Rachel Herman of Pets Are Wonderful Support: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
Think strategically, but focus on baby steps. As the founder, you are the visionary. You’re the person with the “big ideas” and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed when you think about what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to achieve it. It was early on when my husband encouraged me to break everything down into smaller tasks and to focus on baby steps rather than a larger, intangible goal. While I am always focused on the larger, strategic issues we are facing, I am constantly thinking about how each idea can be broken down into more concrete steps. Otherwise, it’s easy to think, “I can’t do this.” Or “I don’t even know where to begin.” This approach has helped me immensely over the years when I otherwise would have been overwhelmed by what stood in front of me.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Herman.
Rachel Herman is the Founder and Executive Director of Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS NY), a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping keep older adults and other New Yorkers in need together with their animal companions. Rachel has worked in the nonprofit sector for 15 years, and her work with PAWS NY has earned her recognition as “New Yorker of the Week” by NY1, “Holiday Hero” by The New York Times, “40 Under 40 Rising Stars in the Nonprofit World” by NYN Media, and most recently, “Young Social Impact Hero” by Thrive Global. Rachel recently moved to Connecticut (from Brooklyn) with her husband, their two young daughters, and her cat Milo, whom she rescued in 2008 during her first PAWS NY client visit.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
I grew up in a small town about an hour north of New York City. I am the youngest of three, and I have two older brothers. My parents met walking dogs on the Upper East Side, so it seems fitting that I have dedicated my life to working with animals! Growing up we always had several pets at a time. It was always at least two dogs and two cats, and we occasionally had other pets, including tropical fish and hamsters. I always enjoyed playing sports or games of any kind. After high school, I went to college in Michigan. My plan was to go to law school, but after working at a firm in New York City for a couple of years following graduation, I decided it was not the right path for me and instead pursued a Master of Public Administration from NYU. It was not long after that decision that I came up with the idea for PAWS NY. I am not typically a risk-taker (in fact, I am usually risk-averse!), but I am so glad I took the leap to pursue PAWS NY. I am very proud of the work we have achieved over the last 13 years, and I can’t wait to see what we do next! On personal note, my husband I have two daughters. Sophie is 6 and Isabel is 2, and we have a 13-year-old rescue cat named Milo that we rescued on the way home from the first PAWS NY client visit.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your non nonprofit?
In 2008, I was in graduate school, pursuing my MPA at NYU. On my walk to class, I noticed a young homeless couple and their dog sitting outside of a local grocery store. As an animal lover, I felt empathy for this family, knowing that they likely were giving up a warm bed at night in order to remain together, since homeless shelters don’t allow pets. It was heartbreaking to think about, and despite the occasional change or pet food I donated, I didn’t feel like my contributions were truly making a difference. I began to ask myself questions such as: “Are there other people in New York City that have pets but struggle to provide adequate care for them? And how can I provide more meaningful assistance?” After some research, I identified that there was a huge need for pet care assistance and no organization in New York City to provide for that need in the way I had envisioned. More than a year later, on November 11th, 2009, our first volunteer visited our first client.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
We are trying to help older adults and other under-resourced New Yorkers overcome the physical and financial limitations they face in caring for their animal companions so that they can keep their pets and continue to benefit from this important relationship. At PAWS NY, we envision a society that honors the emotional, physical, and social benefits of the human-animal bond, where a lack of ability never threatens to separate humans from their animal companions. Everything we do is done with the goal of helping to keep people and their pets together for as long as possible. At PAWS NY, we believe that pets are family.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
There are many, but one story from several years ago really stands out and will stay with me forever. A volunteer was working with a client on the Upper East Side. He was an older gentleman who had an adorable English Bulldog. One of his volunteer dog walkers had informed him that the following day, he would have to visit earlier because he was planning to go out of town. When the volunteer arrived at his home, there was no answer. The volunteer called and knocked over and over again, and still no response. This was particularly odd, as the client was essentially homebound and the two had spoken about the visit just the day before. The volunteer was able to find the building’s Super, who opened the door to the apartment. Once inside, they found the client unresponsive and in bed, and his dog was lying next to him. They called 911, and he was rushed to the hospital. We arranged for his dog to be fostered. We later learned that the client has suffered a stroke. The prognosis did not look good, and we expected the worst. A few days later I was at my desk, and the phone rang. It was the client, calling me from his hospital bed. Miraculously he had survived! I couldn’t believe it. Our volunteer had truly saved his life.
