
Leah Craig Fieser (44:15):
There was a lot of relationship repairing and relationship building that we did, and we just tried to be human beings about it. It was okay if we went somewhere and disagreed with them. We never had a bad experience, ever. We always went to places where you could tell when you show up, they're like, "I don't know why they're here. Is this going to be a hostile thing? Or are they going to be judgmental?" There's a lot of judgment sometimes, and we have team members who are not like that. And specifically, of course had conversations about why we were doing this, whatever our intention was behind it.
Leah Craig Fieser (44:55):
When you ask people what can I do to help, or when you say to people, "Oh my gosh, you're doing such a good job at this.", you can just feel that armor that they've put on before you got there, start to fall off. And then by the end of that conversation, we've created a partner that trusts us. It's really important to have trust because what happens sometimes in animal welfare that private non-profits will sometimes say, "This animal went into this shelter and it didn't get the medical care it needed. Shame on that shelter." Well, the reason the animal didn't get the medical care it needed is not shame on that shelter. Everybody who works in animal welfare wants to do the best that they can, but they don't have the resources always. I mean, we don't have the resources to do everything we want to do. We're all limited in our resources.
Leah Craig Fieser (45:51):
So breaking down those barriers and making sure that we are never demonizing anyone else for the good work that they are trying to do. And we honestly see them as partners. When we talk to our employees about our shelter partners, we call them shelter partners and we talk about our partnership. And we talk about us helping them. It is our job as a private non-profit to say, "How can we help you?" Because they are the ones that have animals flooding into their doors.
Leah Craig Fieser (46:23):
It's our job to be their support system, and we firmly believe that. We educate our staff on that as well and having everyone buy into that really makes it a very joyful relationship. Getting animals from these places, it can be tough for shelters sometimes to reach out to other people and ask for help, or they could be afraid that there's going to be communications later on that demonizes them for needing that help. Because it can be something that you could make look bad, right? If you say, "This shelter is so overcrowded and they're putting multiple dogs in a run." Well, the reason they're putting multiple dogs in a run is because they don't want to euthanize animals for space. So, when you show up and you see that, and you don't say, "I don't know why you're putting multiple dogs in a run," we don't say that. We say, "Do you think we could help you by taking some of these dogs so that you don't have to put multiple dogs in a run?"
Leah Craig Fieser (47:25):
It's just a different way of approaching it and being a true partner is what we find to be the most successful. And those people have helped us out too. I mean, our shelter floods sometimes. We need a new shelter. It's not the greatest building. I always say there's a lot of good things that happen here, but the building isn't great.
Leah Craig Fieser (47:48):
They've helped us in the past and say, "Oh my gosh, you guys are flooding?" We have gone to other shelters and set up crates in their meeting rooms and put animals in crates in their meeting rooms. So it's so important to have those really respectful partnerships to us and do whatever we can to be a true friend to the people who are working as hard as they can with the limited resources they have to change animals' lives. We all want the same thing. Even if we see it a little bit differently, we all want ultimately the same thing. So we will never put down an organization. We don't do it internally. We absolutely would never do it publicly. And we are honest in wanting to be true partners.
Tracy Eames (48:33):
Awesome. I think that from our perspective, I know that the conversation has been having some definite positives in terms of all the things you're doing to support your teams. But also recognize it is really hard work, and I've heard that theme come through loud and clear from you today. So maybe just to end us on a high note, you could tell us a couple of maybe stories or anecdotes recently from some of your success stories. It sounds like Brother Wolf has been able to save I believe you said 9,000 animals and get them adopted out. So maybe you could just share with us some of the recent adoptees or different programs that you've had that have been really successful lately.
Leah Craig Fieser (49:15):
Yeah, absolutely. Best thing in the world to do. Yes. Last year, we impacted over 9,000 animals. And this year, we're on course to do that as well. For example, we had a woman come to us who sadly, there was a really bad storm here and a tree fell on her house, and she had a dog ... his name's Jake. He's a golden retriever mixed dog, and he's 10 years old. She got him as a puppy, and she showed us pictures of getting him as a puppy. This dog was dearly loved by this family. And they have kids who have grown up with Jake. Jake's older than the kids. So really, a member of their family.
Leah Craig Fieser (50:02):
But suddenly, they found themselves in a situation where they didn't have a home anymore and they're having to move in with family. A lot of times family can't accommodate the pets that might come in a crisis situation like that.
Leah Craig Fieser (50:16):
So, we have offered them to come to Brother Wolf, have conversations with us. It was really important to them that their animal was well cared for and was going to land at a place where he would be safe and happy, and that he would have a good future in this time of crisis where they felt like they had no other option.
