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Meet Alisa Gray from Kentucky Humane Society

Alisa Gray is the President and CEO of Kentucky Humane Society. Alisa has always had a passion for animals and giving back to her community, and her journey with nonprofit work started at a young age, volunteering alongside her grandmother.

In this episode of the RKD Group: Chat podcast, Alisa shares how memorable moments from her career have also provided some important lessons and her advice for female professionals.

 

 

Show chapters

  • 0:41 Her journey into the nonprofit field
  • 4:48 What keeps her in the animal welfare space
  • 6:37 Memorable moments from her career
  • 13:47 What her day-to-day looks like
  • 18:54 Advice for working parents
  • 20:06 Challenges she’s facing in her role today

 

Meet our guest

Alisa Gray - 1200x627

Transcript

Kate McKinley

Welcome back to RKD Group: Chat, the podcast dedicated to showcasing the stories of people working in purpose-driven roles. In today's episode, I have the honor of interviewing Alisa Gray, who is the President and CEO at Kentucky Humane Society.

From a very young age, Alisa has had a passion for giving back to others and has been involved with nonprofit work since her grandma took her along when volunteering for Meals on Wheels.

Since then, Alisa's calling has grown into a thriving career in the animal welfare industry. In this episode, Alisa shares the evolution of her career, how key moments shaped her, and some advice for other leaders. Let's dive in.

Alisa Gray

Honestly, probably starting at a young age, being very passionate about giving back and just being basically kind to others and just, honestly, seeing how rewarding that was and what it meant to other people by getting involved and, you know, taking action. My grandmother was probably my biggest motivation when I was ten to thirteen years old. I used to take Meals on Wheels with her to, you know, the elderly that couldn't get out and about to buy their own food. And we would go and, you know, she would visit with these people for thirty minutes to an hour when she did not have to, but it meant the world to them. And I got to go with her as a little girl and, you know, that always added some fun. But I think from there on, I was always involved in nonprofit.

I went to a Catholic high school, Assumption High School, and they were very adamant about giving back and getting involved.

So every single year I was there, I would, you know, do beta club and all that kind of stuff that was service type organizations.

And then I did a very active one as a senior and worked at several nonprofits, a lot in the homeless space, people space, homeless people space. Always loved animals; grew up wanting to be a veterinarian, had a dog-walking business when I was, you know, seven years old in my neighborhood, all that kind of stuff.

So I think it just kind of, not naturally but just luckily, led me to where I am now.

I started at UK (University of Kentucky) and was a major … my major was public relations and psychology. I graduated with a degree in both and had to do a PR internship as a senior, for which I chose the Lexington Humane Society and loved it. And―great team there. Susan Malcolm, who's still there as president, was a fabulous mentor of mine and offered me a job after I graduated college.

So, I was there for about three-and-a-half years and missed my hometown, and also was interested in social work, the social work side of the people side of things. So I moved back to Louisville and went to the Kent School of Social Work for a bit. And honestly, again, there was a job opening at Metro Animal Services, which is our municipal shelter in Louisville, and I couldn't resist to apply. I missed animal welfare so much, and I got the job.

So, started there after some time with, with the homeless population at a local shelter here. Loved that so very much, but just knew that my heart was at, in the animals. So I went back and did a lot of education, community relations, adoption type work with Metro Animal Services, which then led me to meeting the fabulous people at Kentucky Maine Society. So, started there about ten years ago and worked my way up in development.

And now I’m in my dream job. I mean, if you told me when I was a young girl that I was gonna be the president of a humane society, I would've screamed in in awe and excitement. So, it's just really been neat. I mean, I've definitely worked for it and, and feel like I've worked very hard, but loved every second of it. And there's been hard times, good times, but I really am in my dream job, so it's, it's been pretty cool.

I love telling our interns now that story, or some of our volunteers. I mean, you just never know. And we've, we've hired so many interns, or I've seen so many, you know, start as a volunteer and now promoted as … like, right now, our development director, she started as a volunteer when she's fifteen years old. So it's just, you can have a career with a, a passion.

Kate McKinley

She's always been an animal lover, and that, with her call to serve, is what drew her to the animal welfare world. Alisa shared that it's truly the people like the donors, volunteers, and even her coworkers that have kept her here for so long.

Alisa Gray

I'd say, a lot of it is the people and the culture. And, you know, my, most of the time I've been there, my role has been working with donors and volunteers, and they, they are just the most inspiring people. You know, when you can connect with them and find something that makes them glow and explode with just happiness and, and feel like they're so engaged in something that is bigger than them, it's so rewarding. So I think that, you know, of course, the animals, that's why I started in this field and, you know, always loved animals. But really, it's the people that I get to work with every day.

