Nonprofit HeARTs Speak Uses Art to Save Homeless Animals

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An idealist, artist and advocate, it was hard for Lisa Prince Fishler to find a place in the traditional workforce that resonated with her. That is, until she founded the nonprofit HeARTs Speak, a global network of photographers, writers, artists and animal advocates who provide their time and professional services, pro bono, to animal welfare organizations, with a goal of finding permanent homes for all homeless animals. In this interview, Fishler and I discuss how she came to be a voice for these animals, and she shares the rewards and challenges of following her passion to find her purposeful work.

Caroline Kim Oh: So, what is your story? What were you doing before you founded HeARTs Speak? 

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HeARTs Speak’s Lisa Prince Fishler

Lisa Prince Fishler: My parents have always been my models for how I wanted to live. My mother was an abstract artist, and she loved animals more than she loved most people. [laughs] I learned about love and respect for all beings from my parents. My dad, who was a research scientist, would get up at 5am and work all day. He developed a solvent that cleans the blood of hepatitis B and AIDS, and he discovered the first hepatitis B vaccine. He absolutely loved what he did. He was a big deal in his field, but never acted like he was one. He treated everyone like they were important, because to him they were.

Having grown up around them, I had a tough time finding my way after college. I would get a job, and it felt as if everyone was stuck in a little box with a “boss” who was more concerned with asserting their authority than listening to any ideas they might have. It didn’t feel like the right way to live.

In 2005, I adopted my dog Iggy; he is very, very special, and I love him dearly. Because of Iggy, I learned that 8 million animals enter the U.S. shelter system each year and that only about 35% are adopted. A whopping 2.7 million animals are euthanized annually, and a large percentage of them are just like Iggy. The activist in me woke up at that moment. I started volunteering for a local rescue organization and photographing adoptable dogs to help them get noticed and adopted. This led to opening my own pet photography business, Printz Photography. For me, my love for animals helped me find my artistic medium and meaningful work for myself.

How did you start HeARTs Speak?

2.7 million animals being put to sleep is disheartening, but I learned that if we could simply increase the number of people adopting by 5%, these numbers could be reduced to zero. I continued to photograph rescue and shelter animals on a pro bono basis, and found that many photographers did not feel the same about the issue as I did. As a business owner, I was too often torn between working for paying clients and volunteering my time to help animals that, in some cases, were in danger of being killed in kill shelters. In 2009, I started a Facebook page to seek a community of like-minded photographers willing to help save animals at risk of euthanization.

Social media was powerful. A few hundred people from all over the world joined the page in the first month. Clearly there was a need. We incorporated in 2010. Many of the people who joined our Facebook page in 2009 are still working with me. At that time, I was clear on what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t certain how I might make it happen. But every single person who wanted to get involved to get the organization off the ground had something unique to contribute. Letting everyone do what they did best for the cause was what allowed HeARTs Speak to become what it is today.

HeARTs Speak photographers shining the light.
HeARTs Speak photographers shining the light

Tell me more about the work you do at HeARTs Speak.

A photograph of a frightened dog hovering in the corner does not compel most people to run to the shelter to adopt. Our professional photographers capture their personalities: the humor and wonder in each animal we work with. They literally shine the light on these animals.

One program we are very proud of is the Perfect Exposure Project (PEP). PEP equips high-intake shelters with professional photography equipment and two-day training workshops. Our professional photographers and volunteers help bring out the creative skills of shelter staff and volunteers when photographing and promoting adoptable animals. This format not only address the immediate needs of animals currently in the shelter system, but also helps to dispel the shelter pet stereotypes.

This woman, Sherry Stinson, who has been a long-time HeARTs Speak volunteer, works with Tulsa Animal Welfare. The shelter’s euthanasia rate when Sherry initially started was 65% of the over 12,000 animals admitted. When we checked a year ago, 78% of their dogs made it out alive.

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Another member, Kaye Ness, has photographed about 800 animals. KC Pet Project in Kansas City, the shelter Kaye helps most regularly, has gone from a 31.4% adoption rate in 2006 to a remarkable 93.8% in 2013, and a large factor of this improvement is the quality photographs Kaye helps to provide.

