Business lessons from the barnyard

A Catskill Animal Sanctuary guest greets Ricky the horse.

A Catskill Animal Sanctuary guest greets Ricky the horse.

If you own a business, you probably don’t think there’s much you can learn from a non-profit that rescues farm animals. But every non-profit is also a business, one that has a budget, that needs to grow its income, and that has to meet payroll. Ulster County has two farm animal sanctuaries that offer lessons in marketing, diversity, and the handling of employees. They also have to feed scores of cows, pigs, chickens, horses, goats etc. There’s nothing about their barnyard business that’s simple.

The Catskill Animal Sanctuary (CAS) opened in 2001 in Kerhonkson and moved to its current location in Saugerties in 2003. Founder Kathy Stevens has proven to be a tireless animal advocate and a master of marketing.

She says CAS is the only farm animal sanctuary in the country which offers a children’s summer camp and vegan cooking classes. “We always had a dual mission,” Stevens said. “We want to help the animals, but also create a societal change. We’ve saved more than three thousand animals in our ten years and until our infrastructure was in place, that had to be our main focus. But now we can turn our attention to the second part of our mission.”

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CAS offers free farm visits to area schools. Camp Kindness helps children get to know animals in a personal way and teaches them how to change the way they eat. Compassionate Cuisine offers classes in cooking, workshops combining yogas and smoothies, talks on the impacts of GMO foods, and events with a more social emphasis, like a July jazz brunch or a sushi class with chefs from vegan restaurants in New York City. CAS also offers a bed-and-breakfast for those who want an overnight farm experience.

“We provide a lot of needed handholding,” Stevens said. “The whole attitude toward veganism has totally changed in the past few years, and we have people interested not only because of the animals, but because of their health or because of their concern about the environment. But it’s a shift, and we try to be the support network to help them make that shift.”

Stevens has authored two books, Where the Blind Horse Sings and Animal Camp, which tell the story of her own journey to CAS, introduces the animals as unique character, and spread the vegan word.

What’s the business lesson here? Diversification. Stevens said diversification is key to her organization. It had to be done step by step, finding the small steps that took CAS closer to its goals.

Jenny Brown and Doug Abel at the Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary have approached the growth of their facility with a slightly different focus since its opening in 2004. WFAS, too, has a bed-and -breakfast. Brown has also just released a book, The Lucky Ones, which has increased her profile.

While WFAS also rescues farm animals, screens potential adopters and offers tours to visitors, much of its outreach has been in events which attract the hip and the glamorous. They’ve created an image that draws supporters. They’ve got their marketing down pat.

“We make sure to keep events going throughout the year, to help keep people engaged, and I’m blessed to be invited to speak publicly at various events and conferences,” Brown wrote in an email on her way back from an event. “We also think design matters. Poor design of a website, printed materials, etc., may not turn off everyone, but it does turn off some people. Get a professional to help. Anticipate that your logo needs to be able to look good as a small Facebook icon as well as a giant print ad.”

Stevens and Brown agreed the personal touch was an important part of their organizations’ success.

“People are charmed that we are still very much a ma-and-pa operation,” Brown wrote, “where I’m out there personally giving tours, saying hi to everyone, etc. But that’s not a strategy, that’s just a reality. Social networks like Facebook provide a similar experience for our supporters, but nothing replaces a face-to-face.”

“You have to have a person who is the face of the business,” Stevens agreed. “People want to know the founder who has the vision. If you neglect that, or if you don’t have a coherent message, you’re going to get into trouble.”

Non-profits, more than many other businesses, have trouble finding and keeping good people. Their budgets are, almost by definition, limited. Yet the work is demanding. Burnout is an occupational hazard.

“Your employees represent your business,” Stevens said. “You want people with a smile on their face for every single person who comes down the driveway. I know there are businesses I’ll never go back to because of the way their employees behaved.”

“Managing employees looms much larger than I’d originally imagined,” Brown admitted.

Her advice for other employers? “Get some ground rules down on paper for your employees; if not an employee manual then at least clear job descriptions and deal memos outlining expectations.”

“Be hyper-aware of your own weaknesses,” Stevens advised. “I know what I’m not strong at, and I hire staff to do those things before it bites me in the butt. You can’t do it all.”

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