And then I see, you know, they … not every day is puppies and rainbows. There's some really hard days in animal welfare and especially recently. And they see, you know, people being just horrible to animals, But they jump right in, and they say, well, thankfully, this animal's here with us now.

You know, we get to make a difference, and give it a second chance and show this animal that people really are good. So they're so resilient. You know, animals are too, and I think we in the field get a lot of that resiliency from seeing what they go through and how they pop back up. Or, you know, they've been abused, and they just, once they have human touch, they get in your lap, and they're so happy. And I, I think seeing that is just incredible, and remarkable and, and honestly, really hard to believe. So it's, it's nice to see that in the people that work in this field too.

Kate McKinley

Alisa has had many memorable moments from her career, and you'll hear about them in just a second. But what I love most about the stories she shares is that she also pairs them with valuable lessons she learned from them that helped shape her leadership style and her approach to running a nonprofit today.

Alisa Gray

There's been some fun ones and some crazy ones, and that's what I always say. The people in this field could write some really good books, really entertaining, funny books, and just some of the things you see, or that you've had to go through. It's, it's, yeah, it's, it's neat. So, a few things. I think Purrfect Day Cat café, or Purrfect Day Cafe, I don't know if you've heard of that, but that is our cat cafe in Louisville. And we started this partnership with Chuck Patton. He's the proprietor, so they have a lot of cute names.

But he came to us at KHS and said, “You know, I want to, I wanna try this idea.” I've been around at that time, there was probably about sixty different cat cafes. And he, he's like, “I've been researching, visiting all these cat cafes. I wanna try it in Louisville and do it in some area that's heavily populated and would do well with cat adoptions and then a cat cafe with coffee, and drinks, and events and all that kind of stuff.”

And we were kinda like, oh, okay, you know, we could try it. So we, we worked through all of it, and talked to a lot of other shelters that were already doing that model and decided we would try to do three hundred adoptions in that first year with the partnership.

And we did about fifteen hundred in that first year. So, honestly, it's been one of the most progressive ideas that I've seen that has been done so well because he has a great marketing mind. He just wants to make such an impact. So he gives back not only the adoption fees and helps with the adoptions, but they support us above and beyond that.

That's been really neat to see and evolve over.

It's been five years now, and they opened another cat cafe in Covington, which is about an hour and a half away from us. And they're helping another, you know, ‘Source Shelter’ is what, what they call it. Another shelter helps save more cats. So since then, since 2019, we've done more cat adoptions than dog adoptions in our history since 1884 because of the cat café. So that was so cool to see. So, just being a part of that and kicking it off the ground, trying it, I feel like I've done a lot of things where we've taken some risks, or I've pushed KHS to take some risks. And for the most part, they've worked out well, and have been good and helped us push some buttons, try some things, and, you know, raise more money in the end and … meaning save more lives.

So that's been, been really cool. And I'd say another fun one was around COVID when we were all trying to do the online fundraising events and just how different that was to try to figure that out.

We were doing it live from our shelter, and I was the host along with a coworker. And we had a host that was via Zoom, who was a great personality talent that was fabulous and well known. So we were kinda doing it between the two of us. And during the most important time, the fund to need, we lost Internet and connection with her. So we couldn't hear her at all, and we, somehow we winged it and still made it work, and it still made sense. And we were able to raise, you know, I think $300,000, which was huge for doing the virtual fundraising.

And it was just funny. A lot of, a lot of times, it's the high-pressure moments when you just figure it out, and wing it and do your best, and it still works.

So that was a, that was a life lesson of fun, humor and just, just, yeah, rolling with it. Yeah. Doing what you can with what you have.

One, one more I'll share.

I, I love pitties, and that was totally from starting at Lexington Humane Society and the great experiences I have had with pit bulls and also just understanding the misconceptions that they go through, and the challenges of, of the breed and the prejudices.

So I, I felt like, you know, advocating for, for the, the one that needs it the most a lot of times. So I've always loved pities; had several.

So, Kentucky Humane Society sent a group after Hurricane Harvey to Houston, and we were there for eight days helping hands-on in the shelter there. And it was just really incredible to be a part of it. It was heartbreaking but fulfilling, you know, to be able to help the other people that … some of these shelter workers and staff had lost their homes, had lost pets, you know, had family or injured, injured family members. So, just being able to be there, and give them a little relief and help, and eat lunch with them side by side and also see the animals that were coming in and some of the, the people that were able to come get their animals and, you know, find them.

It was a crazy, crazy time, and we, we met one bully, pit bull, that we just fell in love with. She was amazing. She had been through all of it. She had half an ear.

