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When Dr Jason Rapke started Best Mates charity to help pets of underprivileged people, he didn’t realise the positive impact it would have on his staff and clinic culture. By Frank Leggett
Veterinary professionals have a proud tradition of supporting animal charities such as Vets Beyond Borders, Pet Medical Crisis, Project HoPe and Love Your Pet Love Your Vet. The work of these organisations is vital in improving the health of a wide variety of animals.
Sometimes, the desire to help leads vets to consider starting their own charity. While the sentiment is noble, there are many factors that need to be considered including legalities, reporting, time management and fundraising. In 2015, Dr Jason Rapke, co-owner of Glen Iris Veterinary Hospital in Melbourne, set up Best Mates charity. The organisation’s mission was to supply free vet care for the pets of homeless and underprivileged people.
Dr Rapke has always been a keen volunteer for animal causes. He graduated from the University of Melbourne in 2007 and did some mixed practice work in regional towns. Moving to NSW, he undertook an internship at the University of Sydney, then obtained his memberships in surgery, followed by emergency work in Sydney and locum work in the UK for 18 months.
“When I was at university, I worked with Animals Asia in Chengdu [in China],” he says. “They were rescuing bears from bile farms, a very confronting and rewarding job. Some of the bears had been in tiny cages for over 20 years. They have to go through a process where they are gradually introduced to larger and larger cages. I was lucky enough to see that whole process and be there when the bears were let out into a large enclosure with grass and trees. That was very good for the soul.”
Dr Rapke also wormed and desexed dogs in the community of Maningrida in the Northern Territory, with the Bali Street Dog Foundation, and with Animal Aid in Udaipur, India.
“There are so many different animal causes that need our help, it’s important that vets utilise their skills as much as possible,” he says. “If we can donate a bit of our time to help animals, that’s a really positive thing. I believe it’s a responsibility that goes with the territory. It’s also very enjoyable.”
In 2014, Dr Rapke bought into the Glen Iris Veterinary Hospital, becoming a co-owner and head vet. Around the same time, he became a director of RSPCA Victoria and sits on the RSPCA Victoria Animal Welfare Policy Committee. The committee determines policies of the RSPCA with respect to animal welfare issues. With a longtime interest in volunteering for animal welfare causes, Dr Rapke decided to start his own charity in 2015.
“Our staff were keen to be involved and we determined as a group that we wanted to give back as part of our culture,” he says. “A couple of staff members had seen homeless people with animals that appeared to need attention. From that seed of an idea, Best Mates was born.”
Best Mates’ mission is to provide free veterinary care to the pets of people who are homeless or struggling in life. Dr Rapke spoke with the Salvation Army in St Kilda who confirmed there was a real need for such a service. The Salvos offered their facility to be used once a month as a place to run consultations. On day one, Best Mates provided 10 consultations and it only got busier from there.
“There was clearly a need,” says Dr Rapke. “A lot of these clients come from very disadvantaged backgrounds and many of them may not have close family or friends. Their animals are at the centre of their lives and if they can’t provide for that animal, the stress is massive. If we can help alleviate that burden, it provides them with a really significant sense of comfort and support.”
While the idea of setting up a charity is appealing, there are lot of requirements that need to be fulfilled before the first dollar is donated. The entity needs to be registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission and, in Dr Rapke’s case, Consumer Affairs Victoria. A committee needs to be formed that oversees the charity and financial statements need to be reported to both commissions regularly. The commissions also require records of the committee’s meetings to fulfil obligations.
“It’s onerous,” says Dr Rapke, “but not prohibitively onerous. You need to be prepared to spend a lot of time on reporting and administrative work. And you need committee members who are willing to help. Basically, you need a good team.”
Of course, a charity can only operate if it has the income to fulfil its mission. According to Dr Rapke, the single most time-consuming part of running a charity is fundraising. Not only do you have to encourage people to part with their money but there’s a number of requirements to follow. A bank account needs to be set up, all donations need to be recorded and everything has to reported—along with annual statements—to the committee and then to the commissions.
Dr Rapke says one of the positive effects of running Best Mates was the impact it had on the staff at his clinic. The majority wanted to be involved and were proud of the program. Some were very committed and would come to every session. Others would come when they could make it. It was very much a voluntary thing. They placed a donation box at the front of the clinic and staff were enthusiastic about helping the community.
“Running a charity has a positive effect on clinic culture,” says Dr Rapke. “It defines who we are and why we do things. Most people who go into this profession are socially minded and care about the world around them. It’s nice to be in a setting where there’s no transaction other than to simply help. When that’s facilitated through your workplace, it can really improve morale and satisfaction.”
Pets in the Park
Recently, Best Mates merged with a larger charity, Pets in the Park (PITP), that also provides veterinary care for the disadvantaged. The major benefit of the merger was that all reporting requirements became much simpler. Rather than reporting to the two commissions, Dr Rapke only has to report to PITP. They also provide all medication through their substantial sponsorship arrangements. Essentially, Best Mates and PITP are two charities that are trying to achieve the same thing. It made sense for them to merge and utilise each other in a synergistic way.
“Becoming part of a larger organisation gives Best Mates access to people nationwide with diverse skill sets such as social media and fundraising expertise,” says Dr Francesca Black, clinical coordinator of St Kilda Pets in the Park. “PITP also connects with other clinics in Melbourne, providing further support from like-minded people. It allows for a more efficient use of funds and human resources.”
PITP provides basic veterinary care such as nail trims and expressing anal glands. However, that basic service is also incredibly important.
“The work we do is a great opportunity to educate owners on preventative healthcare,” says Dr Black. “Our clients really love their animals and take our advice seriously. Our St Kilda chapter is now looking at expanding our service to offer routine surgeries such as spays, castrates and dentals.”
Dr Rapke has some advice for any vets thinking of starting their own charity. “The biggest challenges are reporting, fundraising and the time commitment. You need to have a good support team. If there’s an existing charity that’s already doing what you want to achieve, then I’d say just get involved with them. It’s the easiest and most effective way to meet your goals. But if you see a gap that no-one is currently filling, starting your own charity is a fantastic thing to do. It’s really not that difficult to set up.”