Humane Society CEO has soft heart and tough mission

August 20, 2011
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Sue Ann Culp was still mourning the loss of a family member when she became CEO of the Humane Society of West Michigan last May.

Her 13-year-old sheep dog, Monty, died of old age two months earlier. As is the case with many dog owners, Monty and another sheep dog that died in 2008 were more like kin to Culp than mere canines. Culp is sure she’ll adopt another dog at some point, but not yet. The pain of her loss is too fresh.

“I’m not quite ready,” said Culp.

Yet, when she walks past the cages housed in the HSWM kennel that hold an average of 70 dogs awaiting adoption, Culp’s innate altruism rears its head.

“It’s tough,” she said. “I want to take them all home.”

That is not possible, of course, which is why high on Culp’s priority list is ensuring the dogs, as well as an assortment of cats, rabbits and guinea pigs, find homes with responsible owners.

Nothing new there. That’s been the Humane Society’s mission since its founding in 1883. What is different is that Culp recently completed a reorganization of the HSWM’s 28-member staff that included two new hires: a director of marketing/special events and a grant writer/volunteer coordinator.

“Not all the staff were in positions that played to their strengths,” Culp said of the HSWM employees. “One of the big challenges was, there was no strategic plan for development and fundraising, so I’ve already developed a plan for the entire fiscal year that will include new marketing materials and a new website.

“The other major change is a more comprehensive plan for continuum of care.”

With an annual operating budget of $1.3 million, a capital campaign also is in Culp’s sights. The plan still needs fine-tuning, but it could include renovating the organization’s existing 21,500-square-foot facility built in 2001, expansion of it or a new building.

“One of my problems is, instead of having a sick or hurt animal kept in the general population of the kennel, I wish that there was a totally separate building,” said Culp.

“Right now, we’re at capacity. Storage is always an issue. There are a lot of needs here.”

With 25 years of nonprofit management and development under her belt, coupled with an abiding respect for animals, hiring on as the HSWM’s top administrator was a natural fit.


Company/Organization: Humane Society of West Michigan
Position: CEO
Age: 59
Birthplace: Sidney, Ohio
Residence: Zeeland
Family: Husband, Michael; two grown children
Business/Community Involvement: Owner, AP Theatrical Productions, Holland; member, Association of Fundraising Professionals; member, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.
Biggest Career Break: “Long ago, I was working at a radio station in North Carolina as a promotions director and was recruited by the Special Olympics to be their spokesperson in the area. That led to my training in development, and I’ve been in development ever since.”

“I have always been passionate about animals,” said Culp, an empty-nester who lives with her husband, Michael, in Zeeland. “All but one of ours has been a rescued animal. When the Humane Society called me, it was a dream fit for me.”

Prior to her new position, Culp was executive director of the Holland Hospital Foundation for nearly four years. She led its fund development, strategic planning, planned giving, special events, grant writing and overall branding, while also creating Funding Access to Care for Everyone, which raised money to support health care services for the uninsured.

She began her career as promotions director for a radio station in North Carolina, where she eventually was asked to be the spokesperson for Special Olympics in that area.

The experience sparked a passion for nonprofit organizations and their missions. She was subsequently recruited by a fundraising consulting firm where she was trained in the various aspects of fundraising and mission-based marketing.

From there, she served organizations throughout the United States, including the National Child Safety Council, March of Dimes and Disability Network.

Clearly, Culp also possesses a creative bent.

She and her husband own AP Theatrical Productions, a professional dinner theater production company in Holland that is entering its sixth season in the fall.

She also has served as director of music for numerous churches throughout the country, a task that often included overseeing responsibilities as an organist, choir director and production duties of liturgical dance and liturgical plays. Culp is also a published author, playwright and a couture seamstress and fabric artist.

Originally from Sidney, Ohio, Culp primarily grew up in Cincinnati. She studied at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Arizona State University and Empire State College in New York. She holds degrees in piano and voice performance and English, with minors in theater and creative writing.

She toyed with the idea of teaching music, but discovered later on it wasn’t a good fit for her.

She’s written two plays, neither of which she intends to see performed at her theater in Holland. “The plays I write are for tragedy, and that’s not really good for dinner theater,” she said.

She recently finished writing her first novel geared toward middle-school readers, an as yet unpublished work called “The Shrinking Stone.”

“It’s actually a contemporary retelling of ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ with a 12-year-old protagonist,” said Culp. “It’s a ