Animal Shelters, Volunteerism and Philanthrophy

I have a bus.  A bigo bus with an identity crisis.

It was created from a Freightliner Cascadia truck with a Benz engine and transmission.  The bus has an automatic tranny that causes the other trucks to call him a sissy.  I thought about this when ordering the truck, but an automatic is required with a dual drive position configuration.

As with most projects that catch my ugly attention, the bus monstrosity started as a passenger van.  The details of the bus are unimportant.  As is the why of the bus.  But it is a pretty bus.  Muscle and comfort.  The necessities of transportation.

One day I decided that my Mom needed one of these buses.  Perfect for when she and her blue haired friends decide to play Thelma and Louise on a road trip.  Not sure Thelma and Louise toured Branson, but they probably did a New England tour to see the leaves in the fall.  Personally, I suspect the road trip is more about the seafood than the leaves.  But I have no proof.

I also have a wonderfully talented cousin in Dallas.  Which is where the new bus was delivered.  Bev lives in perfection that Martha Stewart envies.  She has wonderful taste and helped me when I purchased furniture for houses in Dallas.

I don’t recall if prayer and fasting was involved before we decided to all pile up in the bus and road trip it to my Mom.  Prayer and fasting should always be involved before caging family in a bus on a road trip.  Even if it is a really big bus.

For the most part, the trip was uneventful.  Keep a Tab in my hand and provide me with a pisser, sloop can survive most anything.  But I do recall her commenting on the shabby houses we saw as we drove through the rural South.  She expressed pity for the poverty.

This was a conversation I did not want to have.  It was heading for politics if I opened my mouth.  I sat quietly and swilled my Tab.

Several minutes later she looked up from her needlepoint and said “How much could a bucket of mismatched paint cost at Home Depot?”

It was a “from the mouths children” moment for me.

About a year ago a friend of our family asked to see me.  Mz B lived next door to me my entire life.  Our families’ homes backed up to each other and when it was time to move on up, we built homes that are adjacent.  Her children were my best friends.  We set a lunch date for my next visit home.

Mz B is an animal lover.  Not one of those that leaves her estate to her dogs to piss off her children.  But not too many steps away from it.  At one time, she had four dogs and they all were allowed inside her house.

I knew that Mz B collected cans for the local animal shelter.  And nobody can create a mountain of Tab cans like the ones I leave in my wake.  When I visit my Mom, I am under orders to save the Tab cans for Mz B.  Tab cans for the animal shelter is the perfect cause.  Driving 60 miles in her Volkswagen Beetle to retrieve two cans makes sense to her.

Sometimes the best way to deal with large slow moving companies is to take matters in your own hands.  Especially if its the phone company.  Phone companies think they can bluff their way with customers because most customers do not understand the technology.  But I understand it.  Quite well.

During a visit to my Mom, I decided to fix a problem with a circuit to my Mom’s house.  It was getting errors.  The phone company denied it.  I had the circuit tested by a friend that worked for a different company, printed out the results and set out to find the central office.  (The central office is where the phone equipment is located.  Customers are not allowed in the central office.)

While on my mission to find the central office to bitch slap a lazy technician, I got lost.  The kind of lost where I had to stop and ask for directions.  Which for men, is pretty damn lost.  I decided to stop at the animal shelter and ask for help.

You had to know it was the animal shelter because there was no sign.  It is just off a busy road and is a house that was converted into the shelter.  As I drove up, three dogs greeted me.  And I saw several dogs fenced in what was a garage.  All barking.  The smell was awful.

I opened the front door into a small room with a counter.  Four people were sitting, three of which were smoking.  The smell was even worse.  Dogs barking.  The place was filth.  Not messy or dirty.  Filth.

This was a “How much could a bucket of mismatched paint cost at Home Depot?” moment.  Or a broom and mop.

This was the shelter Mz B was collecting cans for.

I thought the shelter was a no kill shelter.  I also thought that the busy road handled the killing for them.  As it turns out, an average month has 25 adoptions and 200 kills.

It was not a surprise to find that Mz B wanted to ask me for a donation to the shelter’s building fund.  My Mom had mentioned to me that a friend of our family had donated the land for a new shelter.  And the new building they planned to build was estimated to cost $1.5 million.

Really?  From the sewer to a 1.5 million dollar facility?  In a town whose population has dropped from well over 30,000 to under 20,000.

The shelter has an operating fund and a building fund.  The building fund has a Christmas party each year to raise funds for the shelter.  Not donations.  $25 tickets.  To raise $1.5 million.  I wonder what the facility and catering costs are for the party.  Maybe I should not question that.

The operating fund gets my beloved Mz B’s cans.  They have a wish list for donations.  But it is always a problem to have enough food for the animals.  They only want Purina and regular scent Clorox.

I had a few other questions.  The average intake of animals is 225 per month.  25 leave each month through the front door and 200 are taken out the back.  How is a 1.5 million dollar building going to change those numbers?  How is a 1.5 million dollar building going to up the operating fund and feed the animals?  If you can’t get a floor swept in the existing facility, how will the floors be swept in a 1.5 million dollar facility?  How will the additional utility and insurance costs be met?  “How much could a bucket of mismatched paint cost at Home Depot?”

Questioning philanthropy is taboo.   All philanthropy is assumed to be good.  All motivation is assumed to be good.

On some level I agree.  A hungry mouth needs food.  If the mouth is hungry enough, that 12 year old can of mustard greens you donated to get in Six Flags will suffice.  It is a mystery how that can got in your pantry.  I mean, who buys canned mustard greens?  So donating it to Six Flags in exchange for admission is a win/win situation.  Except for the poor bastard that gets fed a 12 year old can of mustard greens. Is it better to leave the can on your shelf or give it to someone that needs food?  Is it better to give two cans of mustard greens or one can of Green Giant low sodium cream style corn?  Is low sodium really the priority for a hungry mouth?  Can beggars be choosers or is choosing for them  your prerogative since you are paying?

