Category Archives: volunteerism

Thoughts on Governance for your New Big Data VO

A well cared for volunteer community is like a great South Berkeley garden!

A well cared for volunteer community is like a great South Berkeley garden!

NOTE: too long for a blog (sorry), but I did want this to be available.
The West Big Data Innovation Hub held its first all-hands-meeting in Berkeley last Thursday. What follows is a short talk I gave to the newly-formed Governance Working Group.
The Hub seeks to become a community-led, volunteer-run organization that can bring together the academy and industry… and that other academy (the one with the statues), and regional and metro government organizations into a forum where new knowledge will be born to build the practices and the technologies for big data use in the western US.
To become this organization it will need to spin up governance. An initial task for the governance working group is to draft a preliminary governance document that outlines the shape of the Hub’s decision space, and the desired processes to enable those HUB activities needed to realize the mission of the organization.
Virtual organization governance is hard. And the knowledge of how to succeed is not well understood.  We do know that the opportunities for failure are numerous. Funders will need to exercise patience and forbearance during the spin-up process. 
I don’t know of any NSF-funded community-led, volunteer-run organization that can be a model for this governance. I would be very happy to hear about one.  It would be great if this Hub becomes that successful organization.    
I have three suggestions (with the usual caveats) to help frame the work of this working group.

NUMBER ONE: Your community does not yet exist.  

There is a quote attributed to either Abraham Lincoln or Darryl Royal (depending if you’re from Texas or not)… “If you have five minutes to cut down a tree, spend the first three sharpening your axe.” 
Community building activities is the hub sharpening its axe.
Right now, when someone talks about the “big data community” that’s just another word for a bunch of people whose jobs or research involve big data. That’s a cohort, not a community. If you want community—and you do want community—you have to build it first.  That’s why you need to spend resources getting more people into the process and give them every reason to stay involved.
The first real job of the hub is to build your member community. 
Part of building your community is to give your members a stage for their vision of the future.  Challenge your members to envision the destination that marks the optimal big-data future for a wide range of stakeholders, then build a model for this destination inside the Hub.  
To meld vision with action and purpose and forge something that is new and useful, that’s a great goal: think of the Hub as the Trader Joes of big data. The place people know to go to… in order  to get what they need.
NOTE: Why do you actually need community? There’s a whole other talk there….  Community is the platform for supporting trustful teamwork… without it, you will not get things done. Without it emails will not get answered, telecons will not be attended, ideas and problems will not surface in conversations… and meetings will be tedious.

NUMBER TWO: Engagement is central. 

ANOTHER QUOTE: Terry Pratchett, the philosopher poet, once wrote: “Give a man a fire and he’s warm for a day. Ah, but set a man on fire and he’s warm for the rest of his life…” 
You governance effort should be centered on maximizing member engagement by giving the greatest number of members opportunities to do what they believe is most important for them to do RIGHT NOW. Invite new members to join and then ask them what the hub can do for them. This is not a Kennedy moment.
Your members want pizza… it’s your job to build them a kitchen and let them cook.
Your steering committee (or whatever this is called) needs to be 90% listening post and 10% command center. It needs to listen and respond to members who want to use the Hub to do what they think the hub should do. It needs to coordinate activities and look for gaps. It needs to remind members of the vision, the values, and the mission goals of the organization, and then remind them that this vision, these values, and the mission belong to them and are open to all members to reconfigure and improve.
The Hub needs to be a learning organization with multiple coordinated communication channels… Members need to know their ideas have currency in the organization.  
Do not be afraid of your members, but do be wary of members that seem to want to lead without first attracting any followers. Spread leadership around. Look for leadership on the edges and grow it.
Engagement will lead to expertise.   Over time, the members will learn to become better members.  The organization should improve over time. It will not start out amazing.  It can become amazing if you let it.
Each member needs to get more than they give to the organization. If they don’t, then you’re probably doing it wrong. This will be difficult at first, so the shared vision will need to carry people through that initial phase.
Creating a bunch of committees and a list of tasks that need to be finished on a deadline is NOT the way to engage members. If you think that’s engagement, you are probably doing it wrong.  YES, some things need to be done soon to get the ball rolling. But remember that volunteers have other, full time jobs.

