The Art of Giving

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Equine veterinarians are some of the hardest-working professionals out there. Keeping long, erratic hours, working in all types of weather, dealing with many difficult situations and lack of quality time with family and friends are all factors that can contribute to veterinarian burnout. An unhappy life makes an unhappy vet, and an unhappy vet makes an unhappy business.

Courtesy Jay Merriam

That elusive work-life balance is an issue for most veterinarians. How can you find that? Would you believe that donating your time and expertise to a charitable organization would actually help? It is an important, growing aspect of business.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is a form of corporate self-regulation integrated into a business model. This term emerged in the business world in the 1970s. The idea behind CSR is for a company to be responsible for its own actions while encouraging a positive impact through its activities on the environment, consumers, employees and communities. It honors what’s known as the “triple bottom line”: people, planet and profit. Supporters of the concept claim that a corporation makes long-term profits by operating with a social perspective, with a philosophy that giving back brings financial returns, or at least a healthy business. Detractors say it distracts from the ultimate aim of businesses: to make money.

CSR can take many forms. It can consider community-based development where a corporation works with local communities to improve those communities as a whole. It can also be philanthropy, but some critics feel that simply donating money is not sustainable and doesn’t return needed skills or services to the community. Indeed, the benefits of CSR are difficult to quantify, and a company may sacrifice short-term profitability for social or environmental goals. The fact is, more and more consumers want to do business with companies that have a mission to which they feel connected. Still, it is difficult to show that CSR improves profits, which is the bottom line to most stakeholders. In addition, it is possible that companies may use CSR goals to distract the public from ethical questions posed by the company’s core operations. Some businesses promote CSR while practicing other methods.

By their very nature, equine practitioners have some modicum of altruism built in. After all, for most veterinarians the rewards of saving a beloved horse from a bout of colic far outweigh the financial returns. Adding a mission of social responsibility can help you gain a sense of balance to those late nights and unpaid invoices.

As a veterinarian, you can develop your own social responsibility plan. Take a look at what other vets are doing, evaluate their impacts and develop your own plan with CSR initiatives. Be accountable for your own actions and see where it takes you.

The Work of Others

More and more veterinarians are becoming familiar with the term “equitarian.” Jay Merriam, DVM, of the Massachusetts Equine Clinic defines an equitarian as “someone whose only reward for providing medication or humane services to needy horses is the satisfaction of a job well-done.” In the United States there are approximately 10 million pleasure horses and about 1 million work horses. That is not the case in much of the rest of the world. It is estimated that there are 60 to 90 million horses, donkeys and mules working worldwide. Many of these creatures suffer from malnutrition, overwork and a lack of basic care. These are not pets. They are vital to people’s livelihood. If an animal is injured, vet care and rest just isn’t possible.

It is the plight of these working horses that has spurred the worldwide efforts of many equitarians. Project Samana (web.me.com/jgmerriam), headed by Dr. Merriam, and the Christian Veterinary Mission (www.cvmusa.org), with Dr. Gerald Mitchum, are two worthy groups devoted to helping these working animals as well as working with the locals to help educate and improve their situations. The work these groups do is considerable and impressive, but to be successful and sustainable, it takes a great deal of continued effort. It’s not a matter of showing up once and helping out. It takes a commitment to the community, identifying its needs and meeting those needs with culturally relevant materials and attitudes. It takes time to cultivate a trusting relationship with the horse owners and there must be multiple follow-ups to make sure the horses are being cared for in the best way possible.

Taking Steps Closer to Home

Unfortunately, not every vet has the ability or desire to take time away from his or her practice or family to help animals around the world. But that doesn’t mean you can’t participate in giving back to the equine community. “Everybody can help in a different way,” says Richard Markell, DVM and owner of Ranch & Coast Equine Practice in Encinitas, California. Even a small effort such as giving tetanus and rabies vaccinations to rescue horses can make a huge difference.

Markell decided to focus his charitable efforts locally. “I’m not a rich guy. I work for a living,” he says. “I started with a small, backyard practice. You can do something [charitable] at whatever level [at which you work].” The owner of a successful practice specializing in equine sports medicine, he has spent many hours traveling to barns in California. Every Wednesday he drives up toward Los Angeles and works his way back to his home base. About 10 years ago he stopped by the Shea Center, a therapeutic riding facility that just happened to be next to a large boarding operation. He simply wanted to drop off his business card and let them know he was interested in helping with the program. At the time, the Shea Center was very small, with only three horses and basically no money. They were thrilled that a vet happened to walk in and say he was willing to donate his services. They took him up on his offer.

