Sunday, May 31, 2009

I've seen this movie before

The problem with the business of animal welfare is that it's not much of a business. There's not enough filthy lucre to attract real expertise into management. When there's real money to be made, or lost, you can bet cooler, more reasonable and better informed heads will be brought to the table to make sure things run as efficiently as possible.

On the other hand, when the reward for a hard day's work is a whole lot of gratitude from penniless furry four legged creatures, it's the heart that becomes fulfilled and soon it's the heart that leads, not the head. And emotional decision makers don't make for great managers.

I'm being slightly facetious here of course. Profit motive is one of the worst motives I can think of. The last thing I'd want to see is the Toronto Humane Society become some sort of cash driven corporation dictated by bottom line results. But still, there is something depressingly laughable and unprofessional about the mismanagement and power struggles that have occurred there in its recent history.

It seems the last few decades of the THS have been full of turmoil, of political melodrama, of lawsuits, of misled members turfing out the old guard only to be misled again and again. Each time, so much money wasted on legal fees and politicking and of course, of course the animals suffer and by suffer I am talking about each individual animal that lies and dies in its cage. Each and every one that died because instead of spending donation money on vets and caretakers, it was spent on legal fees and optics. Instead of putting energy into animal welfare, it was redirected to playing personal power politics.

Here's an old, 2001 article from the Toronto Star. It talks about the how the present THS board of directors, under Tim Trow, got to power:

Seven directors ousted
Animal care agency's board shuffled over loss of city contract
Christian Cotroneo

While cages at the Toronto Humane Society's River St. headquarters sat half-empty, it was all cats and dogs at the annual meeting upstairs.

After an eight-month power struggle, members voted Monday night to reshuffle the agency's board of directors, replacing president Jeannie Butler and six others on the 11-member board.

The new directors include past-president Tim Trow, who had resigned when the board was plagued by internal strife in the mid-1980s. Trow becomes the new president.

"I feel like Custer at Little Big Horn," said ousted treasurer Ernest Royden. "A boot in one cheek and a bite in the other."

But dissatisfied members say the real bite had come out of the society's historic mandate to care for the city's animals. After 114 years of taking in strays, the city decided not to renew its contract with the organization earlier this year, leaving dogs and cats in bustling city pounds while the society's shelter remained sparsely populated. Of the 11,000 animals the shelter took in last year, 7,800 were strays.

Butler insisted the society just wanted a break-even deal from the city - it couldn't afford a lopsided arrangement that left the society footing much of the bill for taking care of the animals. The city ended up backing away from the society's request for a 35 per cent fee increase.

"We've asked the city to pay just enough money to cover the cost of the services we're providing," Butler said.

Despite the rift with the city, Butler characterized the society as "better, stronger and healthier than we've ever been before.

"We are on the path to a new relationship with the city - a new and fair and equitable and responsible relationship."

But members elected to take a different path, with new directors at the helm.

Former directors were derided for many of the recent ills that had befallen the charity organization, including losing the city contract and the prolonged, costly and distracting internal struggle. Several complained about being "telemarketed" for their votes by both sides; others raised the spectre of document shredding and mismanaged funds.

"I've experienced the full gamut of emotions ranging from anger to frustration," Butler said. "Good intentions have been twisted every step of the way."

The real victims of the struggle, she added, are the animals. "In our care, they should never be used as pawns in pursuit of power."

Much of the society's woes erupted earlier this year, when the board tried to take away the voting rights of the bulk of its membership. Policy decisions would then be left in the hands of directors. But a court blocked the move.

According to Heather Ferguson, who also lost her position, that would have spelled a more efficient organization.

People, she said, are getting "picky" about which charitable organizations they support, preferring to get the most out of their contribution.

"You better be fiscally well-managed and you better be well-governed," she said. "This is not a mom-and-pop operation. This is an eight- to nine-million-dollar organization."

For the new directors that means repairing relations with the city.

"We've got to get to work. We've got to normalize relations with the city and the Ontario Humane Society and we've got to make the place alive like it's never been before," Trow said.

He's also confident the city will opt to work with the society again. "They put $1 million into this building. Do they really want to put $2 million into another building?"

The feud has cost the society around $500,000 in legal costs. Much of its funding comes from philanthropists like the late pianist Glenn Gould and media magnate Ken Thomson. Last year, that largesse amounted to $1.1 million. Fundraising, donations and membership fees amounted to another $5.6 million.

For those who were members in 1983, the eight-month-long squabble must seem like dejavu all over again. That's when the board split over alleged mismanagement, which included poor record-keeping and organizational skills. Distrust and paranoia would later culminate in a 1987 court battle over board restructuring.

(More articles detailing these events can be found at

We have to be careful now, not to let history completely repeat itself. On the one hand, these past experiences give us hope that the present board can be replaced by popular vote but at same time we must take care not to hand over power to those who would misuse it.

The search is on for an emancipator, not a dictator.

1 comment:

Social Mange said...

Taking away the voting rights of the membership would have made THS a dictatorship, answerable to no one.

Which kinda sorta sounds like it is now.