NUMBER THREE:  There can be a great ROI for the NSF

The Hub’s success will provide the NSF with a return on its investment that is likely to be largely different than what it expects today, but also hugely significant and valuable.
Final quote here: Brandon Sanderson, the novelist wrote: “Expectations are like fine pottery. The harder you hold them, the more likely they are to break.”
The hub is NOT an NSF-funded facility, or a facsimile of a facility…
Unlike a facility, the NSF will not need to fund a large building somewhere and maintain state-of-the-art equipment. The NSF already funds these facilities for its big data effort.  The Hub is not funded to be a facility and will not act like a facility. 
The hub is also not just another funded project… 
Unlike a fully funded project, the NSF will not be paying every member to accomplish work in a managed effort with timelines and deliverables. 
Volunteers are not employees. They cannot and should not be tasked to do employee-style work. They have other jobs.  The backbone coordination projects for the hubs and spokes are paid to enable their volunteer members to do the work of volunteers. The Hub is not a giant funded project. It will not work like a giant funded project. It cannot be managed. It must be governed.  This means it needs to govern itself. 
Self governance is the biggest risk of failure for the hub. That’s why the work you do in this working group is crucial.
Self governance is also the only pathway to success. So, there is a possible downside and potentially a really big upside…
Remember that process is always more important than product.  You may need to remind your NSF program managers of this from time to time.
The Hub needs to take full advantage of the opportunities and structural capacities it inherits as a community-led, volunteer-run organization. It’s goal is to be the best darn community-led, volunteer-run organization it can be.  Not a facility and not a big, clumsy funded project.
Here are Seven Things the NSF can get only by NOT funding them directly, but through supporting the HUB as a community-led virtual organization of big-data scientists/technologists:
1. The NSF gets to query and mine a durable, expandable level of collective intelligence and a requisite variety of knowledge within the HUB;
2. The NSF can depend on an increased level of adoption to standards and shared practices that emerge from the HUB;
3. The NSF will gain an ability to use the HUB’s community network to create new teams capable of tackling important big-data issues (also it can expect better proposals led by hub member teams);
4. The NSF can use the HUB’s community to evaluate high-level decisions before these are implemented (=higher quality feedback than simple RFIs);
5. Social media becomes even more social inside the HUB big-data community, with lateral linkages across the entire internet. This can amplify the NSF’s social media impact;
6. The Hub’s diverse stakeholders will be able to self-manage a broad array of goals and strategies tuned to a central vision and mission and with minimal NSF funding; and,
7. The NSF and the Hub will be able to identify emergent leadership for additional efforts.
Bottom Line: Sponsoring a community-led, volunteer-run big data Hub offers a great ROI for the NSF. There are whole arenas of valuable work to be done, but only if nobody funds this work directly, but instead funds the backbone organization that supports a community of volunteers. This is the promise of a community-led organization.
And it all starts with self-governance…
To operationalize your community-building effort you will be spinning up the first iteration of governance.  If you can keep this first effort nimble, direct, as open to membership participation as you can, and easy to modify, all will be good.  Do not sweat the details at this point.  Right now you are building just the backbone for the organization. Just enough to enable and legitimate the first round of decisions.
Make sure that this document is not set in concrete… it will need to change several times in the next 3-5 years. In the beginning, create a simple process and a low threshold for changes (not a super majority). TIP: Keep all the governance documents on GitHub or something like that. Stay away from Google Docs! Shun Word and PDFs!   

Postscript:

Hallmark moments in the future of this Hub if it is successful:
At some point 90% of the work being done through the Hub will be by people not in this room today. The point is to grow and get more diverse. With proper engagement new people will be finding productive activities in the hub. [with growth and new leadership from the community] 
At some point none of the people on the steering committee will be funded by the NSF for this project…  [this is a community-led org… yes?]… 
At a future AHM meeting more than 50% of the attendees will be attending for the first time.

5 signs that you need to rethink and reboot your membership engagement effort

Members feeling disengaged?  Maybe you’re doing it wrong.

Members feeling disengaged? Maybe you’re doing it wrong.

In your volunteer-run, virtual organization, how do your members become engaged in sharing their time and knowledge? Do they come away from these activities enthused? Or do they feel like they never want to come back? Here are five danger signals that mean you should rethink and possibly reboot your organization.

  1. You can’t agree on what engagement is.
    What are your metrics for engagement? How are you collecting these? What does engagement look like in your organization? If you cannot answer these questions, then you need to start over and rethink why anybody should become a member.
  2. When members tell you what’s important to them, you have no way to respond.
    Engagement is where your organization shows it’s value to its members. Your members are intelligent, enthusiastic, and busy. They showed up. Every member needs to be able to find support to do what is important for them (inside the boundaries of the vision/goal of the organization). When your organization can amplify the efforts of each member to solve their immediate problem or support their creative input, they will be engaged. And they will engage each other. Remember the first rule of a volunteer organization: each member needs to get more than they give. Members need every reason to come back and bring their colleagues. When a new member shows up and tells your staff, “I really need to solve this problem” that becomes a priority for your organization. If it’s not then you need to start over.
  3. You’ve invented a list of tasks that you want volunteers to work on.They need to chose from this list if they want to engage with your organization.
    Helping the organization with higher-level organizational work: planning, strategy, etc., is not engaging. It’s a service. This is something that people who are already engaged will do in small doses. In volunteer-run organizations members eat the pudding first, and then get the meat. If your answer to a member is to look at a web-page with a list to things you want them to do, then you need to start over.
  4. You’ve got an “engagement team” instead of being an engagement organization.
    Volunteer-run organizations are propelled by engagement. This is the locomotive that pushes all other activities. If your organization has an engagement team somewhere trying to figure things out, then you’ve lost your locomotive and you’ll only grow and move as fast as the team can pump a hand car. If engagement is not your first order of business, then you need to start over.
  5. Nobody is certain how decisions are made.
    Engagement runs on trust and and is propelled by a governance that is open and responsive. Members of volunteer-run organizations need to know they are in control. Every time a decision is rethought or rescinded by the staff or through some back-door conversation with donors; every time the membership only gets to vote on a document somebody else wrote, every election where the nominations fall to the same people: members become less engaged. If your governance is not actually run by the volunteers who are your members, then you need to start over.

Photo credits: poor doggie: bull-dog story

Risks and Costs of Double-Loop Governance for Your Organization

Yes, you will be giving all your members the power to steer. Image from the Valve New Employee Manual.

Risks and Costs of Double-Loop Governance for Your Organization

There are real costs and real risks in choosing a double-loop governance scheme. Single-loop, top-down management is significantly more efficient in the short run. Funders may expect a management plan that spells out a hierarchy of communication and responsibility. And, if your organization does not need or want to sustain itself for more than a couple years, then double-loop management may be a wrong decision. But if you are looking to build a virtual organization that has a good chance to be sustained for years or decades through community effort (including downstream fund development) and a small staff, then an initial investment in double-loop governance is key. You will need to sell this to your funders as an investment in sustainability.

From the perspective of the founders, the main risks in implementing double-loop governance comes from the ability of the community to alter the founder’s vision for the organization. Double-loop governance lets everybody steer. This means that the direction travelled will happen through a rough consensus. It also means that the vehicle can move rapidly to another direction once everyone is on board with the new vision.

When decisions are owned by the community, the community will express its own vision. Bacon (2009) has some recommendations for start-up community leadership that can provide some added stability to the initial vision during the boot-strapping period. But the final word will belong to the community. If you are building an organization and cannot let go of your own vision of its future and goals, then build it with a single-loop management, and trust that you have enough charisma to hold it together. Otherwise, offer the vision to your members and give them the tools to make this something they can celebrate.

In terms of cost, the main obstacle to double-loop governance is time. It will take additional months of discussion to arrive at a rough consensus about the governance system documents. (ESIP Federation members worked constantly for more than two years to arrive at their final first draft of a constitution and bylaws.) And it will take additional time for subsequent decisions to be vetted by the community before they can be implemented. Transparent decision making also means giving time for member feedback. Fortunately, much of the business plan implementation efforts can be distributed into subgroups which can be given enough self-governance to streamline their decisions and to accomplish work on specific action points in an agile fashion. This is how major open source software efforts are currently organized.

Staffing a double-loop governed organization requires finding people who have enough patience to stick to the processes that have been decided by the community. They also need to resign themselves to the basic idea that each member is also their boss: all members have the right to comment on the ongoing workings of the organization.  Then again, it’s also the case that members have an obligation to recognize the good work of the staff.

References

Double-Loop Governance References

Anderson, L.  (1997) Argyris and Schon’s theory on congruence and learning [On line].  Available at http://www.uq.net.au/action_research/arp/argyris.html .

Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley.

Bacon, Jono. (2009) The Art of Community: Building the New Age of Participation. Sebastapol:OʼReilly. Available at: http://www.artofcommunityonline.org/downloads/jonobacon-theartofcommunity-1ed.pdf .

Bourdieu, Pierre (1990) The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press. [Originally Le Sens Practique Paris: Éditions de Minuit. 1980.]

Chen, Katherine K. (2009) Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.

Christensen, Clayton M. (2002) “Coping with Your Organization’s Innovation Capabilities.” In Frances Hesselbein; Marshall Goldsmith; Iain Somerville. Leading for Innovation: And Organizing For Results. Kindle Edition. Originally published by Josey-Bass: New York.

Duckles, Beth M., Mark A. Hager, and Joseph Galaskiewicz (2005) “How Nonprofits Close: Using Narratives to Study Organizational Processes.” Pp. 169-203 in Qualitative Organizational Research: Best Papers from the Davis Conference on Qualitative Research, ed. Kimberly D. Elsbach. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishing.

Giddens, Anthony. (1994) Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hsieh, Tony (2010-05-20). Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose. Hachette Book Group. Kindle Edition.

Johnson, Steven (2011-10-04). Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Kao, John. (2002) “Reinventing Innovation: A Perspective from The Idea Factory.” In Frances Hesselbein; Marshall Goldsmith; Iain Somerville. Leading for Innovation: And Organizing For Results. Kindle Edition. Originally published by Josey-Bass: New York.

Hagel, John III and John Seely Brown (2008) “Creation Nets: Harnessing The Potential Of Open Innovation” Journal of Service Science. Vol. 1. No 2. Pp. 27-40.

Lehr, Jennifer K. and Ronald E. Rice (2002) “Organizational Measures as a Form of Knowledge Management: A Multitheoretic, Communication-Based Exploration. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. 53:12. Pp. 1060-1073.

Malone, Thomas W., Laubacher, Robert and Dellarocas, Chrysanthos N., Harnessing Crowds: Mapping the Genome of Collective Intelligence (February 3, 2009). MIT Sloan Research Paper No. 4732-09. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1381502 .

Ruef, Martin (2002) “Strong ties, weak ties, and islands: structural and cultural predictors of organizational innovation.” Industrial and Corporate Change, Volume 11, Number 3, pp. 427–449.

Sinek, Simon (2009-09-23). Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.

Smith, M. K. (2001) “Chris Argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning,” the encyclopedia of informal education, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/argyris.htm. Last update: December 01, 2011.

Valve Corporation Handbook for New Employees. (2012) Kirkwood: Valve Press. Available on the Internet on April 22, 2012 at: http://newcdn.flamehaus.com/Valve_Handbook_LowRes.pdf .

Acknowledgements: I want to thank Erin Robinson for her insights on an early draft.

Community Engagement: your agency does not have the budget to not support this

Funded research that includes a charge to engage a community (of scholars, end users, students, etc.) in doing this research, or in using its products (data, metadata, standards, etc.) is usually underfunded. There are two simple reasons for this. The first reason is that agencies typically underestimate the cost of doing community engagement through community governance. The second is that money is a very poor instrument for directly accomplishing engagement, mainly because of the perverse effects this has on volunteerism.

At the same time, efforts to support “community” are often pursued without actually building community-based governance. Project budgets may include large amounts of “participant support” for annual “community meetings” that could help build engagement. But without the governance structure that puts the community in a position to determine key aspects of the core activities, these meetings are really only very expensive alternatives to an email list. The attendees may learn something, and will forge their own interpersonal connections, but the work of building community through governance is left undone.

I was once “voted” onto the policy committee of a large agency-funded effort. The first thing we were told, after they flew us in to the annual “community” meeting, was that the committee did not make policies. Similarly, the act of voting was used without any available model of membership. There are better ways to get the community engaged.

One of the reasons that community engagement has become more visible as a goal is the realization that “network effects” can greatly amplify the impacts of a research project’s outcomes.  Indeed, Metcalfe’s Law tells us that value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of members (n2). Bringing network effects to research collaboratories can accelerate communication of ideas and knowledge sharing. A more recent study by David Reed points to an even larger effect: that of group-forming networks. Networks that allow members to self select into smaller groups (clusters) approach an exponential increase in the scale of interactions (2n), a scale that grows much faster than any power law distribution. Enabling the network to create internal, purposeful subgroups where members are highly engaged is one strategy that can really pay off for a funded research project.

The two curves in these graphs are familiar to most. The top one is the “power law” curve, which describes many distributions, notably, the expected relationship between the amount of attention/activity on an open Internet network in relation to the number of people so engaged. This is the usual “10% of the members do 90% of the work” situation. The bottom curve is the “bell curve” normal distribution, where the main mode is high-activity. What is important to notice here is that the space under the normal curve is much larger than the space under the power law curve. Much more activity is happening here, even if the number of people are the same.

The use of community-led governance to foster engagement is covered in several other posts on this site. There are some real examples of this that can be studied. The Federation of Earth Science Information Partners (ESIPfed.org) is one.  I would guess that many agency program managers can point to histories of counter examples: of projects that never created any governance capabilities, even while they spend huge amounts of budget on “community.”

The amount of real governance required to support activities also depends on what types of activities need to be supported. If communication is the goal, then a relatively weak governance system will suffice. If real collaborations (those purposeful subgroups) are to be supported, then a robust governance system may be needed. Clay Shirky examines three levels of social interaction: communication, coordination, and collaboration. Each of these levels needs its own type of governance.

Distributing activities across an engaged volunteer network of peers can use a very limited budget to accomplish everything that needs to be done. Money is not the driving force here. It is rarely the case that agencies cannot afford to support governance through project research budgets; more to the point, they cannot afford to not support this if they want to accomplish what only a community can do.

Volunteers or staff: Who is holding up your virtual organization?

Getting the right mix of staff and volunteers for a virtual organization is a crucial task for sustainability. The key is to take limited resources (if you have unlimited resources, call me) and invest these in directions that bring the best return for all.

What are volunteers good for? Many a community organizer has had moments when the answer to this is all too clear. Thankfully, those moments do pass. Volunteers are the heart of a virtual organization. Keeping this organ alive and well is job one for staff. Volunteers bring skills, vision, energy, and passion to the organization. They tend to do so in short-term increments. They need to know their efforts are valuable. This knowledge prompts them to stay engaged. Through the serial engagement of many volunteers, certain activities are maintained: governance, oversight, incremental work on infrastructure, a supply of new ideas, and, yes, occasional sidetracks. Nobody can sell your organization to donors and new partners better than volunteers. And nobody can grow your organization over time and on budget like volunteers.

What is your staff good for? Staff are the backbone of any virtual organization. They keep it on track and guide its fortunes. They have responsibility for those tasks that volunteers should not be asked to perform (more about this soon). They also have responsibility to keep volunteers engaged. They do the thank-less work and get paid for this. But that doesn’t mean the organization doesn’t owe them a heap of thanks. Still, they are professionals, and need to step up an take charge when the need arises. Generically, the work of staff falls into two buckets: everyday necessary tasks and putting out fires. Volunteers should not be asked to perform these types of work. Staff run the events on the organization’s calendar; they manage the web-presence, the accounting, the teleconferences, and a hundred day-to-day activities. They facilitate volunteer efforts. And, when the website is hacked, or the projector bulb burns out, they fix it.

