Research is not just for the lab. As a Stony Brook University student, I had the unique opportunity to demonstrate to the community just how research can help nonprofit organizations. I have always loved both dogs and research. Never would I have thought, however, that a small class assignment combining the two could turn into an ongoing, multi-year research endeavor that would have a profound effect on an animal shelter. Approximately two years ago, Professor Anthony Scarlatos, a computer science lecturer at Stony Brook University, asked my class to figure out how to utilize computing technology for the betterment of society. Without thinking about it, I suggested encouraging students to visit a local animal shelter so that they could interact with the dogs and later write daily blogs about the dogs for potential adopters to view online. This scenario seemed to benefit everyone involved; the students would be able to decompress during midterms and finals by playing with the dogs, the dogs would become more social, and potential adopters would be able to view dog profiles online. Professor Scarlatos suggested that I run with the idea and at the end of the semester, he asked if I wanted to do the research for real. Two years later, we have been able to help the Smithtown Animal Shelter in more ways than we ever had anticipated.
In order to test our idea that an increased internet presence would increase adoption rates and reduce return rates, we had to bring the shelter’s technology up to speed. At the time, they had one computer and countless filing cabinets stuffed with paperwork. At absolutely no cost to the shelter, our co-researcher, Matt Lagueras, under the supervision of Professor Scarlatos, designed software that allowed the shelter to transition from an antiquated paper-based system to a highly efficient digital system with separate portals for the staff, volunteers, and potential adopters. The only costs to the shelter were an upgraded Wi-Fi package and one iPad, which allowed staff to photograph and catalog the animals for the shelter’s database. The updated technological infrastructure not only made the research possible, but also allowed for other processes within the shelter to run more smoothly. The software even created QR code dog tags for each cataloged dog which allowed for easier identification should they become lost.
It took two years for the shelter’s technological infrastructure to solidify and for the staff to acclimate to the changes. During that time, several other unanticipated results occurred. Most notably, the shelter enjoyed lots of free positive publicity as several local newspapers, Facebook pages, and the Stony Brook University community all promoted the research being done at the shelter. Additionally, a number of organizations at the University expressed new interest in volunteering. The shelter staff also appeared to be much happier and less stressed since the technology made their office more organized and efficient. Come the fall, adopters will be able to view current profiles of the shelter animals from home. We hope to continue our research over the next year to see what other factors influence canine adoption rates through this technology.
While this is a specific example of how research can help nonprofits, there are some general benefits to utilizing research as well. Research helps nonprofits to identify inefficiencies in their infrastructure, to determine resources necessary for growth, and to ultimately acquire them. During our research process, we found that having a paper-based system was creating inefficiencies and stunting the shelter’s growth and we were able to remedy the situation. Research is innovative and exciting and almost always generates positive publicity. Pairing up with a local school to conduct research can also boost the nonprofit’s image as the nonprofit is able to utilize the school’s already established brand and marketing channels. Since our research was conducted through Stony Brook University, a prominent research school, the shelter was showcased several times in the school’s affiliated publications. In a time when nonprofits are under increasing pressure to do more with less, research can be a valuable tool that allows organizations to come up with new, creative ways to be more efficient and effective without breaking the bank.