We’re introduced to some women and immediately think, “How do they DO it all?” Katherine Russell is one of those women. As the Director of Philanthropy at the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County, she is charged with organizing the funds, donations and grant programs that help thousands of animals year in and year out. But Katherine’s career didn’t start there. After earning her master’s degree, she worked in the financial field for organizations like Christian Brothers University and First Horizon Financial before starting her own consulting firm, KR Consulting Memphis, where she helps many businesses, institutions and people across Memphis in career development and more.
Katherine’s passion for Memphians — both two- and four-legged alike — make her a force to be reckoned with. She is unshakably committed to bringing awareness to animal welfare, leveling access to care and promoting animal education, and people are listening to her. When Katherine isn’t devoting her time to help break the cycle of animal homelessness in the Mid-South, her 5-, 8- and 11-year-old children keep her busy, as do her philanthropic passions. We are thrilled to have stolen some valuable time with our newest FACE of Memphis, Katherine Russell!
Tell us a bit about your life trajectory. How’d you end up in Memphis?
I grew up in Little Rock, AR, but always had ties to Memphis as my dad lived here twice while he was growing up, and my grandfather’s family is from Tiptonville. I attended Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, where I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration and economics.
I met my husband, John, at Millsaps, and after graduating in 2002, we moved to Memphis. He had accepted a job with Regions Bank, and I took a job with FHN Financial, where I worked as a strategist for 15 years. I loved my job at FHN, and I attribute much of who I am professionally today to my years there. However, three (young) kids later, I was ready for a break and some family time.
For two years, I enjoyed lots of quality family time, dabbled in part-time consulting work and taught two classes in Christian Brothers University’s MBA program. I felt more and more drawn to community-minded work, which led me to my current role at the Humane Society of Memphis and Shelby County.
Your role at the Humane Society is an important one. Tell us how you landed there and what you do for the organization.
My position at the Humane Society is Director of Philanthropy, which is primarily fundraising, but also includes marketing and communications. People often ask how I went from being a financial strategist to nonprofit fundraising, but the reality is that fundraising is financial strategy at its core.
The Humane Society is a large organization that serves our community in a big way. It is my job to share our great work with donors and potential donors and to identify and connect individuals and corporations with opportunities for meeting their philanthropic needs. And we have lots of them! The Humane Society’s initiatives are, of course, centered around animal rescue, rehabilitation and adoption, but we also have programs that address access to veterinary care, low-cost spay and neuter, education on responsible pet ownership and more. Not only are we here for animals that need us now, but we are working hard to break the cycle of animal homelessness for future generations.
My typical day can range from writing and sharing stories of animals that we are helping at a given time to collaborating on events to meeting with donors and corporate sponsors. I love people and I love the Humane Society, so I always enjoy conversations about the great work that is being done at the shelter.
You are so passionate about animal welfare and homelessness. In your opinion, what factor is the biggest threat to animals? And what can help them the most?
I think the largest threats to animal welfare and homelessness are overpopulation and the challenges associated with access to veterinary care. Access to low-cost veterinary care, from spay and neuter surgeries to basic vaccinations, is critical to overall public health in our community.
Cats and dogs that aren’t spayed or neutered can reproduce frequently, resulting in litters of puppies or kittens each time. Unfortunately, it is all too common in underserved communities for puppies and kittens to be forced into homelessness, whether on the streets or in shelters. Spaying and neutering pets prevents unwanted litters. It is also really important that all animals in our community are vaccinated. We never want animals to become ill, but sick animals can also become a threat to public health and safety.
The Humane Society offers both a low-cost spay and neuter program and regular low-cost vaccine clinics throughout the year. We are proud to work proactively to prevent animal homelessness and disease.
What’s something that people are often surprised to learn about you?
People are usually surprised to find out that I only have one dog. When they hear that I work at the Humane Society, most think that I probably have many dogs or cats. But, as a working mom of three, one wild and crazy dog is the perfect number for our family!
Can you share a touching story that you experienced during these strange shelter-in-place months?
This is a hard one because there are so many! We are so grateful to have been able to remain open throughout the safer-at-home period and reopening phases so far. We have taken in so many animals — injured, sick, stray — you name it. Options for homeless animals have been more limited during this time, and these pets would have had nowhere else to go.
We have also taken in a number of animals whose owners have lost their jobs due to the economic impact of COVID-19. Our primary goal is always to help pet owners keep their animals in their homes. We offer food from our pantry, connect owners with the local pet food banks, and offer low-cost vaccine clinics. But, surrendering a pet can become a reality for some pet owners when the financial challenges extend beyond basic care. We are grateful that we can offer a safe solution with the promise of new beginnings for these beloved pets.
What’s a common misconception about animal rescue/adoption that you would like to clear up?
One of the most common misconceptions about the Humane Society is that we are part of the city shelter system. We are completely separate from the local municipal shelters. We are an independent nonprofit organization, and we do not receive any government support or funding from National Humane Society organizations. All of our programming and services to the community are funded by the generosity of our donors.
If someone is interested in philanthropic giving but doesn’t know where to start, what advice would you give them?
My advice would be to dive in and get involved in volunteering. Seeing and participating in an organization’s work first-hand is really inspiring and a great way to forge a connection. There is a great platform called Volunteer Odyssey that can help you browse local volunteer opportunities. And come walk dogs with us at the Humane Society (once COVID-19 guidelines allow)! We would love to have you!
Where can we find you on your days off?
I love days off! I think it is really important to decompress, and it makes me a better worker when I return. On my days off, you will usually find me in my yard or at a soccer field with my family; on a long run or walk in Shelby Farms with my best running buddy; eating a burger at Huey’s; or at a backyard barbecue with best friends and neighbors. We also love to be tourists in our own city — visiting the Memphis Zoo, walking the Big River Crossing or bowling at the Pyramid. I love museums, but my kids aren’t quite there yet.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
I am not sure if this is advice per se, but when I was growing up, my mom would tell us to “toughen up, Gladys.” This meant that my brother or I needed to pull ourselves together and figure it out. As I have faced challenges in my adult life, I’ve had to tell myself to “toughen up, Gladys” many times. It is such a simple reminder that we are stronger and more resilient than we think.
Besides faith, family and friends, name three things you couldn’t live without.
Running, holiday traditions and Diet Dr. Pepper!
Thank you for talking with us, Katherine, and thank you to Dianne Bond of Bella Vie Photography for the photos.