While leading the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for a decade, Ed Sayres worked by a simple mantra: “Say what you do, and do what you say.” By always acting on this maxim, the ASPCA earned a reputation for honesty and built trust with all of its constituents.
As Sayres has explained, “If you build a track record and say you’re going to do things and actually do them, it builds trust and a belief that helps on all fronts. We had people engaged in a deep way. I think it is confidence in what we are doing and the visibility of what we are doing that make us successful.”
Sayres’ broader management philosophy is grounded in the research and expertise of Good to Great author Jim Collins as well as in the thesis of Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright uses game theory to argue in his book that, as societies become increasingly connected and interdependent, we need to find “non-zero-sum” – or “win-win” – solutions, rather than “zero-sum” outcomes with a clear winner and loser. In other words, we are better off when we work together.
Collaboration has long been a theme in Sayres’ work. “Collaboration is really the only way to help animals most efficiently. To truly collaborate, you have to be joined at the hip in good times and bad. You have to be very focused and understand that it is about resources, time for animals and competency. The best way to maximize those is through collaboration with everybody in the community,” Sayres says. He sees compassion as essential to developing a collaborative culture. As he said to his staff, “The compassion you show to animals, you could show to each other, and I’d be alright with that.”
With Sayres’ guidance, clearly defining the ASPCA’s core mission – and having the discipline to remain focused on it while still promoting innovation – helped ensure that all of the ASPCA’s activities were aligned with its mission and that its programs, fundraising and communications were closely coordinated. This led to meaningful outcomes, transparency and accountability that engendered donor loyalty.
“As philanthropy has evolved, people ask questions,” Sayres explains. “Define the outcome. How transparent is your work?” Rather than simply collecting data and filing it away for its own use, the ASPCA posts it online. “Sometimes things go faster than we hope, and sometimes they go more slowly. Either way, we always keep things in front of people,” he says. “The story we’re telling – whatever the medium – is actually what we’re doing. That’s not always the case with charities,” Sayres says.
Remarkably, while many nonprofits struggled during the recession, the ASPCA continued to attract donor support and grew significantly. That achievement is testament to the trust it had earned over time – by always saying what it does, and doing what it says.