We named her Betty Boop. I really think the first time she saw grass was maybe with us when we took her out on a walk. You could tell she'd been in a cage, pretty worn down, bred like crazy. She had heartworm.

So we just fell in love with her as a, as a team.

But, of course, at the time, it was very hard to transport large animals on air airplanes on flights, so we could not get her on a regular plane back to us because we wanted to save her and pull her. So, we worked with a group called Pilots and Pauls, and they brought her to Louisville through three small planes. So, they had two, she had two stops before she got to me in Frankfurt, and I got to foster her for about seven months. And she was fabulous, but she just, she went through all of it, and had a tough time and had separation anxiety. So did, you know, some damage to my home, but she ended up being adopted by a woman who worked from home as a nurse with her son, who was autistic. He was four years old, and Betty Boop and him just loved each other. And it was perfect because he, you know, he needed a, a friend with him most of the time, and she needed someone all the time with her separation anxiety. So it was, it was great to see.

It was, it was one of those that was hard to place, for sure. Yeah. So those are always extremely rewarding, and, and she was one that I probably would have kept if we didn't find the, the special person. So, just being able, you know, big-picture wise, helping thousands of animals, to knowing that that one still matters.

Everyone that we help in this field matters, and every single one of those adds up.

Kate McKinley

As Alisa starts to talk about her day-to-day and how she balances it all, her love for her job can't help but shine through. And I think, as many of you listening to this can probably relate, she never really turns it off or truly disconnects at the end of a workday.

Alisa Gray

Every day is different, for sure, and I think that's since I've been in this field, it’s probably a reality, which I love about it. I would be bored to death if I had, you know, a nine-to-five, just sit-behind-a-computer-all-day type job.

That's what's so fun about it. And you, you never know what's gonna happen. Yesterday was our one hundred and fortieth anniversary. So, we started in 1884. So that was amazing. And so many people reached out because they were just shocked that we've been around that long and how much we've accomplished in that time.

So tomorrow, I have the 6:00 am news. We have our mobile vehicle. One of our news stations is sponsoring two days of wellness for people in need that can't afford pet care. So, we're doing a special segment on that.

You know, luncheons, as far as networking, and fundraising, and meeting donors and thanking donors, I got to go to a nonprofit, women ‘n wine play the other night that was all about networking and talking about the trends in nonprofit going on.

You know, there's also some of the things where you're talking about some HR concerns or strategic planning is always a fun one, and I love being able to think ahead, and look at what KHS should look like in two to three years and envisioning what programs may need to be added, or revamped or expanded.

So I think a lot of what a CEO does is that forward-thinking work or also just preparing for if XYZ happens. You know, COVID, we did not know what was gonna happen.

And right now, too, we didn't really understand as an industry, and so many other industries, they didn't know how they'd be affected by COVID. Mhmm. And so many different organizations and companies have been … and I don't think our industry had any idea. You know, we, we lost so many spay/neuter surgeries during those first couple months.

2.8 million is what they’re estimating now as, as an industry, and that we're, we're seeing the ramifications of that. And I think, wow. Like, what other things do we need to plan for in the future that could really change how far we progress? So, you know, I wake up in the middle of the night every once in a while, 2:00, 4:00 a.m., with an idea, and I'm like, oh, that's, that's fun. And some are great, maybe ten percent. Some, you know, you talk through it. You figure it out.

But really, my favorite part is still just engaging with the people internally and externally that love our mission and what we do. You know? Work-life balance is very important, and I preach that to every one of my staff, So I try to model it when I can.

I have a five-year-old son, too, that I think keeps me grounded in a lot of ways by, you know, being involved with his life, and sports and all the, the fun stuff that comes with having a little one in pre kindergarten.

But he knows, I really do think he knows, and I, I know my husband knows, that a lot of the joy I get out of my life is my job.

And you know, I, I really feel like I never work a day in my life, so they know it makes me happy, so they support it. So I'm, I'm very fortunate to be surrounded by people that understand that part of my life, and my parents, same way, you know, they come to all my events, they support me. It's, it's become a hobby for them, I think. It's ingrained in, in our lives.

But not only just that, just giving back to the community. I love being involved with our community, and I think I've tried to get my husband and son excited about that too. So they'll usually go to events with me and, and things like that. But it is important to take breaks, and I've tried, especially, you know, my first year as CEO, I have tried to take those Fridays off for those long weekends with them because you have to recharge. It's just part of it. But yeah, sometimes there's a Saturday where I'm really excited about something, and I wanna work on it, or there was Bark and Brunch last weekend at our waterfront―that's really just fun to go to and see people.

