How The Fur-Bearers Maximize Their Voice

By Michael Brooke

In 2023, The Fur-Bearers will celebrate their 70th anniversary. Since 1953, the non-profit has been dedicated to advocating and protection for all fur bearing animals in Canada. This includes badgers, bears, beavers, foxes and coyotes. As Lesley Fox, their Executive Director explains, “It is an honour to be a steward of this incredible organization. I view my being here as something truly sacred.” Lesley along with her team, work with grandchildren of the original donors. From a small office in Vancouver, The Fur-Bearers garnered a huge amount of media attention.

Lesley admits her organization is small, but with this comes the benefit of personalization and really connecting with their donors and supporters. “I can’t stand form letters” she quips, noting that “very often you’ll find me hand writing thank you cards.” Lesley tells me she keeps a collection of beautiful cards that she chooses for specific donors. “When I first took on this job, I decided that I never wanted anyone to feel like an ATM.”

She concedes there is a lot of pressure on the non-profits to fundraise but her goal is to foster relationships. “If you do good work and if you treat people well — staff, donors and supporters, people are happy to invest in you.”

When I first approached The Fur-Bearers, it was to set up a get-to-know you session and set a date for an actual formal interview. But Lesley’s enthusiasm and passion was so evident that I hit record on the Zoom call and just listened intently. “I love what I do” says Lesley and her energy is so infectious that we went from what I thought might be a 15 minute call to a full-blown interview.

Lesley Fox, Executive Director, The Fur-Bearers.

Lesley’s background is in marketing, non-profit management and communications and as she notes, “I can do the corporate thing.” She points to the Pandemic along with the general feeling of the world being a bit out of sorts as reasons why people are craving connection and meaning in their lives. “My job is to be a matchmaker.” Lesley explained that she sees her role as someone who will connect people to things they care about in order to make an impact.

The Fur-Bearers, through their grass roots organization and ingenuity have indeed made some incredible things happen. For example, in 2021, the government of British Columbia officially banned mink farming. It took seven years for this law to be enacted, but the Fur-Bearers worked tirelessly with government agencies, the public and the media to push for change.

One of Lesley’s key points about working in the charity/non-profit section is that the work is so vital in society. “It is a big deal and so relevant in this crazy world. It doesn’t matter if you’re working to help other people, the environment or animals — any kind of injustice, the work is so important because the world is facing some very dire problems.”

By their very nature, fur bearing animals are objects of both awe and fascination for humans. We marvel at how cute or cuddly a fox looks and stare in amazement at the power of a bear. Animals have an exceptional ability to really open up our hearts and stir our souls. The Fur-Bearers tap into these emotions and feelings to have their supporters make meaningful change.

For Lesley and her organization, the way humans treat animals is of supreme importance. Beyond this is the recognition that it falls to NGOs to be the changemakers and not necessarily the government. She acknowledges that sometimes it’s the smaller, less well-known charities that can sometimes make the biggest impact. With a yearly budget of less than $500,000, the Fur-Bearers definitely punch well above their weight.

When I asked Lesley how the Fur-Bearers were able to accomplish so much, she first mentioned the fact that she has a great team. “We have a bit of secret weapon in Michael Howie — he’s a former journalist. We also happen to be extremely responsive and can get our message out quickly to the appropriate audiences. We know how to speak to the heart of an issue and the media tend to pick up on our stories.” Lesley also explained that the Fur-Bearers are also very mindful of media. “We are small, swift and scrappy. We don’t have big advertising budgets so we work on a number of platforms to get our messages out there.”

Lesley credits a number of crucial relationships and partnerships they have with different non-profits as part of their success. “Change doesn’t happen in isolation or a vacuum. If we want to make meaningful, social change it really is all about diversity. For so long, where NGOs get it wrong is they stay in their own lane. After a while you realize there is a limit to the number of people you can reach with your specific message. When working with First Nations, things become very interesting. It is still an animal issue, but it is now viewed with an indigenous lens.”

Lesley explains that the Fur-Bearers have also worked with an infectious disease specialist, allowing them to discuss animals but again with a different viewpoint. “Animal issues are people issues that are environmental issues. It’s all the same the thing, but once in a while you need help to facilitate your message.” The network and alliances create a spectrum of knowledge that helps politicians and the general public. It captures their attention and brings them into the conversation that they normally wouldn’t have participated in.