Leah Craig Fieser (50:34):
So while some things might start off sad, they're going through a crisis and they're having to give up a dog that they really love. At the same time, it's wonderful to walk into a place where people are going to sit down with you and have conversations, and they're not going to judge you. We can be judgmental sometimes about people giving up their animals because we think, "Oh my gosh, I would never do that." But you have no idea what you would do if you ended up in a crisis situation, and we're all just a few steps away from being in a situation like that if some terrible things happen in our lives.
Leah Craig Fieser (51:10):
So Jake showed up. And he is 10 years old, and he's just so loving. And he's a little nervous, right? It can be nervous for animals to come into a shelter. Our staff immediately loves this dog, of course, just like every dog that walks into our front door. And I think it gave that family so much comfort to see the joyful reactions from our staff. We spent time talking to them, and it was a sad goodbye for them. But at the same time, they saw, "Oh my gosh, these people, they really like this dog. They're walking this dog, they're petting this dog, they're hugging this dog." And to know that this animal that I really care about and that unfortunately, I can't care for at this moment in my life anymore, is landing somewhere where he is loved, and nurtured, and cared for. And we always lean on our foster homes when we get senior animals in, because shelter can be a stressful place for any animal, especially a senior animal.
Leah Craig Fieser (52:17):
So, it was great to be able to put a call out to our fosters and say, "Hey, we have a 10-year-old dog coming in. He's always lived in a family environment. Does anyone want to take him on as a foster?" And we were able to get Jake into a foster home in half a day, so he was only in the shelter for half a day. He went to live in a foster home and he was adopted out even at 10 years old. We have this incredible community that wants to help animals and he's just such a great, loving boy. And we found someone who was looking for a senior. And they were really eager to adopt him.
Leah Craig Fieser (52:56):
So while he did go through some trauma in his life, the future is really bright for him. We were able to go back to that family and say, "Jake has found an incredible home. He's going to be deeply loved. And if you guys are ever interested in adding another animal to your home, we would be more than happy to have that conversation with you." Because that can happen sometimes do where people feel like, "I would never be allowed to go back to that shelter and adopt an animal, because I gave up an animal." We don't believe in that at all. There are things that can happen to any of us that could put us in situations where we'd have to make choices that we never thought we'd have to make. And people are trying to do the best that they can at any given situation. And we always want to be welcoming and an inviting place in this community.
Leah Craig Fieser (53:45):
So we loved having Jake for a little bit. It's like a mix of emotions. Every time an animal gets adopted, we're like, "We're not going to see you." but luckily, they always send us pictures, and we share the pictures with all of our staff members when we get them. And to know that he's a treasured member of someone else's family is really awesome.
Tracy Eames (54:06):
That's an amazing story. And I'm partial to it because I adopted my pup ... she's a senior. She was a little over 10 when I adopted her. So it definitely warms my heart to hear about other senior dogs being adopted and finding loving homes. And I have to say, it's been a few years now since I adopted but I will say that the experience was just one of the most special experiences. I think everybody at Brother Wolf was so excited to see my pup going home. But also, really just supportive of to your point, all of those questions you have in the retail store. What things do I need on the first night? And kind of answering questions and making sure that that process went well. Checking in to see how it was going. I think that there's a really nice, special bond there that you have when you adopt a pet. And having a shelter really care about that pet ongoing, as the pet owner, that really feels nice to you, right? You're like, "You're as invested in this animal as I am." And it's a really, truly wonderful experience.
Tracy Eames (55:07):
So Leah, thank you so much for coming on today and sharing the story of your leadership and your team. It's been a nice for us to be able to do a spotlight on an animal rescue on such an important day in terms of adopting a shelter pet. If folks want to learn more about Brother Wolf, and follow you, and follow the animals that you're serving and your community, are there ways they can do that on social media or your website?
Leah Craig Fieser (55:36):
Absolutely. I think the Brother Wolf Facebook page and Instagram page is the happiest places to be on the internet. We post so many adoption photos of people who are just bursting with joy and holding the kitten, or the puppy, or the senior dog like Jake, and getting adopted. So, follow us on Facebook, on Instagram. Our website is bwar.org We're in Asheville, North Carolina, and we'd love to see you if you're ever in the area. People can stop by, even if they don't live here full-time, and they can be a part of what we do. They can also adopt from out of the area as well. So we hope you get involved!
Tracy Eames (56:22):
And for all of our listeners, we'll share the information for Brother Wolf in the show notes. So if you visit the show notes, you can find all of those links and you can stay in touch with Brother Wolf if you're interested. But again Leah, thank you so much for your time today, we really loved having you, and we will hopefully keep staying in touch.
Leah Craig Fieser (56:44):
Absolutely. It was such a treat to talk about things that I feel really passionate about. Thank you so much.