Today, the Shea Center is one of the largest and best-known therapeutic riding centers in the United States. It has 35 horses, which Dr. Markell travels to see nearly every week. These horses work hard by servicing more than 600 riders and 1,000 volunteers every year. They have to be healthy, happy and sound, or they can’t do their jobs. Markell does most of the routine work there, but for things he’s not able to handle, such as an emergency colic, there are other vets who are happy to help out just for the sake of giving.

Depending on the agenda, Markell spends 45 minutes to 2½ hours at the barn. “They are awesome,” he says of the staff and volunteers. “They are one of my most well-trained barns. They are very professional.” Knowing he has a very busy practice, the people at Shea have several assistants ready to help him. They have the horses in and lined up so he is able to address one right after the other. The Shea Center respects Markell’s time, and that endears them to him even more.

It’s easy for Markell to say that he gets back more than he gives, but it goes further than that. “Once you do it, you want to do it. They [the charity] don’t need to sell it. Anybody that’s done any charitable work knows it makes you feel so good. It’s remarkable what it does for your life.” It can even serve as a big stress reliever. There are days when Markell admits to being very stressed by his considerable workload. Then he goes to the Shea Center, where he’s able to take a deep breath and relax. “It changes how you feel,” he says. Best of all, he is then able to get back to his other clients with a more positive attitude and clearer perspective. “There is a direct benefit to your professional satisfaction, which is directly correlated to your professional success. If you’re happy, you’re going to do better and be more successful.”

For Markel, that happiness comes partly from giving back to the equine community. He stresses that the value isn’t always measured in dollars and cents, but rather the overall value it gives your practice and professional satisfaction. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Any amount of charity is good, and it’s easier to start with a small commitment and build from there.

From the Business End

There’s more to giving back than just the warm and fuzzy feeling you receive from doing good deeds. Markell has generated new clients through his work at the Shea Center, made new friends and earned a few personal perks along the way. He has also gotten referrals from throughout the country from other vets who know him for his charitable work. “I have been really amazed at how many business opportunities have opened up for me,” he notes. However, as he is quick to point out, that is not why he does it, and it is not why anyone should want to donate his or her time. It is just another benefit, but when looking at the bottom line of your business, it is a good one.

Want to be an Equitarian?

Are you ready to help in your neck of the woods? Wondering how to get started? There are a lot of nonprofit equine programs, but not all are as worthy as they would seem. Dr. Markell recommends doing your due diligence. “You have to be a really good charitable consumer,” he says. Learn about the charity you want to help. Match your philosophy to that of people with whom you want to do business. The group should speak to you as a person, as a vet and as a business. Make sure it is a nonprofit with a 501(c)3 designation. Know who is on the board of directors. Ask to see a copy of the organization’s financial report. As a nonprofit, that is public information, so if they do not want you to see it (or they don’t have one), that is a definite red flag (you can also look at their financials on guidestar.com). When you feel comfortable with the group, you can feel good that you are donating your time, resources and talents wisely. “Vets who are charitable will have a light shed on their practices because it’s the right thing to do,” says Markell.

More veterinarians are making the time to help others less fortunate. In 2009, during its annual convention, the American Association of Equine Practitioners held its first half-day program on the idea of becoming an equitarian. Headed by Dr. Merriam, this was a standing-room only event. “Nobody envisioned there would be that level of interest,” says Markell. The make-up of the room covered all demographics. There were many young vets, but established vets were there, too. Markell praises the AAEP for putting a focus on this area.

The Really Big Picture

In the end, the charitable giving of time or money is not just about one person helping out. It will hopefully go beyond that. Markell speaks of his 12-year-old son and how he wants his child to be part of a culture doing something important in the world. He sees his son as part of his moral compass. He’s proud of the fact that his son wants to start volunteering at the Shea Center when he turns 14, the minimum age for volunteers. One person giving back sets an example for other family members and friends who see someone doing his or her part. Then it spreads and soon there are many people helping out in small ways in their parts of the world. It really can—and does—make a difference.