Can I demand that a volunteer sweep the floor of an animal shelter?  (Actually, I don’t know that the people in that shelter were volunteers.)  Can I ask a volunteer to sweep the floor while another volunteer sits chatting and smoking with visitors?

Usually, the money is the easy part.  Not that the execution is that hard.  Its the critics that will trip you up.

Try  donating an animal shelter or fire station to your community.  Not what you want in an animal shelter or fire station.  What the community needs and what the people working in them want and need.

You are going to have malcontents working against you.  Accept that and you might succeed.

Talk to your lawyer and CPA.  They know lots of pitfalls and benefits of projects like this.  Do this first.

Find a need.  A city of 20,000 does not need ten animal shelters.  A city of 20,000 cannot pay 3,000 firefighters.  A gift of flowers to floral shop owner is not the best gift. Donate what the community needs.  Not what you want to give.

Talk to your mayor and city council members off the record.  Feel out them out and make it clear that you are only considering it.

In the exploration and planning phases, its better to under promise and over deliver.  No one is happy to hear about something cut from a project because of funding.  People will remember what you cut and not what you delivered.

Talk to the people that will work in the building.  Ask for must haves and a wish list.  Your gift will earn you the gratitude of the community.  Your goal should be the gratitude of those that work in the building.

Zoning laws.  Ugh.

Talk to the utility providers.  They love promoting their charitable contributions and free or discounted services is a cheap way to get the publicity.

A free car is not the gift for someone that can’t afford gasoline.  You can’t give a city a gift that has high ongoing expenses.  A free manicured park can become an eyesore if the city can’t afford to maintain it.  You don’t get to saddle the taxpayers with a gift that forces them to pay high ongoing maintenance.

Keep your name off the project.  You are not building a monument to yourself so name it after a noted community member.

Accept the fact that you can’t control everything.  You will lose some battles that are important to you.

Form a committee to take the fall.  Try to get like minded members for the committee if possible.  Don’t lie to them and warn them that their job is to take the criticism.  It is easy to find people to be on a committee.  It is difficult to find the right people.  Make it clear that their membership on the committee is not to get a contract awarded to their brother-in-law.

Have all the answers for the committee but be ready to have some of them rejected.  Fight the urge to take your ball and go home when you lose battles. Be prepared to give the reason for your solutions.  Not a powerpoint presentation nor neat handouts with bullet points.  Listen to alternative ideas and do not come across as attacking them.  Try to make your solution the obvious solution and have them choose it.

Free is not always a bargain.  Don’t accept free materials if they are the wrong materials.  Don’t accept free help that is argumentative.  These people will walk off when they get pissed because their advice is rejected.  No project needs 12 chiefs and no indians.    If you are volunteering as an indian, do twice the work of any other indian and set the example by doing what the chief directs.

Function is primary but form is important. A steel warehouse can function as a fire station but nobody wants to look it it.  Within reason, pretty counts.

Adopt the community style for the building.  Southwestern adobe style would stand out like a sore thumb in the northeast.

Build for low maintenance and permanence.  Wood shingles have their romance on shingle style architecture.  But are high maintenance.  Find a synthetic material that will last.  Don’t skimp on the roof.  Scale back the project if necessary but don’t make your gift an ongoing headache.

Build to completion.  That includes landscaping.  Have a landscape architect draw up the plan and don’t leave it to donations of plants from people.  You will end up with a hodgepodge that is incomplete, an eyesore and pleases no one.

Consider a second budget to make the project turnkey.  There will be tons of things necessary for the building to be functional that are not in the building budget.  A fire station needs a kitchen outfitted.  The industrial sheets and towels supplied by the city will be polyester.  Furnish rooms to completion.  Six Lazyboy recliners facing a TV in a stark room is not furnished.

Pay the money for the architect.  It is worth it.  Best to find an architect that specializes in what you are building.  Even better to pay him to see the project through to completion.

Let the city contribute to one time costs if it makes sense.  The city might be able to extend water and sewage service to the site.

Buy locally where possible and see if you can secure a price break.  When you do get a discount, let the community know.

Fund the entire project. If possible.  No fund raising drives.  No push for funds during construction.  No last minute changes because the funds did not appear as expected.

Build the best you can afford but keep it reasonable.  An animal shelter might have examination rooms for volunteer vets.  Equipment will be necessary for this room but a MRI machine would be unreasonable.

Build with an eye to the future.  A two bay firestation might be perfect today.  Tomorrow, you might need another bay.

When the project is complete, fund a celebration that focuses on the community spirit.  Keep your name out of it.  When complete, walk away from it.  Your gift is then out of your control and input.

As you end the project, throw in a little extra unexpected gift.

Never visit the project looking like a manager.  The architect is the guy with soft palms that is the hardass on the contractors.  If you visit the project, don’t look like a princess.

Accept gratitude graciously but play up the contributions of others.  False modestly is distasteful and easily detected.  Find the balance between false modesty and benevolent benefactor.  Both are hated.

Before you begin the journey, make sure it is one you will see through to the end.  If word gets out that you are funding a project, backing out with your reputation in tact is impossible.

Also decide what involvement level will be.  Are you going to write a check and walk away or will you be working with the architect.  Will you visit the site during construction?  How much of your time are you committing to invest?

Giving away money is not as simple as it sounds.  Nor is offloading that 12 year old can of mustard greens.

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