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Annex Cat Rescue: Twenty "Pawsome" Years of Grassroots Work

Posted By Jessica Pang-Parks, Education Coordinator - Grassroots Growth, February 23, 2017
Updated: February 23, 2017

 

Photo from the Annex Cat Rescue Facebook page

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

One of my favourite things about working on the Grassroots Growth team is the opportunity to connect with volunteer non-profit leaders across Ontario. There are so many amazing projects and people that we’ve worked with! Thank you to all the grassroots leaders who’ve come out to our workshops, interacted with us online, and participated in our initial research. Your ideas and enthusiasm never cease to amaze me.

 

One of the groups that participated in our initial research was Annex Cat Rescue (ACR); we profiled them as a case study in our From the Bottom Up report. This year, Annex Cat Rescue is celebrating its 20th anniversary. A lot changes over twenty years, but the organization is still 100% volunteer run. 

I recently sat down with Sky Lamothe, the Chair of the Board of Directors, and Raven Sun, one of the group’s longest-serving volunteers, to chat about ACR’s growth and tips for grassroots leadership and governance:

JPP: Congrats on your 20th anniversary! Since the inception of ACR, what has been the biggest shift in the scope of your work?

SL: When we first started, we didn’t realize how big the homeless cat situation was in Toronto. Initially ACR focussed on finding homes for kittens of feral cats, TNRing (Trapping-Neutering-Returning), and caring for several colonies of feral cats within a small area. Our group’s mission has not changed but our area of coverage has expanded to the entire city of Toronto.

Also, as resources are limited, the board is constantly discussing how to focus on cats that are not being cared for by other organizations and how best to fill in the gaps in service.

 

JPP: Can you tell me a bit about the Annex Cat Rescue’s history? I can see that you received charitable status in 1999, only two years after the group’s establishment!

RS: ACR had already applied for charitable status with Revenue Canada (as the CRA was known back then) before I joined as a volunteer (we received status within a few months). Applying for charitable status made a lot of sense for us. Potential supporters are far more likely to contribute when a charity is seen as a "legitimate" entity (not just a fly-by-night group). Also, donors are able to receive some financial incentive through their contributions by way of a charitable tax receipt.

 

There are also quite a few programs available to registered charities, from both the private and public sectors (e.g. corporate donation/grant programs and GST/HST rebate respectively). This allows the organization to do more with its limited financial resources and tap into programs for other kinds of assistance.

 

 
Volunteer Colony Feeder, Robin  

 

JPP: Maintaining charitable status means a lot of paperwork, and time! Is it worth the trouble?

RS: Absolutely! There are many advantages that we would miss out on if we didn't have charitable status. As for paperwork and documentation, it is not much different than running a small business; you need to keep track of your income and expenses. However, you do need to remain organized and keep track of all paperwork and transactions for audit purposes.

 

In our case, we have one volunteer (me!) who is dedicated to ensuring that we retain adequate paperwork. As the Volunteer Bookkeeper, I lay out the financial policies and procedures that our organization must follow. The Treasurer on our Board of Directors is jointly responsible for ensuring that our organization operates under charitable organization rules required by the CRA.

 

JPP: For groups who want to legitimize, but aren’t ready for incorporation or charitable status, we recommend putting policies and procedures and volunteer training documents in place. As your group continues to grow, have you had to re-evaluate these documents?

SL: Yes, we have had to re-evaluate. For example, our foster program has expanded over the years from about 20 homes to approximately 200 homes. 

It grew to the point where we needed a whole team of volunteers to coordinate it. So, we created a manual to ensure that everyone was consistent in understanding expectations and responsibilities. We also took larger roles that were found to be overwhelming for two people, and separated out specific tasks to reorganize into five different volunteer roles. 

Over the last two years, we’ve been inundated with requests for help as other local rescues claim their “niches”. Some have backed away from feral cats and now are focussing on other aspects of cat rescue. As a result, the board had to re-examine and tighten our intake policy to ensure we and independent rescuers understood which cats we might be able to take in and which ones should be given priority.

