Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., ASPCA
Behind the Numbers
By Stephen L. Zawistowski, Ph.D.
There are three kinds of lies. Lies, damned lies and statistics. Mark Twain
As consumers of products and information, we are frequently bombarded by a wide variety of performance claims made to win our purchase or support. For better or worse, the animal welfare arena is no exception. These days, its not uncommon to hear a shelter tout its adoption rate or chart the progress of its various programs. When did this evolution occur, and how can we, as supporters, make sense of these statistics?
A variety of developments have influenced the way animal shelters are managed, all of which have led to the widespread use of statistics. For starters, many other types of nonprofit organizations began initiating new management plans in the past few years that use statistics to help evaluate performance, showcase accomplishments, set budgets and achieve goals. Animal shelters followed suit and implemented new administration plans that mimic popular business models. New computer software programs were developed to help aid the changes taking place in shelters.
The use of statistics continues to become more important in the crowded and highly competitive charity arena, as foundations and philanthropists place greater emphasis on an organizations accountability. As a result, many shelters that previously did not maintain or use statistics have been forced to do so. Though this overall change in procedure is good news for most shelters, it has led to abuses and introduced new problems within the system.
Making Sense of the Stats
The interpretation, reliability and ability to generalize a statistic depends on how a sample is generated and what population it represents. Failure to recognize these conditions can result in the statistical equivalent of comparing apples to oranges. For example, an animal shelter that accepts a large variety of animals is likely to have very different adoption and euthanasia rates than a shelter that limits the type of animals it accepts. In other words, comparing a large, municipal animal control facility to a small, no-kill shelter is inaccurate. They work with different samples from the communitys animal population and serve different functions. However, the two shelters can use the statistics to judge their own performance and evaluate a programs effectiveness.
If reducing the number of adoptable animals euthanized in the community is part of every shelters mission, then it is possible to develop standards by which to evaluate the success or progress of both the large, multi-function shelter and the small no-kill shelter. Because the no-kill adoption agency does not contribute to the communitys euthanasia total, the only way that it can show progress is to account for more adoptions. To realize this goal, the shelter can explore different adoption marketing opportunities, say mobile units, temporary storefronts, partnerships with retail operations or adoption via the Internet. The larger multi-function facility can work on several different fronts. It, too, can try to increase the number of animals who are placed in new homes. In addition, it can strengthen efforts to increase the return-to-owner rate for lost pets and develop programs that help keep pets in the homes they already have. Aggressive sterilization programs can also help reduce animal euthanasia numbers.
Look Past the Numbers
It is also important to recognize that the statistics from a single shelter do not tell the entire story. Evaluating the effort that a community is making to reduce the numbers of adoptable animals euthanized should also be considered. For instance, a single shelter can decide to change its policies and have a substantial impact on its own statistics. But those statistics are of little solace to dogs and cats euthanized elsewhere in the community.
The moral of the story? The next time you hear praise or criticism of a shelter or other organization based on statistics, take the time to ask how the numbers were generated and then place them in the context of the community that the organization serves.
Dr. Z is senior vice president of ASPCA Animal Sciences and Animal Watch science advisor.
© 2002 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 2002
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