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September 22, 2018; Santa Fe New Mexican (12)

It wasn’t the operating losses for the Santa Fe Animal Shelter and Humane Society that caused the resignation of a recent recruit to the board; it was the board’s refusal to come to terms with some of its own missteps. Indeed, even as it has built a sophisticated no-kill facility, it has run operating deficits that added up to more than $7 million since 2014.

No one faults this organization for its outcomes or quality of care—in fact, it’s just the opposite. In 2017, it had a live-release rate of 94.2 percent, which qualified it as a no-kill facility, and over the same year it adopted out 2,900 animals. It’s seen as a “Cadillac of shelters,” boasting “acres of fenced dog parks, a veterinary hospital open to the public, and even an animal-behavior center,” along with 100 employees. And it wasn’t always so; 14 years ago, it was “a bare-bones operation housed in an aged building.”

But somehow, in the process of growing, the board may have gotten a bit too cavalier about the way it does business. One board member was awarded a $480,000 contract for the nonprofit’s architectural services for its veterinary hospital and animal rehabilitation facility without its being put out to bid and despite the fact that his firm had never designed a medical facility. Another board member was given land that had been donated to the organization to retire the remaining $300,000 of a loan he had given the organization five years earlier—which might have been fine if the land were not later appraised at $375,000. Also, the organization bought a house for $545,000 for its executive director at the time to live in, only to sell it to her later at a $45,000 loss when she left the organization, lending her $50,000 to make the purchase. Oh, and two of the seven board members are married, and another is executive director. All of this adds up to a boardroom picture that’s way too cozy for this updated organization.

The tragedy of this story is that by all appearances, this organization appears to have been observing high standards on an overall programmatic level even as the board did not dot its i’s nor cross its t’s. The shelter’s executive director says that all of the above-mentioned situations have been thoroughly investigated and all were fair to the shelter, but, as we are constantly reminded, the appearance of impropriety is often enough to make donors think twice and these were unwise chances to take. It generally makes little sense to do business with a member of the board—or engage in anything else that might from the outside look like an insiders’ game.

Now, the organization not only has to right the ship in terms of turning around the deficit, it must do so in the face of these revelations, and that’s a shame. This is one of those moments when mistakes must be owned and a stricter code of ethics adopted.—Ruth McCambridge