It was in this moment that I realized that what we are doing goes well beyond pet care. Our volunteers are visiting with our clients every day, and so we are taking on this added responsibility that comes with that. We are the “eyes and ears”, and our volunteers are in a way providing wellness checks and companionship that our clients would otherwise go without. A huge aspect of our volunteer training involves preparing volunteers for the various situations that could arise during a visit and how to prepare. Certainly we cannot anticipate every possible situation, but our goal is to make sure volunteers understand that when they sign up to help a pet, that they are also agreeing to pay attention to the human client as well and notify us should they have any concerns about their well-being.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
There is really just one action the community should be doing, and that’s helping our neighbors. We all need to support one another. There are so many people who have no one, and even just a little help from a neighbor can make a significant impact on someone’s life. If more people pitched in to support their community members, organizations like PAWS NY wouldn’t need to exist. I love New York, but people are busy and stressed, and we’re so distracted by our phones that we often miss what’s right in front of us.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, leadership is about inspiration. An effective leader is someone who motivates others through their actions and passion for the cause, and as a result, inspires others to take action. An effective leader is someone who empowers their team members. While I can’t say for sure whether I’m an effective leader, I am constantly thinking about how my actions impact others within the organization. I do my best to lead by example, showing both a commitment to our cause but also to myself. I attempt to model a commitment to work/life balance, because I believe that it’s so important to the health of the individuals within my organization and ultimately to the organization itself.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
- It’s a long-term commitment, so get ready! Starting a nonprofit organization requires not only passion for a cause but also patience and perseverance. Making change does not happen overnight. It can take years of planning to even begin to see your efforts pay off. When I started PAWS NY, I was so passionate about what I was trying to build, but in the early days, I never actually thought about what I would be committing to long term and how my decision to start this organization would impact the course of my life. What would follow would be long days, late nights, and many personal sacrifices. It can be daunting, and if you’re going to embark on this kind of journey, you have to truly be passionate about it, otherwise it will be easy to give up when you face the inevitable challenges and obstacles. It’s been 13 years since I started PAWS NY, and I think back to what I went through, especially early on, so that we could bring help to New Yorkers in need. It took many years for us to have the support staff needed so that I could feel comfortable taking a day off and fully disconnecting from my computer. But in the end, it was all worth it because the work we are doing is important, and I am honored to be working with so many amazing people.
- Think strategically, but focus on baby steps. As the founder, you are the visionary. You’re the person with the “big ideas” and it’s very easy to become overwhelmed when you think about what you are trying to achieve and how you are going to achieve it. It was early on when my husband encouraged me to break everything down into smaller tasks and to focus on baby steps rather than a larger, intangible goal. While I am always focused on the larger, strategic issues we are facing, I am constantly thinking about how each idea can be broken down into more concrete steps. Otherwise, it’s easy to think, “I can’t do this.” Or “I don’t even know where to begin.” This approach has helped me immensely over the years when I otherwise would have been overwhelmed by what stood in front of me.
- Don’t take short-cuts. If you want to start a nonprofit, it’s probably because you feel passionately about your cause. When we are passionate about something, we want to jump in head-first. It’s easy to get excited and to be eager to begin your work. But it’s important to know that first and foremost, this is a business, and there are legal and administrative tasks that you must do, and failure to do them puts your charitable status in jeopardy. I encourage you to take your time, make sure you cross all of your Ts and dot all of your Is. Do not take short cuts. The more thorough you are, the better off you and your organization will be in the long run.
- Do your research and make sure you have something unique to offer. When starting a nonprofit, it’s important to do your homework. Are there other organizations in your community already doing this work? If so, you may want to re-think your plan or identify what makes your organization unique. If there are similar organizations, talk to them. What do they do and why aren’t they already doing what you have in mind? Also, form relationships with these organizations. Collaboration is crucial, and you won’t succeed without having key stakeholders on your side. PAWS NY has so many incredible partners, and we would not be where we are today without their support.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses, and bring in partners who can fill the gaps. Understand your personal strengths and identify your weaknesses. You’ll want to surround yourself with colleagues and partners whose skills and experiences complement yours rather than mirror yours. When I started PAWS NY, I had a vision and a passion for our work, but I had never started a nonprofit before, and there were so many areas for which I had no experience. Our founding Board of Directors included individuals with a diverse set of skills, including people with experience in event planning, graphic design, finance, fundraising, and more. I never could have done the early work without them!
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
This is very hard! I am grateful to have this platform and for the opportunity to share our work with your readers. There are so many prominent people who I would love to introduce to PAWS NY, and so it’s difficult to narrow down the list. However, if I’m thinking about well-known individuals who are also known for their love of animals and their philanthropic support, then I would have to say Rachael Ray and Ellen DeGeneres. They both seem so wonderful, and I think they both would really love the work we do to keep people and pets together.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
I’ll be honest, I had to do some research for this one! I really like the below Barack Obama quote:
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
It is so easy to sit back and let life happen to us, to become passive and to get settled into a routine. I remember how scared and nervous I was in 2011, when I was faced with a difficult decision. I could pursue PAWS NY full-time and really give it a shot at succeeding, but to do so would involve giving up what was previously my dream job at an organization that provided a great salary, great benefits, and job security. As I mentioned earlier, I’m typically a risk-averse person, and so this decision was not easy for me. I could have stayed in my job, and it’s possible I could have been really happy there for many years. That would have been the easy and safe choice. But I thought about the people and pets we were helping, and I thought about what would happen to them if I didn’t take this opportunity being given to me. The pride and motivation I feel doing this work is not something that comes around often (if ever!), and I just knew I had to see it through, for both the clients and pets we serve and also for myself. I realized it would be a mistake not to do everything in my power to make PAWS NY a reality, and I have never regretted that decision in the many years that have followed.
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow PAWS NY on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at @pawsny. Readers can also connect with me on LinkedIn at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/hermanrachel/
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
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