Many of us who love animals, and are fascinated by the power of the human-animal bond, initially thought we should become veterinarians. After all, if you wanted a career involving animals—especially companion animals—that was what you did, right?
I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve talked to over the years who have said something like, “If only I had known there were other paths. I realized vet school wasn’t for me, so I gave up on the world of animals and became an accountant.” I’m guessing some of you have had similar experiences—or can relate directly! (If you did become an accountant but you’re nevertheless reading this newsletter, there’s still hope. Keep reading!)
Fortunately, the growth of the area of Human-Animal Interaction within the field of psychology and other social science and human service disciplines has opened up career possibilities for those of us interested in working at the intersection of people and animals: teaching, research, clinical practice, business, and many others. Since I don’t have time to review them all in this article, I’ll focus on the arena in which I have the most personal experience: the nonprofit sector.
The question I’m often asked is, “As a psychologist, what are my options for finding work in a nonprofit organization that focuses on human-animal relationships?” Let me begin my answer by telling you a bit about my own trajectory. When I was in my graduate program in clinical psychology—a classic Boulder model program that produced approximately equal numbers of academics and clinicians—my answer to the question of whether I wanted to go into research or practice was, “No.” While I hold great respect for those of you who have taken these tracks, I know that I’m far too impatient. Like many of us, I chose to study psychology because it held the promise of making positive changes in the world. But after spending six years researching the links between animal cruelty and domestic violence, and doing supervised clinical work with both victims and perpetrators of violence, I was champing at the bit to get out into the world and develop programs that provided direct solutions to the problems I’d been grappling with. “I want systems-level change, and I want it now!”
That was how I became involved with Ahimsa House, a Georgia-based nonprofit that provided emergency pet shelter, veterinary care, transportation, and other services to help the human and animal victims of domestic violence reach safety together. Research and clinical experience told us that abusers often harmed pets as a way to terrorize human family members and coerce them into remaining in the relationship. Yet there were few domestic violence shelters that allowed people to bring their pets with them, and little attention was given to other potentially vital aspects, such as providing legal aid to victims whose abusers tried to gain control of the pets via the courts. Ahimsa House’s founder, who had personally experienced the loss of a pet in her quest for safety, created the organization as a direct response to these needs. Now that was right up my alley! After volunteering with the organization during graduate school, I was recruited to the board to provide subject-matter expertise and to help with outreach to domestic violence professionals. That role eventually morphed into a paid full-time position as the first Executive Director. While the work was often stressful, there was immense satisfaction in providing a service that filled a gap. Not only did we help individual people and animals, we saw the agencies with which we worked start to become more responsive to this issue. We were also able to help raise awareness of this issue across the field by providing trainings to national organizations and assisting in developing other programs of this type around the country. There’s a saying that every nonprofit should strive to do its work so effectively that it eliminates the need for its own existence.
I’ve also had the opportunity to use my background in HAI to be part of a nonprofit that is working to develop the HAI field itself. The Animals & Society Institute helps improve and expand knowledge about human-animal relationships to create safer and more compassionate communities for all. These efforts include promoting evidence-based practice in applied HAI. They also include fostering the growth of HAI and its related discipline, Human-Animal Studies, in our university systems so that more students have access to courses, internships, and degree programs instead of becoming accountants. (Oops! Sorry again, accountants! Keep reading—we’ll get to you in a moment.) As ASI’s Executive Director from 2014-2016, I was challenged to use my knowledge of both HAI and psychology as a whole to grow a nonprofit whose work mostly takes place behind the scenes rather than in direct service.
These days, as an independent consultant and “free agent,” I get to help other nonprofits become stronger through program development and evaluation, while also teaching a course on Animal Nonprofits for the master’s program in Anthrozoology at Canisius College and writing the occasional article like this one expounding on the virtues of the nonprofit sector. So why is the nonprofit world an attractive option, and what directions can you take?
One reason psychologists specializing in HAI can be attractive to nonprofit organizations is that those letters after your name convey automatic credibility, whether fair or not (but hey, you did toil for how many years to earn them?). Now, that’s a power that is to be used for good rather than evil, but many nonprofits are eager for the subject matter expertise and PR value that your advanced degree in psychology lends. Your background in HAI isn’t only coveted by nonprofits that focus exclusively on the human-animal relationship, by the way. Organizations that traditionally leaned more toward the animal half of the equation, such as animal shelters, are increasingly developing community outreach programs (reading with dogs; pets for seniors) that promote the human-animal bond. On the other end of the spectrum, human-service-oriented nonprofits are catching on to the potential (and, let’s be honest, the community appeal) of incorporating animals in their work—for example, AAI/AAT programs in hospitals.
Your training as a psychologist puts you in a strong position to help these organizations with everything from designing and delivering their programs to evaluating them. As we know, the HAI field continues to strive to gain broader acceptance within mainstream psychology, even though we’ve already made great progress in this regard. Such topics as fidelity and dose-response don’t cease to be relevant when you step outside the laboratory; nor do cost-effectiveness and clinical as opposed to statistical significance cease to be relevant when you step in.