We’ve also had to put more formal volunteer position descriptions in place for various roles. This helps to ensure that people interested in those specific volunteer roles understand the level of commitment and skills required. Rescue can be a lot of work but it is also a lot of fun!

We developed a crisis communication plan a few years ago too and now our Board is looking into a social media policy as part of the content strategy. As social media has evolved, many of our volunteers want to share their involvement with ACR. One of our biggest challenges is to be pro-active, rather than re-active. But like many volunteer-run organizations, time is limited. It continues to be challenging!

 
Volunteer Trapper, Sasha with "Cookie" the kitten 

 

JPP: I bet! But having a group of dedicated and passionate volunteers must help to mitigate those challenges.

In our previous interview with your team, we learned that ACR doesn’t have an office. Where do you hold meetings? What are some tips for finding free or cheap community space that you can share?

SL: We hold board meetings at each other’s homes and I understand that various groups of volunteers (like a group that looks after a particular colony) might meet up at a volunteer’s home as well. It works well for us because we are a tight knit team.

For our Annual General Meeting, we rent a room at Trinity-St Paul’s Centre as it is in our founding neighbourhood. The Toronto Feral Cat Coalition meets at City Hall in one of the community rooms. Public libraries and community centres, such as the Scadding Court Community Centre, also have cheaper space rentals for non-profits.

 

TIP: If you’re looking for more information on meeting spaces for grassroots meetings, please visit grassrootsgrowth.ca and view the newly released online training module: “The Logistics of Getting Together”.

 

JPP: What advice would you give to volunteer-run groups that are growing very quickly and need to reorganize how they operate to accommodate this growth?

SL: I would suggest a few things:

First, listen to and value your volunteers. They are your greatest asset and have a wealth of knowledge. Our board works very hard to support our volunteers, easing barriers that might prevent them from participating.

Communication and clear policies and procedures are very important. Volunteers may have ideas that you have not yet considered. Also, volunteers are the ones who have to follow these policies and procedures, so wherever possible, engage them in the process.

Secondly, get access to grants that will fund a database management program. We recently applied for free licenses through the Salesforce Power of Us program for non-profits. We’re currently inputting the information we’ve compiled in Excel spreadsheets over the years for each area (Donors, Volunteers, Foster Cats, and Colony Cats).

Once everything is migrated to Salesforce, we will have all our information in one place and can use it more effectively. Unfortunately, the Salesforce Power of Us program was not available when we first started out. I recommend that newer groups integrate something like this sooner rather than later; it would be much easier to do!

Thirdly, network with other organizations  to see where your missions overlap and align.  There may be an opportunity to share resources.

We’re very pleased with our affiliation with the Toronto Feral Cat Coalition and encourage other groups to make connections where it makes sense. Because we’ve formed these relationships, cats and rescue organizations benefit from several low-cost spay-neuter programs in the city (both municipal- and charity-funded).  As well, rescue groups and city animal services regularly come together to discuss agreements and exchange resources.

 
The lovely Winston, who now has a forever home 

JPP: If you could go back to 1997 and meet with the founders of ACR, what advice would you share with them?

SL: Sometimes it’s hard to see positive change when dealing with a huge problem like homeless cat overpopulation in Toronto. However, when I look back at our 2002 Annual Highlights, I see how far we’ve come! I would tell them that everything they do makes a difference and to keep going!

RS: Yes, I agree. I would tell them to keep pursing their hard work. Grassroots work is tough sometimes, but don't get discouraged by challenges, try to learn from them instead.

JPP: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Congrats again on your 20th year and keep us posted about your success!

 

Grassroots Growth Website

 

As the Education Coordinator, Jessica is responsible for developing and delivering workshops and online content to help build the capacity of grassroots organizations across Ontario. Contact Jessica

Tags:  animals  Annex Cat Rescue  cat rescue  cat shelter  grassroots groups  Grassroots Growth  grassroots organizations  volunteer with animals 

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