Animal Friends doesn’t stray from its goals


Animal Friends isn’t afraid to innovate — its tagline, “thinking outside the cage,” clearly represents that — and its success at education and awareness has led to high growth. But that same success can lead people to think the organization doesn’t need help.

A decade ago, Animal Friends, which seeks to end pet overpopulation in Southwestern Pennsylvania, built a new facility for its dogs, cats and rabbits.

“We wanted to change what an animal shelter looked like, what it felt like, quite frankly, what it smelled like and how it supports the community,” says President and CEO David Swisher.

The 30,000-square-foot North Hills facility includes outdoor play yards, walking trails and state-of-the-art kenneling.

“It changed the organization in such a positive way,” he says. “Now, we have more spaces for all of our programs and services to really flourish.”

But even after tripling the space, Animal Friends started to outgrow its new facility. So, in 2013, Animal Friends bought 62 acres of wooded land, adjacent to its location. Now, it’s adding a second building, the Howard Ash Animal Wellness Center, to house its spay/neuter services.

“The only progressive way to end pet overpopulation is by spaying and neutering as many animals as you can,” Swisher says.

Last year, Animal Friends did 10,000 surgeries. It hopes to reach 15,000 with the new 18,000-square-foot facility.

The organization is often in the media, with so much activity surrounding its growth and new construction. But Swisher says that doesn’t mean Animal Friends doesn’t need volunteers.

“This is a huge undertaking that takes a very supportive community and we need to continually educate people about how they can participate,” he says. “Most people don’t realize we have a $6 million operating budget.”

It takes a wide range of branding efforts because its supporters and program users come from a wide variety of backgrounds, Swisher says.

While Animal Friends has more than 100 staff members, of whom approximately half are full-time, last year about 2,800 volunteers donated 372,000 hours of service. That equates to another 179 fulltime staff members.

“As a nonprofit, we can’t just continually grow our budget, even though the needs of the community are changing and we’re adjusting our programs to meet those needs,” he says. “We could not operate without our volunteer support.”

Changing perceptions

One ongoing issue is education, which Swisher says is the hallmark to animal welfare issues and how the community can help solve these problems.

Last year, for instance, Animal Friends spoke with about 13,000 students.

“We’re hoping by addressing those educational needs for those students that not only will they grow up to really appreciate and care for their animals and be kind to them, but we also hope that they’ll be kind to people as well,” he says.

The organization, however, found it’s difficult to reach underserved communities. One of the best ways to overcome this, and make a concentrated difference, is going door to door. Animal Friends spent two years doing outreach in Homewood, altering more than 1,000 animals, and has now moved to Perry South.

“These are good people. They love their pets. They want to keep them in their homes, but either a) they can’t afford it or b) they just need to be educated on how to keep their animals in their homes,” Swisher says.

Animal Friends not only offers spay and neuter services to low-income families, often using its mobile vehicle, it provides vaccination clinics and its Chow Wagon program distributes pet food and litter through local food banks. Last year, it collected about 90,000 pounds of food to stop people from feeding their pets people food.

With its new animal wellness center, Swisher hopes Chow Wagon can expand further.

But Animal Friends’ educational effort doesn’t stop there.

The organization has indicated to local vets that it isn’t trying to directly compete with them, he says. Animal Friends is focused on low-income families who normally don’t go to the vet.

Firm footing

Swisher started as Animal Friends’ CFO more than 20 years ago, stepping in to lead on an interim basis three years later. He’s seen the nonprofit do incredible things.

“We’ve tried over the years to knock down any barriers that are in the way to make sure people understand the importance of getting their animals altered and keeping them current on their vaccines,” Swisher says.

He’s also helped Animal Friends find strong financial footing with a clear, focused vision. For example, the nonprofit is on its third five-year strategic plan.

“When I first started, there wasn’t a lot of talk about the business side of the organization,” Swisher says. “We were a very caring, compassionate organization, as we are today, but there wasn’t a lot of focus on the business side of the organization: how to brand the organization, how to fundraise for the organization, how to look ahead.”

Animal Friends not only needs to be a compassionate organization that provides quality care, it also has to raise awareness and money. Swisher says it can do all that by sticking to its mission, ensuring existing and new programs and services meet their outcomes.