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By Andrea Muirragui Davis adavis@ibj.com

    Humane Society of Indianapolis has been through “the bowels of hell” in the past three years—beginning its descent amid intense public criticism in 2001 and bottoming out last year when a financial crisis threatened its future.

    The adversity forced painful changes as the agency cut staff, expenses and operating hours in an effort to live within its means. But it also prompted an important transformation in its board of directors.

    “We got more engaged,” said Brent Bolick, who joined HSI’s board in 1999 and was elected president in May. “You have to be hands-on when you’re trying to keep the doors open.”

    That has been a big adjustment for a group that once met every other month for what Bolick said essentially was an “information dump.” Recent demands on the board have been rigorous, the decisions wrenching.

    “It has been very difficult, very traumatic,” said longtime director John Miller, who likened the process to a trip through Satan’s guts. “But I think we’re headed in the right direction.

    “Leadership is in place and we’re all working together. It’s not that complicated —animals in and animals out. That’s all that matters.”

    Even so, the controversy has taken a toll on the board. Although many members honored their commitments, others left before their terms were complete.

    At the organization’s annual meeting in May, the nine directors that remained after resignations and expired terms voted 10 newcomers into the group.

    Expectations run high.

    The board’s leadership development committee worked for months to recruit individuals who would bring passion and experience to the group, interviewing candidates as thoroughly as they would potential employees. Two of the new members already have assumed leadership positions.

    “There’s not a shrinking violet in the bunch,” said Gary Sampson, the Central Indiana Veterinary Medical Association’s representative to the HSI board for 16 years. “I like what’s happening. It’s a new slate.”

    Indeed, the fresh faces may well infuse the organization with the energy it needs to endure the next few years. Board members approved a plan in January that calls for borrowing up to $2.3 million to cover expenses while they work with the staff to boost revenue.

    Success depends in large part on fund raising, and the directors share the responsibility.

    As well they should, said Bryan Orander, founder of Indianapolis-based Charitable Advisors LLC. Resource development is a major part of a not-for-profit board’s job.

    “They should be representing their organization in the community and connecting it to the resources it needs,” he said. “Whether that’s volunteers, partners or dollars, they should be out there, seeing what’s available.”

    Veteran directors and Executive Director Martha Boden made the agency’s situation—and expectations—clear when talking to board candidates. They wanted members who were passionate about the mission and willing to do what it takes to accomplish it.

    The process was deliberate.

    Board members went through a strategic planning process early this year, identifying three goals for the immediate future: increasing the animal placement rate, getting the agency’s finances on firm footing, and boosting development revenue.

    Directors evaluated their own capability to achieve those goals, then set out to fill in the gaps.

    “We wanted people with an understanding of governance, people who had fund-raising experience and were connected with the mission of the organization,” said committee member Jane Root. “You really don’t get much from board members who aren’t passionate about your mission. This group is. They get it.”

    And unlike many of their predecessors, the new directors know exactly what they’re getting themselves into.

    “Not one person backed away,” Bolick said. “It would be very easy to lose enthusiasm based on all we have on our plate. These are people who saw what we were doing and are up to the challenge. They want to get involved.”

    That’s reassuring to those who have been working to improve operations and turn the tide of public opinion.

    “It’s huge,” said Boden, the executive director. “We have incredible momentum. It doesn’t feel like a handful of people carrying us forward anymore. The group is growing and it feels really good.”

    The new directors are equally enthusiastic. Their first month on the job was demanding, as agency leaders worked to get them connected with the rest of the board and up to speed on the realities of the organization.

    “We have learned a lot very quickly,” said Phil Schaefer, a new member who has experience with other local not-for-profits. “I think that’s important, rather than have it all trickle out over the next six board meetings.”

    Properly orienting new members is key to keeping a board engaged, said Deborah Hechinger, CEO of Washington, D.C.-based BoardSource.

    “Everyone should have some kind of organized orientation,” she said. “There’s often confusion among boards and management about their roles and responsibilities. Why not make sure everyone understands?”

    HSI has done just that. In addition to a daylong retreat that acquainted them with veteran directors and senior managers, the new members are spending time at the shelter seeing how things work.

    The orientation process starts with Boden, who covers the big picture—the realities of the industry, the history of the shelter and the plans for the future. Newcomers also spend time in the outreach department, where they shadow a volunteer, and the development office, where they make thank-you calls to donors.

    Then there’s the dirty work.

    Orientation also includes a stint in the Wellness Center and the adoption kennels, where new members can see every facet of the operation firsthand and pitch in where needed.

    “The goal is to give them a clear understanding of the work that goes on here so they can make educated decisions about policy and budget,” Boden said. “The organization needs a board that is engaged in what we do and doesn’t just see it in reports and numbers on a piece of paper. They have to understand what it means.”

    So far, the message has been received. “We’re not just a rubber stamp,” said new member Linda Brundage. “We’re expected to perform.”

HSI’s board has a tough road ahead, but it is not focused solely on the horizon. Members get regular reports on the organization’s progress, and committees keep an even closer eye on things to make sure there aren’t any wrong turns.

And they’re all working from the same map.

“It all comes back to the strategic plan,” Bolick said. “It’s not something we just talk about once a year. We review it on a monthly basis.

“With our financial situation, the [scrutiny from] animal welfare advocates and a raised level of expectations from the community, the board had to get more engaged. It’s really been an evolution.” Even so, some critics aren’t satisfied. The most vocal detractor is a group called Move to Act, which is publicly questioning how the board has managed Humane Society finances. Its leaders blame what they say is an old-boy network rife with cronyism and self-dealing.

    “It’s a clique,” said MTA co-founder Warren Patitz, a former obedience trainer at the shelter. “There is no opportunity for other people to influence the direction the organization goes.”

    The group wants all HSI board members who were serving from 2000 to 2002—when finances took a serious hit—to resign and be replaced with a slate of directors approved by Move to Act.

    HSI leaders have listened to the complaints, but they believe the objections and many of the demands are unreasonable.

    The Humane Society has made a concerted effort in recent years to be open about its problems and plans, Bolick said, offering copies of audited financial statements and responding to community questions.

    To that end, Bolick has reached out to some of the MTA supporters who spoke at the board’s annual meeting this year, in hopes of getting them involved in the organization.

    “We’re legitimately open to their comments and thoughts,” he said. “We have been very, very transparent.”

    Stacey Coleman was impressed by the effort. She has met with both Bolick and Boden since criticizing the agency at the annual meeting.

    “They were amazingly open and really listened to what I had to say,” Coleman said. “That was major progress.”

    Indeed, effective boards also act as ambassadors of sorts, whether they’re at a Kiwanis meeting, talking with relatives or making formal fund-raising calls.

    “They should be out telling the organization’s story,” said Orander, the local consultant.

    And the new directors already are on board, so to speak.

    Attorney Lisa Stone believes in what the Humane Society does—and where it’s going—or she wouldn’t have joined the board in the first place.

    “There are lots and lots of positives about the organization, but it’s easier to focus on the negatives,” she said of the criticism. “We aren’t the only organization that has had financial difficulty in last few years … a lot of charities were caught in that crack. But we acknowledged it and have a plan for dealing with it.”

    And she and the rest of the board are there to help.

    “We’re going to roll up our sleeves and get in there,” Stone said. “It’s a good mission and we’re trying to do the right thing.”

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