There are 13,600 animal shelters in the US, and 3,312 of them have received help from HeARTs Speak.

How big is your staff?

I’m onboarding our first two full-time staff members this fall. I cannot tell you how excited I am.

When I tell people that I’ve been doing this work just with my wonderful board of six and mostly volunteer staff, they are always surprised. Currently we have more than 500 active members, including photographers, videographers, authors, graphic designers, sculptors and painters, working in 46 states.

Where does your funding come from?

Our funding comes from donations, grants and artist member dues of $50 per year.

Our biggest funder is Petco Foundation. Animal Farm Foundation has been with us since the beginning. Petfinder, Dyson Foundation and Lowepro have also been wonderful supporters of our work. I would also like to thank all of HeARTs Speak’s artist members, as they are out there providing creative services to shelters and rescues all over the world.

We are about to launch our second-ever fundraising campaign, Lights. Camera. Adopt! in partnership with Crowdrise.

If your wildest dreams for HeARTs Speak literally came true, what would that look like?

Gosh, if my wildest dreams came true…we would host an annual conference for our members from 14 countries, sponsored by Cannon AND Nikon [laughs], to teach them what we teach our shelters. Working with them face-to-face would be just amazing.

We would have HeARTs Speak East Coast and HeARTs Speak West Cost, a large industrial space for workshops, and a great e-commerce store. We would have funding to do large-scale art installations to raise awareness about homeless animals. I would love to provide more stock photographs, helping more and more companies use images of shelter animals, as a way of slowly changing the way people view shelter animals.

I want to educate people and eventually eliminate the need for the kind of work we do now. I want to make sure animals aren’t even going into shelters.

People need to see animals as living, loving, feeling, emotional and intelligent beings—not toys or objects. Some people think of a dog as this cute little thing to bring home, but when the dog does something they don’t like, they might try to get rid of it. There is so much we can learn from animals—they are so good, caring and forgiving. Through art, I really think that we can open people’s eyes to that.

Cat Adoption - DaleWhat is the hardest thing about starting your own organization? How about sustaining it?

Burnout. If it’s something you are passionate about, you are going to do it day and night, for years. For me, it was not uncommon to work 80 hours per week to get this stuff done during the first three years.

Second is money. It’s very hard, especially when we had none! [laughs] It’s very recent that I started to get paid a salary.

What would you do differently if you could do it all over again?

As difficult as it’s been, I don’t think I would do anything differently. I made a lot of mistakes, but I feel like I had to do what I did. I wouldn’t change a thing.

What’s your advice for nonprofiteers wanting to follow in your footsteps or create something similar to what you did?

Work to build community around why you are doing something, not how or what you are doing. Why is essential to building a community. People want to belong.

My family recently adopted our puppy Moby from The Humane Society, and that’s directly related to my learning about your work. How can people help with your work?

We definitely need money to do this work. So any amount of contribution is really appreciated.

If you are an artist, you can fill out our artist application to become a member.

You can join our Facebook page or help us get our message out on Twitter.

And of course, consider adopting a pet. Many people don’t realize that 25% of the animals in shelters are pure breeds. You can truly find anything in a shelter. Puppies, kittens, fully trained adult dogs, mature cats, rabbits, guinea pigs, horses…I’ve even seen a chicken!

The animals will be so appreciative. They really do appreciate you. People are afraid to go to the shelter because they say the animals there are broken. But the top reasons these animals end up in the shelter are related to humans—things like allergies and their apartments not allowing pets. These animals are all so perfect!

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Caroline Kim Oh

Caroline Kim Oh is an executive coach to nonprofit leaders. She dove right into the nonprofit world after college and spent twelve years running and growing iMentor in New York City prior to coaching. Frequent speaker and advisor on a variety of nonprofit management issues, she’s also a cheerleader for all who experiment to find and tweak the optimal work-life-happiness mix.
Find her on LinkedIn and on Twitter, or send her an email.