First, you can help bridge the gap between HAI research and practice by helping translate emerging knowledge into best practices for nonprofits that don’t have time to read academic journals. Second, in my opinion, we need a great deal more outcome evaluation of existing HAI programs to build a stronger evidence base and reduce the potential for external criticism that anybody with a critter can hang out a shingle. Guess what? Nonprofits increasingly agree. If nothing else, they know that their funders have awakened to the importance of demonstrating effectiveness and are now requiring program data even in initial funding applications. Yet many nonprofits lack the resources of knowledge and/or time to do thorough data collection and evaluation. And let’s not forget that the bridge between science and practice goes both ways: as part of a nonprofit, you’ll get to identify the new research questions that are illuminated by the work, and bring those back to the field for study. I’m actually writing this article from the fascinating Research Symposium at the Society of Animal Welfare Administrators conference, where humane society directors are listening to researchers discuss everything from outcomes in programs pairing veterans with shelter dogs (presented by our Section’s own Lisa Lunghofer) to clicker training with cats to improve adoption rates (a study coauthored by our Section Chair, Lori Kogan). Just as the shelter staff are translating the findings into best practices for their own programs, they’re also reporting back from the trenches on new aspects for the researchers to consider. The scientists learn from the practitioners as much as the other way around.
Compassion fatigue is another hot topic in the service sector, and it seems there has been a great increase in awareness among animal organizations. For a nonprofit that lacks internal resources to address compassion fatigue, this can pose a real problem in terms of staff and volunteer mental health, turnover, and the quality of the organization’s services. For those of you with clinical training, this is an excellent opportunity to provide a valuable asset.
Before you jump into the nonprofit arena, there are a few unpleasant realities I should disclose: funding scrambles, fewer job openings than interested candidates, a tendency toward lower pay than you might receive elsewhere, and burnout. (But wait…not so different from our field as a whole, is it?) Depending on the size of the nonprofit, you may also need to wear many hats besides that of Resident Fancy Psychologist. I’m not ashamed (in fact, I’m proud) to admit that in some of my nonprofit stints, even as the executive director, I’ve been on hands and knees scrubbing dog vomit out of the transport vehicle—not to mention answering calls to the crisis line at 3 A.M. If you aspire to run an organization, you’ll also need knowledge of nonprofit administration, which includes everything from strategic planning, volunteer management, and compliance with federal/state laws to budgeting, fundraising, and basic accounting.
(Hey! I said ACCOUNTING! That’s right, accountants: your skills are needed in the HAI field to help the rest of us keep our balance sheets and cash flow projections from looking like a hot mess. And then there’s the small matter of the Form 990 nonprofits are required to file with the IRS each year, plus the external financial review or audit many organizations need in order to fulfill funder requirements. Some of my favorite nonprofit colleagues have been the accountants, attorneys, marketing professionals, and other businesspeople who “came over to the dark side” from the corporate world to use their skills toward social change.)
Here’s a quick note for those who may be considering starting a nonprofit of their own. While this can be an immensely rewarding endeavor, it’s not for the faint of heart. Getting from the idea stage to a successful organization can take many years, and you may not be able to pay yourself at first. Further, funders tend to want to support existing nonprofits over new, unproven ones, seeing the former as safer investments. I’m not trying to discourage you from starting a new organization if you have genuinely identified a need that isn’t being met by existing organizations, but you must undertake this needs analysis in good faith—it’s not enough to launch a new organization just because you want to be the star of your own show—and be prepared for a potentially tough road. I always suggest getting involved as a volunteer with a similar nonprofit first, to learn more about the ins and outs of the work and determine whether you could do more good by pooling your efforts with theirs. If there is truly no organization in your area doing anything remotely resembling your idea, do your homework by reaching out to one somewhere and learning as much as you can.
Although my focus here has been on careers, you don’t have to create or even work for a nonprofit to be involved in the nonprofit sector. Almost every nonprofit needs more volunteers, and the rigid volunteer programs of the past are being replaced by flexible service opportunities that take into consideration each volunteer’s unique interests and skill set. Could your local humane society benefit from a pet grief group? Could your students take externship placements at a nonprofit specializing in AAT? Could you serve on an organization’s board of directors or advisory council? (By the way, board service isn’t only for the venerable and wealthy. Early career professionals are increasingly in demand for the unique and valuable perspectives they bring to nonprofit governance.)
Finally, don’t be discouraged if you express your interest in working with a nonprofit and don’t hear back right away. Some organizations are overwhelmed with requests for assistance and, rightly or wrongly, don’t promptly return emails or phone calls even from those offering to help. Persevere, and I promise you’ll find your niche—with the rich reward of knowing you’re using your training to change the world.
Below, I’ve provided some websites that may be helpful for those wanting to learn more. In the meantime, or anytime, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can help you along your path!
Animals & Society Institute (lots of information on HAI organizations)
Joan Garry (tagline: “Because Nonprofits Are Messy”)
BoardSource (best practices in nonprofit governance)
Foundation Center (fundraising-oriented, especially grants and corporate support)
Independent Sector (leadership network bringing together nonprofits, foundations, and corporations around social change)
Chronicle of Philanthropy (a great way to stay on top of news in the nonprofit sector) National Council of Nonprofits (find your state’s alliance for nonprofits)