Staff or Volunteers in Animal Rescue: Why PAY staff to burn out when you can get volunteers to burnout for FREE?

by Catherine Besch, Founder and Director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue

No one likes to talk about money and salaries, particularly when it comes to animal rescuers.  But this is a discussion that badly needs to be had and I’m not going to shy away from it anymore. The fact that I have to justify taking a salary in this work makes me irate so I am going to address this for our organization and others who also might be in similar situations.

While there are many organizations working with animals that do not pay salaried employees and that might work for them in their location and with their situation, over 6 years of this work in Vietnam has taught us that this is not possible for us. The constant coming and going of self-paying volunteers of varying levels of experience has made it very difficult to carry on programs and for the animals at the shelter to have any kind of consistency in their routine.  When people just quickly slip through the organization, as the director, I must spend ages recruiting them, answering their questions before they arrive, getting them set up when they arrive, and then training them in hopes that there is some kind of benefit in the long run other than clean floors for a month.  In the end, even this is often not the case and some leave due to lack of interest, inability to perform the functions of the job, or just because they found something more fun to do than sweat all day while picking up poop and being exposed to nonstop animal abuse outside their front gate.  Whatever the reason they leave, that leaves me with no one to handle the daily cleaning and feeding and my administrative duties and all plans are sidelined until the next volunteer comes an hopefully works out better. 

In my experience, staff usually stick around much longer and they are infinitely more helpful as my need to babysit and train them is gone.  We only hire people with experience living in Southeast Asia, ideally Vietnam, so that we don’t have to play tour guide, translator, and cultural liaison all day long.  They can ride motorbikes and handle the markets, and they have animal facility management experience and emergency veterinary care skills.  They are very much worth the money usually, though admittedly there are some exceptions in the past. Not everyone we hire works out, just like every business globally. 

As far as our Vietnamese staff is concerned, having the AMAZING Mai as our admin and accountant began when we opened the vet clinic several years ago and had just gotten our business license as a fully foreign-owned business.  Vietnamese law requires us to have a full-time local accountant on staff.  Since we had not so much accounting to do as we weren’t actually making money as a nonprofit but we still had endless issues that came up for only someone who knows how to navigate Vietnamese law, we needed Mai as admin and that decision has paid off again and again for the past several years.  Her assistance has been invaluable and while she is not the one posting on our media, is never in pictures, and she never even sees the animals because she lives in Da Nang, Mai’s work has made everything we do possible.  Her salary is by far the most important because nothing I plan or do is possible without her.  She is not just a translator.  She is the master of all negotiations and the woman who holds this all together. As a foreigner running an organization in Vietnam, I have struck gold with Mai and am baffled every day that we managed to keep her around when her salary is always months late.

We have chosen to keep the business license for now as it is the only thing we have that helps us maintain some kind of legal grounding here in Vietnam, but also because it is very expensive to close it and would then give us nothing to stand on legally. In the future as we shut down the shelter aspect of our work to focus on higher impact programs, that business license will be vital in getting supplies in for mass sterilization events, so closing up is not an option.  As long as we have that license it is imperative that we have Mai to help us file everything in the government as necessary as well as to help us with daily operations. Being unable to pay her the long overdue salary we owe is infuriating and the response we get when fundraising for basic overhead like salaries is piss poor on a good day, even though her existence is vital to our operations that people otherwise support.  If your local rescue can support itself without any paid staff in your community, that’s great, but it is not our reality here.  Not even close. 

While there are many other organizations that run on only volunteers, ask yourself if that model is sustainable for the workers and if it allows that organization to expand and provide the services necessary for its mission.  Chances are, that organization is not doing a whole lot and will stay small, while the directors lose their minds trying to handle the constant flow of volunteers whose good intentions may or may not be helpful to their work.  If you support rescues abroad, please take this into consideration.  I did not take a salary for the first 3 years of the organization’s operations because I was living on my Master’s degree student loans, but I deeply regret that. I, too, believed working in rescue should be a noble sacrifice and that one who chooses to do good should suffer somewhat because that is what this batshit-crazy, hero-worship industry of rescue drilled into me.   What a load of crap.  At this point, I will not support any organization who does NOT have paid, full-time caretaking staff or provide a stipend to their director and shelter manager unless the management consists entirely of wealthy individuals completely able to support themselves from another source of income and can opt out of a living wage. Most of us do not have that luxury though.  Being “on” for the animals and donors all day every day in any time zone I am in has made having an outside job with strict working hours that pays well enough to make it worth it quite difficult. I am not the only director with this issue either. I see people in my position around the world in the same situation, also with the same lack of support for them having a salary, and this needs to stop. We must stop shaming people for needing to survive.

Rescues need experienced, reliable, and hard-working people to STAY in this work and they cannot do that if they cannot support themselves and take care of their basic needs such as health care and time off. No one does this work for the money unless they are an absolute moron or out of their damn minds.  In the best of situations, this work pays enough to subsist.  It’s a labor of love that generally requires you to have some other method of sustaining life from a partner’s income or a passive income from another business.  If I was trying to get rich, I’d run like hell from this life.  Making less than $5000 a year as a director working all year with almost no breaks for the past few years and no wages before that in Vietnam, I have to wonder who thinks this is a wild party life I lead. When abroad I fly on credit cards and pet sit or visit friends to have a free place to stay. The average expat salary in our region is around $1000-2000 a month or more in jobs requiring some kind of education (local salaries average $300 or less for comparison). This rescue life is the fast track to debt and financial crisis.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is welcome to see my credit report.  When I have been in relationships, my boyfriends paid for all the nice things in life like dinners and any trip out of town.  Not a chance in hell would this salary cover any kind of lifestyle like you see other expats living here.  It is just survival, and anything I do outside of that is on a credit card that I have no idea how to pay off and from money borrowed from my parents who are really ready for their “kid” with a very expensive and top notch education with a Master’s degree to pull in a real salary.  My student loan company at this point has given up on ever seeing a penny I am sure as the total I’ll end up having to pay would buy me a whole vet clinic in Da Nang for the same price with a fancy MRI machine to boot. When people accuse me of using this organization to live some kind of fancy lifestyle, I want to punch a wall, but can’t because I could not afford to fix it.  This lack of livable income does not make me noble, just a shitty fundraiser who is stuck in an occupation that is killing me.

The overhead expenses of running a shelter include the cost of keeping human bodies running it for many different functions.  If that is a problem for you, then you don’t support rescue.  You support burned out, overwhelmed volunteers working themselves to death while wondering how the hell they are going to eat tomorrow. This isn’t Orwell’s Animal Farm.  You need people to do this.  Do not hold us to a different standard than they girl who makes your smoothies at Starbucks on the way to work.  We all need to live, have a home, and have health care plus days off and vacations.  We watch far more traumatic things and have much more physical labor to do than the girl making your smoothie, so take care of us better and maybe we might actually be able to keep staff for long term positions who grow their skills and knowledge.