Former Heritage Humane Society Volunteers, Staff Upset with Leadership

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Heritage Humane Society (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)
Heritage Humane Society (Gregory Connolly/WYDaily)

Heritage Humane Society has recovered from an outbreak of animal illness last year that prompted its closure for three weeks, but several former volunteers and employees say the Upper York County shelter suffers from problems with morale and fundraising.

Interviews with several people who have walked away — or been fired — from the shelter in the last six months paints a portrait of a nonprofit group marred by strained relations between management and subordinates, low morale and fundraising shortcomings.

The shelter’s management and board of directors see the situation differently. They say a small group of volunteers and former employees who have not gotten their way are detracting from a nonprofit with a difficult mission trying its best to raise money and whose vast majority of employees and volunteers happily remain on the job.

“If they spent a fraction of the time [spent criticizing the shelter] trying to help grow this and make it a better place, they would still be involved,” said Heritage Humane Society Executive Director Kimberly Laska. “They have been very vocal in this community about how terrible things have been at Heritage.”

Many of those interviewed pointed to what they characterized as a rift between upper management — namely Laska and the board of directors — and a handful of longtime volunteers and employees who have left the organization since December.

“The shelter has lost a lot of volunteers, people who donate money to shelter and who have been there for years,” said Patty Herrera, who has volunteered the shelter since 2011. “They’re walking away because nothing is changing, and if you question anything you’re made out to be a troublemaker.”

Laska and Denise Koch, the chairwoman of the board of directors, deny the accusations from the group of between 10 and 15 volunteers and employees who have left the shelter. About 200 volunteers and 25 staff members are associated with the shelter.

“We have turnover all the time,” Laska said. “It’s important to realize volunteers come and go, staff members come and go. Because we’re animal welfare, different opportunities open up.”

Laska and Koch say conditions at the shelter are largely positive, though it does struggle with the same issues besetting most nonprofits — namely, the constant need to raise money.

“There’s some people who feel like if they push hard enough and they go to the right places, all of a sudden [their viewpoint] is something,” Laska said. “There’s nothing to investigate. I’m fine with people calling. I welcome anyone to come in and see what we’re doing.”

In addition to the several lost volunteers, at least five staff members have left the shelter since December — some gave two weeks notice, but others were fired.

Tracy Boyd Camby worked as the shelter’s business manager from January 2010 to February of this year, when she put in her two weeks notice. She said the shelter has been a “whirlwind” since Laska took over as executive director in 2012.

Camby, two other ex-employees and several former volunteers expressed concern with her management style. They said responsibilities and job descriptions were not clear, gossip pervaded the office and basic shelter obligations like sending thank you notes and letters of acknowledgement to donors regularly took far too long.

“We got calls [from donors] saying, ‘Why haven’t I got my acknowledgements?’” Camby said.

The shelter under Laska’s leadership has not done a good job addressing concerns from some donors, said Camby and Peggy Scholley, a longtime volunteer who also served on the board of directors for the shelter from 2004 to 2010.

Cindy Rogers, another former volunteer, said the shelter recently lost a major donor because Laska and the board did not try to “establish any kind of rapport” with her. She said the donor was set to leave a substantial part of her multi-million dollar estate to the shelter, but those plans were eventually rescinded.

“You don’t have a major donor without a relationship and expect to keep them,” Rogers said. “Everybody who was upset walked away because we can’t give to an organization where we feel like the board is not listening [to complaints raised about Laska and the fundraising situation].”

Laska said the loss of the donor was “unfortunate” but that the donor was placing so many requirements on how her gifts to the shelter were used that the relationship was becoming impractical.

For example, Laska said the donor gave money to the shelter’s care fund and would then insist on speaking to the veterinarian treating an animal and want to be able to decide which animals to treat and not treat. For an organization that had more than 1,400 animals come through its doors last year, that sort of involvement proved cumbersome.

“If you have someone who is putting so many conditions and strings on the money you’re donating, you have to make a decision about whether it’s in the best interest [of the shelter],” Laska said. “We were saddened she decided to take her money and go elsewhere, but in the end it was something that has been building for quite some time.”

In addition to what they characterized as issues with developing key donor relationships, several of the former employees and volunteers said direct mail fundraising efforts have slowed. They said the last direct mail solicitation — something they described as a valuable fundraising tool — was sent out in November.

Laska counters that direct mail efforts are expensive — up to $7,000 per mailed newsletter — prompting her to shift to digital newsletters. Since October of last year, the shelter has issued at least 15 emails detailing activities and fundraising efforts.

