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Why Systemic Reform Should Matter to Donors

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Ann Olson and Amy Lake

There are many nonprofit animal welfare organizations doing important work. Most of them focus on providing a safe haven for animals in need. Donations are spent on food, veterinary care, and finding the unwanted, neglected, or abused animals new homes; it’s a concept that’s easy for donors to grasp and want to support. But what is being done to address the problem from happening in the first place, especially as it relates to animal cruelty? How can we better protect animals?

Animal Folks is a nonprofit organization that works to help animals, but in a different way. We have seen firsthand how the existing system has failed to protect animals. In many cases, the defendant is hardly penalized or the abuser continues to harm animals — and humans — even after being sentenced.   

Dealing with complexity and underlying issues

Animal Folks believes animal abuse, cruelty, and neglect are the result of bigger systemic problems, which, by definition, are more complex. We’ve all seen it before with other social issues. If it’s addressing homelessness, education, healthcare, or child abuse, often the action is a quick fix rather than a system transformation.

Our mission focuses on the not so obvious — building a modern animal law enforcement system that provides standardized processes, effective training, cross-reporting and tracking of cruelty cases, and other necessary resources, tools, and funding for authorities to properly do their jobs. We want to move from a compartmentalized collection of well-intentioned individuals to a comprehensive, aligned system that promotes animal welfare and the effective enforcement of animal law.

The fundraising challenge

Our biggest fundraising challenge: Educating donors on why our work is needed and what “system reform” means. “Systemic,” “processes,” and “training” are not exactly the kind of words that trigger emotions and make a person want to reach into his or her pocketbook.

Why is this important? Ideally when a crime against animals is reported, several things should happen. Law enforcement will be called upon to investigate. A veterinarian may join them to evaluate the animals on the scene. If actions progress, the case will be prosecuted, and heard by a judge. If sentenced, probation and mental health professionals may be involved. If animals are seized, animal shelters and rescues may also be involved. The “system” includes multiple stakeholders, each of whom requires knowledge and skills. The fact that animal law involves living beings also makes these crimes difficult and costly to pursue.

An outdated system

Unfortunately, the current system has holes. Many within law enforcement are not trained on animal law or investigative techniques to protect animals. How does an officer handle a hoarding case with dozens of sickly cats or rabbits, or a domestic abuse case where the dog was beaten to death, or a commercial entity with neglected and emaciated horses or cows? 

In some cases, a veterinarian may be called upon to assist, and yet many veterinarians have not received training on veterinary forensics, including identifying and documenting cruelty or testifying in court. Their first impulse, of course, is to treat an animal in need, without understanding how to both treat the animal and preserve critical evidence.

Prosecutors and judges too require training on animal law — prior to the case landing on their desks. Do they have access to applicable case law or qualified subject experts to help guide decisions?   

Outcomes and impact

But system reform doesn’t start and stop with one training course. True transformation of a system measures outcomes and impact, not just outputs.

For Animal Folks, we don’t want to just count how many people attended a training session; we want to know if the training and materials actually changed practice and, if not, how to improve. Most importantly, we want training to be part of an established educational curriculum so it’s accessible and sustainable.

Transforming an “animal law enforcement system” must also include leadership, not just first responders.  It means working with leaders to develop departmental policies and processes, streamline how crimes against animals are tracked, and brainstorm ideas for funding sources so authorities are incentivized to do good.

Building partnerships and programs

Key to reform is collaboration. Reaching out to stakeholders directly involved with animal law and animal care allows us to build strong partnerships and programs. 

By working with the veterinary community, we were able to write and publish a manual targeted to veterinarians that guides them in setting up clinic protocols to identify and report animal cruelty. The manual is the first of its kind and has been requested for use around the country.

By aligning with law enforcement, we have created educational resources for use by peace officers, animal control officers, and humane agents on topics such as anti-cruelty statutes, forensic necropsies, dogs in hot cars, and animal seizure and disposition.

We have partnered with 3M, whose attorneys chose Animal Folks to be part of the 3M Legal Affairs pro bono program. Together we are building a databank of animal cruelty cases, which contains animal cruelty convictions from all 87 Minnesota counties over a 9-year period. Data gathered includes the type of crime, sentencing, location, gender and age of the violator, and more. This information provides necessary data and insight to guide the development of reforms. 

Our other programs to support systemic reform include legal actions, such as filing of complaints and lawsuits, and legislative actions, such as advocating for state laws and local ordinances when needed. These and other efforts are all part of strategic planning and systems thinking, which is core to our mission.

Real societal change

System reform should matter to donors. The results may not be seen immediately, but that makes the efforts even more necessary. For Animal Folks, we need the time and keen minds to research community needs, ask the hard questions, create innovative strategies, and build strong alliances, all of which contribute to real societal change.

It is exciting when donors recognize and understand the concept. They see the complexity, but also embrace the vision. They too will be partners in system transformation.

Creating system reform may not be easy but, for the animals, we will not give up.


Ann Olson is the Founder and Executive Director of Animal Folks; Amy Lake, CFRE, is the Development Director for Animal Folks. They can be reached at ann@animalfolks.org or amy@animalfolks.org.

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