The New Network Leader
The New Network Leader
This series highlights the work of seven leading "network entrepreneurs," who are generating systems-level social impact in environmental conservation, education, economic development, and beyond.

It’s not uncommon for animal lovers to speculate on what they’d do to help animals if they won the lottery or suddenly had millions of dollars. Philanthropists Dave and Cheryl Duffield did exactly that, and when they met with financial success, they decided to use their wealth to support a collaborative, data-driven model for animal welfare—one that has helped quietly revolutionize animal sheltering in the United States.

During the early years of struggle while founding the software giant PeopleSoft, the Duffields received so much support from the unconditional love of their dog, Maddie, that they made her a promise: If they ever made it big, they’d find a way to give all America’s dogs and cats a chance at the happiness Maddie knew with their family.

They were successful, and in 1994, they created Maddie’s Fund, a family foundation with the mission of revolutionizing the status and well-being of companion animals.

I joined them as the president of the foundation, following 23 years as executive director of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), where the Duffield’s generosity had already benefited many homeless pets. It wasn’t hard to decide that Maddie’s Fund’s first goal would be to end the killing of pets in shelters and make America a no-kill nation.

But how?

Taking a Collaborative Approach

We saw the opportunity to go into communities not as knights on white horses telling shelters how to solve all their problems, but as partners working to empower their creativity and enthusiasm for getting the job done. We believed effective solutions would come from involving all players in the creation of a plan that reflected the specific needs and resources of the community—we believed that process that would make them true stakeholders.

To accomplish this, we embraced the network principle of “node not hub,” deciding early on not to invest in top-down remedies, but in collaborative models that would remain in tact after our initial financial support ended, usually after a period of 5-7 years.

We also made a conscious decision to emphasize the principle of “humility not brand,” refraining from standing in the spotlight and demanding credit for our support. We wanted the communities themselves to take the credit for their results, because we knew that was the only way to engage local sources of funding and philanthropy. Without that, their efforts wouldn’t be sustainable.

Our first investment was ambitious: We awarded $8.5 million to Best Friends Animal Society to help it make Utah a no-kill state. We also funded seven years of the 10-year Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals project, bringing structure to an informal network of groups already trying to save animals in animal control shelters. That project began with a 36 percent live release (the number of animals leaving the shelter system alive divided by the total number of animals leaving the shelter system) and as of 2013 had an 88 percent live release rate city-wide.

But our vision for collaboration wasn’t to work with only the biggest and most-established organizations. We looked for communities everywhere—in the desert and in the mountains, from east to west. We funded urban, rural, and suburban communities— Buffalo, New York; Mobile, Alabama; and Lodi, California—with a singular mission.

In addition, our Maddie’s Community Lifesaving Awards program provided millions of dollars to communities that—thanks to the exceptional leadership, collaboration, and dedication of community members—achieved high levels of lifesaving without working with Maddie’s Fund at all. This drove awareness and inspired replication of those achievements.

Finding Points of Leverage for Systems-Level Change

As a condition of our grantmaking, we required that local communities develop a data-gathering system. Only a decade ago, the animal welfare world was extremely data-scarce; even in communities with an infrastructure to help animals, that infrastructure was usually under-resourced.

We knew that without data, organizations working to help animals wouldn’t be able to know where they’d been, where they were, and where they wanted to go. And to be successful on a national level, we needed a model that would help all boats rise. Data from our projects would help other communities, and us, understand what worked and what didn’t so that animals everywhere could benefit.

In 2004, we worked closely with 18 disparate animal welfare organizations to tackle the shelter industry’s data problem in what became known as the Asilomar Accords. We worked at municipal, regional, and national levels, promoting a consensus data model that large segments of our industry could embrace and use to standardize terminology and reporting across all shelters. We invested in building data-gathering systems for the shelter field and saw those early efforts blossom into genuine cultural change.

For example, today, nearly all major organizations funding dog and cat lifesaving believe in data collection, reporting statistics, holding organizations accountable, and promoting interagency cooperation. Most rewardingly, an independent project known as Shelter Animals Count has grown out of the history of the Accords, with a mission to create and share a national database of animal shelter data to enable insights and save more lives.

An important parallel effort was to gain the support and specialized knowledge of veterinarians trained in shelter medicine. But at the time, there were no shelter medicine programs in any veterinary schools. Today, Maddie’s Fund is the largest funder of shelter medicine education in the world, but the money wouldn’t have mattered without the efforts of the academic leaders, shelter veterinarians, and other veterinary professionals who came together to create what is now the newest recognized veterinary specialty. Programs we funded, and those we didn’t, have all worked together to change the standard of care we provide for our nation’s sheltered animals.

From the outset, Maddie’s Fund sought to move beyond old models of charitable giving into those that combine the best of the business world and the highest aspirations of the human spirit. We always sought new approaches that would create flexible, community-based change for animals, with a firm understructure of data and benchmarks. As a result, Maddie’s Fund has turned a $172 million investment into a strong platform for the entire animal welfare movement to share, by using a strategy that starts and ends with collaboration, and focusing on the participation of communities across the country in a network approach to systems-level change.