By Alyssa Hurst
Melissa Levy found herself more interested in her volunteer work with people and animals at PAWS (Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society), than her day job as a freelancer. So she came on board with PAWS full-time to help build it into a thriving nonprofit. Today, she serves as the organization’s executive director, working toward a larger mission of making Philadelphia a no-kill state.
What were you doing before you started working with animals?
Levy: I did communications and I had experience in the nonprofit and for-profit worlds. I did a lot of publication development and business development, and at the time that I joined PAWS — I began as a volunteer as we all did; PAWS began as a volunteer organization — I was freelancing, doing a variety of projects for different companies and organizations. And I realized that I was turning work away because I was too busy volunteering. … I had sort of stumbled upon the work that I needed and wanted to focus all of my time on.
Was making that career change scary for you?
Levy: No, I wouldn’t say it was scary. I think at the time I was so committed to making a difference. I saw so much room for good work to be done in Philadelphia and I was just so passionate and so energized by the idea of throwing myself into that. It just felt like the right thing to do. The bigness of our mission and the task that was laying in front of us felt really, really huge at times and intimidating, but it didn’t really feel like I had much of a choice. I feel like it was just something I had to do.
I have read about your dog Rosie and how she inspired you to get started with your work at PAWS. How did that come about and what about her story made you want to take this on?
Levy: I adopted Rosie in November 2005 and she just, like many dogs, has a tremendous spirit — her sweetness and joyfulness and companionship. I knew that she was in the city shelter in a time when most animals were not getting out alive, and the idea that there were thousands and thousands of other animals just like her who didn’t have a chance to live the life she was now living with me, was heartbreaking for me and I felt like I wanted to do something about it. So she’s very special, but they are all special. I wanted to do something to try to give so many others a chance at life like she got. I get so much more from her than I give to her. … The opportunity to give that experience to more people was also pretty powerful for me.
Your mission is pretty Philadelphia-focused. Why do you feel like Philadelphia is a place where you can really make a difference?
Levy: We have always felt very strongly that the problem in Philadelphia was so significant. And it’s not unlike other cities or parts of the country, but we have a big issue in our own backyard. And so we felt like we needed to really focus on strengthening this community, saving animals in this community and helping pet owners in this community who are struggling, and whose pets are most vulnerable to entering the shelter system or producing unwanted litter after unwanted litter. Animals are worthy of help all over the world, but we felt like we needed to start someplace and really focus on our city so that we could make a meaningful change. And one day, before too long, once me make Philadelphia a no-kill city and can sustain that, we will start looking at how do we expand from here to help more animals, to use our resources.
What has your journey from volunteer to executive director taught you and how does that influence the way you lead?
Levy: It has been an incredible journey for me. It has definitely been a labor of love every step of the way. … I’ve realized that my job began with a very specific focus on getting specific animals out of the shelter and into homes. I was coordinating volunteers and scheduling events and dealing with very specific situations. How many animals can we get out of the shelter today? And as we’ve grown, obviously there are more hands on deck and everybody can focus on their own area. And my job has grown into one of developing an organization that is … financially healthy, that grows quickly but carefully and smartly, but also that’s healthy from a human perspective.
I’ve somewhat instinctively known that for us to continue to do the best work that we can, we have to take care of each other and we have to operate in a way that reflects our values. That’s applicable in any workplace, but I think in one that is mission-driven, it comes somewhat naturally. … And we are a family that is very focused on working together to achieve this mission of ours that we are very close to being able to achieve at this point. We’ve seen so much progress in the last 10 years.
You work in a business that has inherent highs and lows. How do you balance that out?
Levy: It’s a daily challenge and some days are more difficult than others. I think that we take a lot of joy in the successes, but we also try to keep a very big-picture view. Every day, there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of individual stories and they all matter very, very much, but they also are pieces to a much bigger puzzle. … We can’t let any of those individual moments carry us away, because the animals and the entire community need us to manage those highs and lows so that we can keep getting up every morning and making a difference. We all have tough days and we all occasionally just need to turn off the computer and take a day or a week to recharge our batteries, but I think we have gotten good over the years at keeping perspective without becoming immune to those individual highs and lows, because those are also the things that keep you going. They keep you fired up, and they keep you excited to make the next great adoption match or help the next animal who is waiting for us to help them.
What do you like most about working with animals and animal lovers?
Levy: I think what the animals teach us is incredible resilience and patience. And it takes so little to make them happy and to make them feel safe. They really don’t need very much and I think that’s a really good reminder for me about how complicated humans can make things sometimes. And they are very forgiving. … Many of the animals we care for began their lives or had part of their journey with people or under circumstances that were unkind or were really lacking in some way. They’ve seen the worst of how human beings can behave toward innocent creatures. What I get to do every day is work alongside people who represent the very best of what people can be. They are incredibly compassionate and generous and they just will not stop until they have done absolutely everything they can to care for these animals. Their energy and their caring and just their goodness is an incredible thing to be exposed to every day.
What breed of dog would make the best business leader?
Levy: Well, we try not to talk about breeds of dogs. A mutt. I think a mutt with a unique collection of qualities — an individual. They’re smart and playful and compassionate and tenacious.
What else do you want people to know about PAWS?
Levy: It’s always for me about encouraging people to join us in some way, and reminding everybody that we can only do as much as we have the resources to do. So however they are moved to join us, we need and welcome that support. And everything we do boils down to four words: adopt, donate, foster, volunteer.
About The Human Element:
The Human Element is a regular, web-exclusive column that aims to get to know the leaders behind great companies. Rather than talking about business models and growth strategies, CEOs open up about what motivates and guides them in their professional and personal lives. To be considered for The Human Element, email firstname.lastname@example.org.