Volunteers get called in to plan and direct new activities and articulate new goals. Ideally, they are given a say (not just a voice) in the organization’s operational budget. Because they do the planning and determine the budget, it’s only fair that they do some of the work. They can be tasked to scope out any new work required by a new goal and to build new capabilities to meet this. Then they either do the work, or determine that the job is too big for them to accomplish. When the volunteers are done with their efforts, the outcomes are passed back to staff to incorporate into the organization’s operational inventory. Sometimes the outcomes are not fully ready to use (having been built by volunteers). Staff might need to hire an outside expert to polish the work. Note: this person should be fully “outside” and not a community member. Never hire a community member as a consultant to fix another community member’s volunteered contribution.

When the job is too big, volunteers might ask for some support (more often they just stop answering emails). There are many ways to support volunteers. Paying them is the least valuable, as this transforms them into non-volunteers. There are several descriptions of the negative impacts of paying volunteers. Basically you are pissing in your own soup. Other means of support are always better: find them assistants (pay for interns), pay their travel, pay for hardware and software when required, and, if nothing else works, add staff to help. Sometimes, this might mean making a skilled volunteer a “fellow” for a short period of time. This move should include a community vote, including an open call for the fellow position within the community. The community is tasked to help staff fill a temporary (less than a year) need from within their ranks. By this, the “fellow” can be paid for a time and then return to the ranks of the volunteer community.

Remember that volunteers need to know their efforts are valuable. The organization needs to build and maintain recognition systems for volunteers. These include online and in-person awards. The three motivations for engagement are money, love, and glory. When it comes to volunteers, if you are stingy with the glory, don’t expect any love. And when you let the community add to their own glory, then you can stand back and watch new leaders emerge and know your virtual organization is healthy and growing.

Image Credit: Used on CC license. Photographer: Leo Reynolds on Flickr

Unintended Consequences Mock our Best Efforts

The dog was just a puppy, and it came rocketing across the street with its tail down. The dog’s owner, rummaging in his garage, the door open, yells out to dog. It’s some kind of lab mix and it jumps up on us with joy. We are mindful of the traffic on the street, and corral the pup by its collar. The owner trots over and we pass the dog back to him.

“Is it a lab?” my wife asked.

“Some kind of mix,” he said. “I got him from a shelter. They don’t euthanize here, so we went down to Riverside where they do, and rescued him.”

My wife has volunteered for years at the local Humane Society, where they struggle to find owners for their orphaned pups and kittens. Their pledge to not euthanize was designed to reassure locals of a mutual responsibility to manage their pets. Unintentionally, the Humane Society has also “rescued” their charges from death, and by doing so has removed that action from the scope of the people who come in to find a pet.

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The local blood bank in Santa Barbara ran as a non-profit organization for decades, as a vital partner in local health and medical services. One day it announced that it was selling its operation to a for-profit blood services organization that would help manage the blood supply with new organizational tools and greater funding for new technologies.

Within a month, the number of  blood donors to the blood bank fell to the point where it was in danger of failing both economically and in its roll to provide for the local demand. Soon after, the blood bank resumed its operation as a non- profit organization, and the volunteers returned.

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A large, federal agency funded digital library effort struggled for years to achieve greater impact. During this time, the project was run by a funded core of organizations. They had originally drawn up a community governance plan, but this had never been implemented. A cadre of volunteers, people who shared the vision of the effort, soldiered on with committees and working groups, but nothing seemed to gel. The agency provided some additional funding for new work, and the project parceled out these funds to a handful of former volunteers. Almost immediately, the remaining volunteers stopped volunteering, and the entire effort was soon defunded. One might argue that it was not the presence of money, but the lack of community that doomed the project, however, the impact of money was immediate and damaging.

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The presence of money can interrupt the work of a volunteer community in unintended ways. But these do not need to be unexpected. If money is made available, it needs to be managed by the volunteers (they need to have a say in the budget), and it needs to support their voluntary efforts, not pay them for the same work.

As for the unintended (perhaps even perverse)  impact of not euthanizing stray pets; instead of, say, holding mock executions to give people the joy of rescue, there might be opportunities to advertise the burden of maintaining these pets, and the need for them to have real homes.

Photo Credit: Stephen Poff on Flickr