So, it's all, it's all important, but I think also having a―I've heard people refer to your own board of directors, people that you can trust to say, “Hey, you are stressed. You need to take a minute.” Or, “Hey, you know, do you need to talk through something?” So having a, a good support system and team, personally and professionally, I think is very important.

Kate McKinley

I wanna pause here because Alisa and I spent some more time here reflecting on how we model work-life balance and the importance of supporting your community to our kids. We both agree that it's difficult to balance it all as mothers, but Alisa shared that having her son has really helped ground and center her. And I loved this piece of advice she shared for anyone who might be in a similar place right now:

Alisa Gray

And it's, it's good for young kids, especially growing up, to understand that jobs can actually be fun, and you can do things that you love and that you're interested in. So I, I learned that from a mentor a very long time ago of, you know, if you're, if you're telling your son, your daughter, whatever, that you have to go on a work trip, make that positive. Like, this was a good work trip. I had a great time with my friends. I went here and there, and I learned so many things and made a deal. Not like, I'm so sorry, honey, I gotta leave you, you know, it's just terrible, I have to go to work, because then that doesn't help them with looking forward to being an adult and having responsibility.

So that, that was something that really impacted me because I always felt that guilt. And I've, I've learned how to deal with that a little bit better, with the, the mom guilt because they, they get it in a way. It's like, well, okay. I, I have school, and I enjoy that too. So we don't always have to be together.

Kate McKinley

As the president and CEO of Kentucky Humane Society, Alisa is facing many of the same challenges those in animal welfare are struggling with right now. And I wanted to share her perspective in case it brought some reassurance or fresh ideas to how you operate.

Alisa Gray

This field right now is, is facing things that we haven't faced in ten to fifteen years. So I think, as a leader, we need to educate our teams and also educate the public. I think that's a big part of it. You know, a lot of times when there's overcrowding and shelters are having to euthanize for time and space, that is, that's not something the Kentucky Humane Society is doing right now, but we have, you know, shelters close to us that are, and, and nationally, everyone's talking about it. And we do have several rural shelters that are, you know, forty minutes to three hours away that we partner with and try to support that are also euthanizing for time and space.

So, publicly, you know, not everyone understands why that's going on, that it's not that organization's problem or that shelter workers, you know, they hate doing it. They do not wanna do it. They will work sixty hours that week to try to make sure that it doesn't happen or happens, you know, on a, a lesser basis. So I think trying to be transparent and educate the community of what's going on―and it's a community problem. It's not the nonprofit or the animal welfare or the, you know, municipal shelters. They're not the ones that are causing it. It's what's happened over the years with COVID, and inflation and everything else going on.

So, trying to educate but also motivate. So, you know, you're, you're pulling at the heartstrings but also telling the positive stories of these amazing animals and the people that are taking care of them in these shelters. I think that's probably one of the bigger struggles right now because it's, you know, a lot of it is, is not fair to the people that are working in humane organizations because they wanna do anything and everything, and they will give it their all to save as many animals as possible.

So I think we have to work together to educate so the problem is fixed because we need more than just what we've had to be able to fix it. You know? For us, we are, our facilities, a lot of them are 19, back to 1950. So we will need a new shelter soon, and that's something where, of course, we will need support from our stakeholders, supporters, you know, people out there, our city, all of those people, and they have to understand why, why that need’s there.

Kate McKinley

As we finished our interview, Alisa and I spent some time discussing the importance of collaboration.

And while her outlook was specific to animal welfare, I think the message can still resonate for nonprofits of all shapes and sizes across all sectors.

So as we wrap up this episode, I'll leave you with Alisa's final thoughts.

Alisa Gray

I think collaboration is, is key.

No matter if you're a for-profit who wants to support a nonprofit or, you know, nonprofits that are working together, especially in our space right now. We have so many different humane organizations partnering with social services organizations, and that could be really huge. We could really save lives, not just animals’ but, but people’s lives, too. So I, I can't wait to see what happens in that space, but I think just being open to collaboration.

You know, I think animal welfare is in a space that maybe used to be a little competitive, but I feel like over the past ten years or so, we've gotten more supportive, collaborative, you know, don't reinvent the wheel, share ideas, benchmark other organizations.

I got to tour several other groups this last year, and it's just been so great seeing them and talking about what they're facing, you know, giving advice, calling each other later, following up, saying, yes, you and your team can come shadow us for two days to see how we do things. It's so refreshing, and I would love to see it in any type of space. I mean, we can learn from each other. So, collaboration, not competition.

Group thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, including how you can partner with RKD to accelerate growth for your fundraising and nonprofit marketing needs, visit rkdgroup.com.

RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

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