She points to the work the Fur-Bearers did to ban mink farming as an example of a truly integrated campaign that worked with a number of different charities and communities. “We pulled out all the stops. We worked with the SPCA, Indigenous peoples, infectious disease specialists, veterinarians and the David Suzuki Foundation. Everybody cared about the same thing and asked the most basic question: why are we still farming mink?” The messages resonated with people because they hit a number of different areas. As Lesley explains, “mink farming was bad for the environment, animal welfare is a concern, it’s not consistent with Indigenous values and there are serious disease issues.” The passion from all these different people created a very compelling story that no politician could ignore and eventually, the laws were changed.

With so many things to worry about in this world, Lesley admits it can be easy to ignore animals. “The challenge for us as an organization is to make people understand that animal issues are in fact human issues which means they are environmental issues. We see our role as both a bridge to those who are stuck in silos and as catalysts for change.”

As the Fur-Bearers enter their seventh decade, they have also had to deal with an extremely difficult financial challenge that spanned over two decades. Back in 1999, Revenue Canada (now Canada Revenue Agency) annulled their charity status because they believed the Furbearers were spending more than the allowed 10 percent of their revenue on advocacy campaigns. As you can imagine, the loss of this status was an enormous problem, as it prevented the group from issuing tax receipts to their donors and limited their ability to apply for grants. However, due to a court ruling, the arbitrary limits on advocacy were lifted in 2021 and made them eligible once again for charitable status.

I was interested in learning what have been some of the most important ideas that the Fur-Bearers have done to engage audiences.

“We are constantly tweaking and we have tons of analytics” explains Lesley. “We are quite sophisticated on the back end but what I think is very critical is that we are open minded and we’ve welcomed new voices and ways to spread our message. We’ve shared our platform with other experts.”

Authenticity is a key part of the Fur-Bearers persona and being real with people is one of the organization’s cornerstones. Lesley is a big believer in using simple language. “I get really turned off by jargon and form letters. We are very mindful of the use of graphic imagery.” She points to the fact that when it comes to advocating for animal rights, the Fur-Bearers are very selective where and when they share disturbing photos or videos. “Context matters and I have very strong opinions about groups that drop the shock value imagery.”

“When people go through a Facebook feed, and go from a photo of someone’s dinner to a decapitated animal, it is a feeling of being hijacked emotionally.” Lesley says sometimes this is done intentionally to shock people to gain their attention in the hopes they’ll fill out a petition or make a donation. “The concern I have is partly the intention — is it a manipulation, a tactic or a tool? What is the context? Anytime you share an image, no matter if it is of a person or an animal, there is a duty and obligation to present context. It’s not enough just to dump it out there because you’re pissed and you want to upset someone else.”

As Lesley explained, it’s not fair to hijack the public with graphic imagery. “It’s not fair and it doesn’t create change. Sometimes I’ll see images that are very misleading (i.e. from decades ago or now banned practices) and I understand people’s reasoning for doing this, but for me it creates a credibility issue.” Lesley is quick to point out that this content isn’t really necessary and it is imperative to be honest and transparent with the public. “We don’t need to traumatize people to make a point.”

Lesley also made a very salient point about the fact that when it comes to sharing photos of abused animals on social media, many people don’t think twice. But as a society, we would never encourage this kind of act if they were children or women.

The Fur-Bearers might wade into some very difficult areas, but it’s not all doom and gloom. “We go out of our way to find good news and try to find the balance. You can find yourself immersed in a constant barrage of horrible news, so we try to temper some of this by showcasing success stories” says Lesley. The Fur-Bearers encourage people to learn about animals and understand their environment.

“There are a lot of stereotypes when it comes to certain animals — the wolf comes to mind, for example. As you can imagine, it can be quite difficult to argue for the rights of coyotes if there have been reports of them attacking neighbourhood dogs. We are aware that many people might have had negative experiences with wildlife.”

Lesley says that she is very aware of the impact of the Fur Bearer’s advocacy. “I know that some of these fur farms are family run and are multi-generational. It can be difficult to navigate these waters and I am concerned about how our work can negatively impact the work of others. I know that as an animal person, I can be portrayed as being some kind of radical lunatic, but it’s not true.” She acknowledges the mink farming community did not respond well to the ban but feels that now it is up to the government to encourage a new path for the fur farmers and support during this transition is critical.

“What made the mink farming situation a bit tricky was that for many years, it wasn’t a viable industry. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the writing was on the wall and most people in society have moved on from fur — in the same way we’ve moved on from typewriters. Technology makes things redundant and obsolete. The fur industry will implode on itself, regardless of what we are doing.”

As Lesley so eloquently put it, “Advocacy is going to make some people feel uncomfortable.”

Michael Brooke is a Toronto-based freelance writer and founder of Time For My Story, a service helping individuals document their legacy in the form of a professional memoir.

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