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How Michelson Found Animals Foundation Became a Pet’s Best Friend

Posted by Morgan Carey, Nonprofit Industry Marketing Lead

When Aimee Gilbreath was 12 years old, her parents, recognizing her desire to one day become a veterinarian, had her shadow the animal doctor on their horse farm for a day.

She didn’t become a vet. She got a degree in molecular biology, an MBA, and went to work for a major consulting firm, with her focus being pharmaceuticals and biotech. But a decade later, mixing her day job with animal welfare volunteer work, the flame to serve animals in a deeper capacity still burned. In 2008, she started perusing job advertisements, with the aim of combining her skillset and her passion in a meaningful way.

At the same time, Dr. Gary Michelson was in search of a new executive director for his Found Animals Foundation. Michelson, a retired spinal surgeon, lifelong inventor and now billionaire philanthropist, had launched the Los Angeles, Calif.-based foundation in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Moved by the plight of the more than 100,000 animals who were lost – in both senses of that word -- in the epic storm, he started the foundation to donate microchips and scanners to shelters. If the identification tags and accompanying technology were free, he thought, they’d be more widely used. When he discovered cost wasn’t the major barrier, he hired Gilbreath to implement programs for real, sustainable results.

“It was just serendipity,” Gilbreath said. “I didn’t know him. But he was someone who wanted to have a nonprofit run like a business. He didn’t want to just write checks. He wanted to fund programs focused on innovation and technology, to bring solutions to a space that hadn’t had much of that available.”

Redefining Animal Welfare, Taking on the Competition

In 10 years, the Foundation has redefined animal welfare, bringing together philanthropy with a social enterprise that challenges the three major for-profit microchip vendors in the industry. Michelson Found Animals Foundation now has 70 employees, 850 volunteers, has distributed $3.6 million in spay and neuter grants, facilitated the adoptions of 20,000 pets, and registered millions in its microchip registry."

“You know how crazy people think you are when you say you’re starting an animal welfare nonprofit, and say you’re going to completely disrupt the microchip industry?” she said. “They say, ‘You’re so cute.’”

Starting from a Piece of Paper

Gilbreath recalls sitting at Michelson’s kitchen table, which doubled as the conference room in the early days, flipping over a single sheet of loose-leaf paper, every line filled with program ideas: launching events; opening adoption centers; and founding grants for research and development of non-surgical sterilants. But the centerpiece of it all was developing a potential solution to what Michelson thought was the missing link in the successful proliferation of microchips in pets – a centralized database in which the unique identification numbers were logged alongside owner information, so that if the pets got lost, shelters could alert the owners.

That sheet of loose-leaf was Found Animals Foundation’s first roadmap for growth – leading the then team of three on an all-consuming, intoxicating trail of trial and error, “proving themselves,” and going head-to-head with the three major suppliers of microchips, all of which happened to be subsidiaries of some of the world’s largest companies.

A Deep Commitment to Animal Welfare

Success, Gilbreath said, hinged on over-delivering, to everybody. From the crusty animal control officer at the shelter who didn’t think the adoption event would work, to the shelters who balked at their decision to switch chip manufacturers to better align with industry standards. By day, the small staff would build the microchip registry database, process grant proposals and whiteboard new ideas. By evening, (and weekend), they’d run events at their recently launched adoption centers and longstanding animal shelters.

Growth is a journey littered with hard decisions and failures -- like the one to charge for the microchips in order to scale the registry program nationwide. It wasn’t popular at first, or even after a while, and required a lot of communication.

“There’s a difference between someone who has a lot of questions and has a lot of complaints, and someone who is actually going to leave you, but it took us a while to figure that out,” Gilbreath said. “Very few ever left.”

Creating a Unique Operation

Building up the programs in tandem created a unique operating foundation that was part philanthropy, part revenue-generating social enterprise. But that also meant it became increasingly complex to operate it. Found Animals Foundation had multiple divisions and lines of business, nationwide. Business was complex. The team needed to slice and dice the numbers, and the software helping to manage it all – a “duct-taped” homegrown database and QuickBooks – wasn’t nearly up to the task.

In 2014, it implemented NetSuite. It has achieved double-digit growth in its microchip sales every year since then and is poised to continue the streak this year.

With NetSuite CRM, for instance, it launched new features for shelters and pet owners, such as text and email alerts on lost pets. By easing operations of both revenue-generating and charity programs, national and local, Found Animals Foundation could continue to run its operating foundation in the way it originally intended – providing cutting-edge solutions that disrupt the space, while maintaining programs that keep it deeply in tune with the needs of its customers.

“We really understand what it is like to walk in the shoes of our customers. We are able to design the system and provide customer service from the perspective of being a peer, and to work for them, not to maximize profits,” she said. “We hear them say, ‘You get it.’”

As the number of pets in shelters continues to decline – a happy result of the spay/neuter movements and increased outreach in communities – the work of the Found Animals Foundation will increasingly shift from making sure pets aren’t lost, to making sure they have every opportunity to stay in their homes.

That will require innovative outreach to owners, not just shelters – ensuring that pet owners have the right information, at the right time, to make good decisions on their pets. That means providing guidance on everything from pet insurance, to illumination on the psychological decisions that push a cat to leave its litter box.

As such, it will launch an accelerator program in July with Mars for pet technology startups, eying ways to enhance its registry and enable it to reach owners in new ways –providing them with relevant, timely information in the moment they need it most.

“How do we improve and support the relationship between people and pets?” Gilbreath said. “That increases the chance the pet will stay in the home and get great care.”