Dave Richardson used to load bombs onto military aircraft and encode electronic communications.
Now he spends six days a week – sometimes seven – finding homes for 3,000 animals a year. And he couldn’t be happier.
After careers with the Air Force and American Red Cross, Richardson found his calling as executive director of the Spokane Humane Society.
Since taking the reins 10 years ago, he has stabilized the organization’s finances, increased the save rate to 98 percent, and eliminated euthanasia as a means of managing the shelter’s population.
During a recent interview, Richardson discussed mentors, his lead-without-leading management style, and why he thinks the state’s animal bite policy is too rigid.
S-R: Where did you grow up?
Richardson: I didn’t grow up. I got older in southern Oregon – Klamath Falls.
S-R: Did you have pets?
Richardson: Always. We had dogs and cats primarily. My best friend was Chief, a 90-pound Siberian husky.
S-R: What did you do after high school?
Richardson: I spent two semesters at Central Oregon Community College, then joined the Air Force and stayed 12 years. I started out loading bombs on F-4 aircraft. When they retired that plane, I got into cryptographics – all that gee-whiz encrypted communications stuff.
S-R: Was there a particular moment or event that changed the direction of your life?
Richardson: I left the military with an electronics background and got a nice job in North Idaho. But what I did – fixing electronics – was becoming obsolete. Instead of fixing things, we were replacing them – with I call “swaptronics.” I wanted to make a difference, so I took a job with the Red Cross here. I went on to become Red Cross CEO for the state of Wyoming, and was with Red Cross for 12 years.
S-R: And then?
Richardson: We came back to Spokane, and I worked for Second Harvest food bank for a couple of years. When this position became available, I knew it was right for me.
S-R: What skills did you bring to this job?
Richardson: In the military I learned leadership, organization, accountability and budgeting. From the nonprofit world, I learned frugalness. People think a nonprofit is a non-business, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is the toughest type of business in the world.
S-R: Where do you get your revenue?
Richardson: Seventy cents of every dollar comes from donations. The rest comes from our spay and neuter program, end-of-life services and adoption fees.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Richardson: Yes, and I still do. The best thing leaders can do is surround themselves with a good, knowledgeable group. I’m very fortunate to have a board of 12 wonderful experts who set the tone for this organization.
S-R: What wisdom learned along the way has been particularly useful?
Richardson: In Wyoming, I had two notes on my desk. One said, “Think. There has to be a harder way,” and the other said, “Ah, crap, you did just what I told you to.” They were given to me by an amazing Denver CEO who told me, “Dave, the thing about being a leader is you’ve got to get out of the way. Don’t manage good people. Lead them. You’ll know when it’s time to help.”
S-R: How has the Spokane Humane Society evolved since you took over?
Richardson: When I arrived, we were struggling financially, our euthanasia rate was around 35 percent, and animal-loving people were forced to make tough decisions because of overcrowding. So we revamped the entire process, cut staff and created money-saving mechanisms.
S-R: Was there any pushback?
Richardson: We didn’t always agree. The board cusses, discusses – they don’t rubberstamp anything. But the changes weren’t about being popular. They were about making sound business decisions. Now we’re accountable.
S-R: What’s been the most significant change?
Richardson: We don’t worry about overcrowding, because now we control that.
S-R: How long do animals stay?
Richardson: Anywhere from two days to two years – there’s no time limit.
S-R: What’s your current population?
Richardson: On site we have about 75 animals, and another 113 in foster care. Besides dogs and cats, we have some birds, a boa, and a rabbit.
S-R: What are the hardest animals to place?
Richardson: Animals that come in with very specific dietary, behavioral or medical needs. We had an emaciated, diabetic, 4-year-old Siberian husky whose family couldn’t afford to treat her. We spent hours getting her medicine equalized, and eventually she stabilized, put on some weight and was adopted. But within a month she was back, because that family was not able to keep up with the medication cycle. Luckily, her new owner is a nurse who is used to medications, and it’s a great match.
S-R: Did the recession have an impact?
Richardson: Of course. Donations were down. So, like any business, we figured out ways to do more with less.
S-R: Is there a busiest time of year?
Richardson: It’s always busy. Since most of our funding comes from donations, we’re always trying to stay in front of the public.
S-R: What’s your typical work schedule?
Richardson: My day starts at 6:30 a.m. and I usually work until 6:30 at night, six days a week – sometimes seven, with special events.
S-R: What do you like most about your job?
Richardson: I laugh when people say they have the best job, because I know that’s not true. I have the best job. If I’m having a bad day, I turn off my computer, grab a leash and go for a walk. It doesn’t get any better than that.
S-R: What do you like least?
Richardson: When people distinguish between us and a “real” business. We pay our (Labor and Industries tax). Our utility bill last December was almost $6,000. Every day of the year, someone is here taking care of the animals, whether we’re open to the public or not. People don’t always understand the time and money it takes to care for these critters.
S-R: Speaking of utility bills, did you lose power during the recent windstorm?
Richardson: Nope, just one tree. I call it “kitty karma.”
S-R: When someone discovers you run an animal shelter, how do they react?
Richardson: The most common reaction is, “Oh, it’s so sad. How do you do it?” And I tell them, “It’s not sad. These are the lucky animals – the ones getting a second chance.” And I explain that second-hand animals make first-class pets.
S-R: What typical mistakes do dog owners make?
Richardson: Some dogs are brought in because they don’t have manners. Owners forget that pets need positive interaction and training, and to be kept busy. Play and some basic behavior training go a long way toward making that pet an amazing family member.
S-R: What sort of person is best suited for this type of job?
Richardson: Someone who can think on their feet. Right now we’re tracking more than a dozen different events between now and January – community outreaches, fundraisers, education, adoption events. That’s what keeps our doors open.
S-R: What changes would you like to see?
Richardson: One thing I’d like to change is Washington’s bite policy. The current policy basically states that one bite, for any reason, constitutes a dog that is potentially dangerous, and requires the owners to take extraordinary measures to keep the public safe. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing fetch and the dog jumps up and grabs your hand by mistake, or it was being teased by a kid with a stick. If the dog bites, it’s deemed dangerous. Other states have policies that treat each incident individually and allow more common sense. I’m all in favor of due diligence, but the laws we have now are way too rigid.
S-R: How many times have you been bitten?
Richardson: Three times. And each time I was bitten, there were warning signs. Once, a dog had fallen out of a pickup truck on the highway. I stopped my car, ran down the road, and was able to secure this large Rottweiler using my belt as a leash. As I was walking him back to my vehicle, someone who was irritated that traffic had slowed honked his horn as he passed us, frightening the dog, which turned around and bit me on the hand. In general, we can avoid problems if we avoid putting dogs in situations where they are forced to react.
S-R: How many animals do you have at home?
Richardson: (laugh) Four cats, three dogs, three birds and four foster kittens that require bottle-feeding every couple of hours.
S-R: If the perfect pet walked through the door today, would you be tempted to add it to your personal menagerie?
Richardson: That’s definitely one of the perks – and traps – of this job. But since we don’t limit how long animals can stay at the shelter, I know we’ll find each one a good home.
This interview has been condensed. If you’d like to suggest a business or community leader to profile, contact Michael Guilfoil at email@example.com.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.