The volunteers and ex-employees also took issue with what they said is a funding deficit in the shelter’s operating budget. Scholley provided a draft budget document for the fiscal year running from July 1, 2014, through June 30 of this year. It shows a projected $43,754 operating deficit, though that figure changes to $21,746 in the black based on projected endowments, bequests and donations.

She also provided an interim report for that fiscal year that shows a $96,776.06 operating deficit from July 1, 2014, through Jan. 31 of this year. The group is troubled by the presence of operating deficits and what they claim is the use of money bequeathed from estates to shore up the shelter’s operations.

Laska confirmed the shelter finished the last fiscal year with an operating deficit, though she declined to share the shelter’s financials. She said the numbers have not yet been audited, so they are not ready to be made public.

“We have not been in a situation for many years where we can cover 100 percent of our operating expenses with income and revenue,” she said, adding that large gifts from estates are not used for operational expenses.

The shelter is required to file financial forms to the Internal Revenue Service each year. A review of the past five forms covering the shelter’s financials back to 2010 show two years that finished with a combined more than $1 million surplus, while three others finished with a deficit totaling more than $360,000.

Those numbers do not differentiate between donations for operating expenses and one-time donations that tend to go toward larger projects, however.

Laska said the shelter needs to do a better job of raising money, saying “we still treat ourselves as a small shop, but we have big needs.”

Koch, the chairwoman of the board of directors, said the board has directed Laska to produce a plan to increase the shelter’s income.

“The board thinks [Laska] has done a great job supporting fundraising,” Koch said, noting it is not uncommon for nonprofits to have operating deficits.

Laska pointed to recent fundraising successes, like the $18,000 raised by Give Local 757, $26,000 by the Christmas Bazaar and $5,000 by the Fur Tree. The Christmas Bazaar is a fundraising event held each year at Bruton Parish. The Fur Tree is an annual event where donors can buy bows to place on a tree on display in Williamsburg, with all proceeds going to the shelter.

Past employees have all described a work environment lacking organization. They said they have not received an employee handbook or list of the expectations of their respective positions, leading to confusion during the workday. Laska said there is an employee handbook available for all employees, and that the orientation process requires them to sign a document acknowledging they have received it.

“There is an employee handbook,” Laska said. “It has not been updated in some time, but that’s not unusual.”

She said the shelter is in the process of updating the handbook to incorporate new rules governing areas such as social media use.

Still, a few of the former employees say expectations and rules were unclear. Jeremy Curtis, the shelter’s former floor coordinator and maintenance supervisor, said he filed two weeks notice and left in May after five years on the job.

“Everybody was pulled from what their job was supposed to be to cover other people’s jobs, because other people are getting pulled to run reports for board meetings, which was ultimately Kim’s job,” he said. “But she pushed everything downhill.”

He said he repeatedly identified to Laska and upper management rust problems on a door to a room where dogs can move about freely in front of glass windows. He said the door had jagged pieces of rusted metal sticking off of it and that despite repeated requests for the resources to address the problem, he was not given anything until “I had to tell Kimberly straight up that I would not allow her to house animals freely in there any longer.”

Curtis said that issue was fixed shortly before he left.

“I was always being told we have no money, I can’t fix anything,” he said.

Laska said that project was more complicated than simply fixing a rusted door. Replacing the metal was considered a renovation, meaning the entire room had to be brought up to state code. That turned out to be a $37,000 project.

“[It] is substantial for a nonprofit to cough up [$37,000],” she said. “All these volunteers who complained didn’t put one minute of time toward it except to complain and criticize how long the project took.”

In addition to fixing that room, the shelter has used bequests to pay for other infrastructure upgrades under Laska’s tenure.

The shelter was able to use a gift from the estate of Jean C. Keating to rebuild two window rooms for dogs. A room where adopters and pets can bond prior to formalizing the adoption has been renovated with new walls and floors better suited to the frequent cleaning the building needs. That work was made possible thanks to a gift from the estate of Douglas P. Tongue.

Koch, the chairwoman of the board of directors, said the board is satisfied with the general operations of the shelter.

“This is a dynamic environment,” she said. “There are always things changing. Sometimes you don’t give people the answer they like, but I have tried to be thorough and fair.”

She said the shelter is poised for long-term success and that most people affiliated with the shelter — either as workers or adopters — are “very pleased.”

Correction 7/15/15: Jeremy Curtis filed two weeks notice and left Heritage Humane Society in May.

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