A few years ago, the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals wasn’t using any volunteers. Now, their volunteer program boasts approximately 275 active volunteers, and has seen more than a thousand volunteers pass through the program since it began.
Meris Bickford, CEO of MSSPA said that when she first began working for the MSSPA as a lobbyist and attorney, there was a lot of anxiety about volunteers working at a farm organization.
“Institutionally, there was a mindset that it was too dangerous to use volunteers,” she said.
However, when trying to successfully manage a nonprofit organization, “Volunteers are truly the lifeblood of such an organization,” Bickford said. At the MSSPA, the annual budget hovers around one million dollars. Bickford said they could never raise enough money to pay people to do all the work that needs to be done. “Our volunteers and the programming that we have with them are absolutely essential to the daily operation here and also to the longer term growth,” Bickford said.
Prior to using volunteers, she said, MSSPA was fulfilling their primary program goal of rehabilitating and rehoming animal - primarily horses, which have been abused and neglected. But many other things essential to running the organization were not being done. “All of the organizational energy and finances were going into that one thing,” she said, “while board development, creation of a website, a regular newsletter, and building and field maintenance weren’t happening.”
Now, the MSSAP has a robust volunteer program that allows for each task to be attended to. “We have a great group of volunteers who come in and actually work in the barns,” Bickford said. Volunteers clean stalls, wash feed buckets, and all the other chores that must happen every day, whatever the weather. “It’s a lot of work. Those volunteers who do that are really critical to helping our paid staff,” Bickford said. The paid staff is small, usually only two or three people per day, and having volunteers to do some of the work frees them up for the jobs that require more skill and experience.
There are plenty of volunteer opportunities for people who are less comfortable with horses or unable to do the physical barn work, as well. Volunteers can help maintain the organization’s database, prepare thank you letters to donors, help organize events, assist with the website, social media and newsletters. “There’s a whole range of communication that has to happen as well, and I have one paid person whose primary responsibility is to manage that - she couldn’t possibly do it all,” said Bickford.
Some of the volunteers do an extraordinary amount of work. For example, there is one gentleman who not only helps mow grass and maintain flower beds, but has also taken on helping to manage the Dunkin Donuts Coin Collection program the organization participates in. This is a large job, Bickford said, that requires not only driving from store to store each week to collect the coins, but also being trustworthy enough to handle money. “Here’s a guy who does it all. He’s great,” said Bickford. “We have a number of super high functioning volunteers like that. Without these volunteers, we just couldn’t do it. We just could not get done all of the tasks that are essential for making us successful,” she said.
Volunteers come mostly from the local community. Some are performing mandated community service hours, and many come from the correctional center across the street. “We have a very collegial relationship with the correctional center. We use inmate labor in the barns every day.”
Volunteers of all ages are welcome at MSSPA. Those under 16 must volunteer with a parent or guardian, and from 16 to 18 can volunteer on their own with parental consent. The process to become a volunteer includes an application - preferably online, but paper applications are also available. MSSPA also recruits groups of volunteers from large employers in the area for some of their larger projects.
Volunteers are needed every day, so scheduling around personal availability works out well. “We match you with something you want to do at a time that works for you, bring you in and train you on that job, then let you have at it,” Bickford said. Often, experienced volunteers are used to help train new volunteers.
Bickford said one thing she loves to do is get to know each volunteer. “I like to know my volunteers even though we have a lot of them because I am so grateful for their support here,” she said.
Bickford said she feels fortunate to have MSSPA located in a community as supportive as Windham. Currently, there is another way the community can help. This year the MSSPA is on the written ballot for the Bangor Savings Bank Community Matters More program, with a chance to win a $5000 grant. While they have launched several successful write-in campaigns and won $1000 each time, they couldn’t get on the written ballot. They were told the program focus was on people, not animals. People can vote online at: www.msspa.org, in person at any Bangor Savings Bank branch, or at the farm on River Road from 1 - 4 p.m. daily. Maine residents of any age are eligible to vote from February 1 to February 28, 2017.