How To Save A 137-Year-Old Humanitarian Organization In Three Easy Steps

The recession hit all nonprofits hard, but when the American Humane Association got a new CEO, things started to change. Here’s how Robin Ganzert redesigned some of the 137-year-old organization’s most famous programs.

How To Save A 137-Year-Old Humanitarian Organization In Three Easy Steps
[Image: Flickr user State Farm]

When Robin Ganzert left the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2010 to become president and CEO of the American Humane Association (AHA), she knew she’d found her dream job.


A mother of three children who shares her home with lots of animals, Ganzert found an “incredible, life-affirming opportunity” to help protect children and animals from abuse and neglect. She also found an organization operating at a deficit (in the millions) each of the previous four years.

“[The recession] hit nonprofits like a body slam,” Ganzert says. “In a nonprofit, there’s always going to be more demand for your resources,” she says. By focusing on her two bottom lines–the social ROI and financial ROI–and applying what she calls the “Jack Welch mentality,” the AHA is in its third year of operating with surpluses and greater efficiencies. Here’s how they did it:

Refresh programs.

One of AHA’s best-known programs is “No Animals Were Harmed”, which works with Hollywood filmmakers to protect animal actors. More than 100,000 animals are protected each year, and the program has a 99.98% safety rating.

It also came with a $1 million per year price tag. Coming from a finance background, Ganzert knew the program wasn’t sustainable long-term, and redesigned the business model.

Ganzert met with industry leaders, embarked on a year-long listening tour, and developed a new funding model based on suggestions from those conversations. The AHA made significant investments in the program, such as hiring licensed veterinarians to be on set to ensure animals were protected, bringing scientific rigor to the program. Industry leaders appreciated the efforts, and approved the new funding model.

Apply the “Jack Welch mentality” to evaluate programs.

A nonprofit CEO has to have “the heart and the smarts,” Ganzert says. Nonprofits don’t have a product to sell–rather, they’re building compassionate communities and are often forced to do more with a lot less. Donors want to see measurable financial and social return on investment. “Stewardship is critical to all donors to come back to you and make a sizeable investment,” she says.


Ganzert suggests focusing on your mission and, with a critical eye, evaluating your programs. Ask: Are you the leading program in your field (or a close second)? Are other groups doing this type of work? Can you narrow your platform to refocus your energy and resources on what your organization does best? Does the program have a financial ROI? Does it have a social ROI?

When Ganzert arrived at AHA, it had 40 programs. Now, AHA has four platforms, each of which lead their field: Humane Heartland (focusing on the humane treatment of farm animals), Humane Hollywood (with the “No Animals Were Harmed” program), research and best practices (for animals and children), and rescue. Between 2011 and 2013, the AHA protected 1 billion farm animals in the United States (10% of the population) with certification programs and audits of nearly 8,000 farms and ranches.

“When you become CEO of a nonprofit, a lot of folks are watching and waiting for immediate change. [But] change takes time and patience,” Ganzert says. There are 9 billion farm animals she wants to help. But in order to change hearts and minds, you need patience, she says.

Collaborate with organizations that share a common interest.

[It’s] time for nonprofits to embrace meaningful collaboration,” Ganzert says. Things work so much better when there’s collaboration between organizations, she says. Last fall, AHA teamed up with Ford Motor Company for the “Dogs Ride Inside” campaign, reminding owners to keep their dogs in the cab of a pickup truck, and not let them ride in the bed of a pickup truck. An estimated 100,000 dogs die each year riding in truck beds, Ganzert says.

Later this month, AHA will join forces with the Weather Channel for “Tornado Week,” to encourage families and communities to have a plan in the event of a disaster, for both humans and their four-legged friends.

About the author

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based business and lifestyle freelance writer who's worked for NBC and CNN. Her work has appeared online in,,, NBC News, MSNBC, Yahoo, Business Insider, and Fox Business.