Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Shelters (Statistical Version)

Ah yes, another take on the infamous “7 Habits…”!  Below are some thoughts on why statistics are just as important as good husbandry techniques for adequately managing a shelter population.  Statistics are more than just an afterthought, or “I’ll get to them as some point” kind of mentality, and need to be added to the forefront of shelter operations.  Capturing good data and then using that data to plan and adjust to changes in your population will help your shelter go the extra mile in every aspect of shelter management possible.  Admittedly, the following is geared towards brick and mortar animal sheltering facilities, but I think any type of rescue organization can relate to these ideas.  Read on to explore the 7 Habits of Highly Successful Shelters (the Statistics Version):
  1.  Garbage In-Garbage Out.  The single most important factor in using statistics to your advantage is to gather good data in the first place.  Don’t wait until later to record an intake, medical exam, outcome, behavior test, etc.  Do it now, and do it correctly.  You have no hopes of your software producing good reports if the data going in are incorrect or missing.  Shelters are so dependent on measuring time and making sure that animals move through quickly and efficiently, therefore it is vital to record events and observations AS THEY HAPPEN.  You are dead in the water if you are not recording data as events occur.
  2. You have to do a regular head count.  Depending on the capacity of your shelter, this might mean every day.  This can be accomplished when shelter managers/veterinarians are doing rounds, or when staff are going through the rooms each morning for first feedings, or this can be one person’s job to do each and every time.  I have even heard of shelters using bar codes and scanners to take inventory counts!  Whatever works best, just make sure it happens.  There is no way you can produce good statistics, if you are not 100% certain of the animals in your population and where they reside at every point in time within your facility.  As an added benefit, this will also help to reduce ‘lost” or “missing” animals. 
  3.  Know your carrying capacity and its limits.  By this I don’t mean know how many cages you have; carrying capacity is more than just number of cages.  Carrying capacity means calculating your intake “comfort zone” based on your usual “outcome activity”, rather than the other way around.  It means adjusting to unusual intake patterns such as kitten season or puppy mill raids to account for the needier (ie, resource draining) events/populations.  It means having an action plan in place for when you are reaching that carrying capacity—watching statistics on a weekly or monthly basis will allow you to be proactive and notice even subtle trends/changes in your data.  Managed/limited admissions facilities will find this task slightly easier to accomplish than open admissions shelters, but that just means those shelters will have to be a little more creative and flex a little more mental muscle.
  4. Set benchmarks. Once you are consistently gathering quality data, go ahead and set benchmarks (ie, goals) for the statistics that you most closely watch.  This will give you even further insight into the health and well-being of your shelter.  Are you consistently meeting your benchmarks?  If you are not, what action items will be put in place to adjust for the discrepancies?  Increasing the benchmarks themselves does not count!  Benchmarks will also provide direction for staff and hopefully increase productivity if they have in mind what goal they are working to achieve.
  5. Share your stats with staff.  This is important for a couple reasons.  First, it’s always good practice to have many eyes looking at the data to notice any discrepancies, errors, and to make observations/interpretations.  But in addition, this is a great way to give all shelter staff an appreciation for their work beyond direct contact with the animals—in other words, this will give them a glimpse at more of the “big picture”.
  6. Talk with your shelter management software company, and often—you do have a specific animal shelter management software company, right? (We need to talk, if you don’t, this is an integral part of keeping good data)! Tell them what you need and why.  Maintaining an open line of communication with this group will ensure that your data management becomes a fluid, efficiency creator for your daily operations.  Furthermore, it has been my experience that many of the developers of these types of software are computer people and not “animal people” or “helter people”.  So, from their perspective, the software is performing just perfectly, but from your perspective—someone in the trenches daily—you might think the software needs a little tweaking.  Go ahead and speak up!
  7. Collect basics statistics and report on a regular schedule (weekly or monthly is preferred).  Every shelter regardless of size should at least be collecting the following, and be able to report it by variables including animal type, animal age category, etc: a. Intake numbers, b. Outcome numbers, and c. Length of Stay/Animal Care Days.  Basically, you need to know what is coming in, what is leaving, and how long they are staying.  I would guess that about 80% of all meaningful shelter statistical analysis would in some way include these three stats in the respective calculations, so make sure you start with these.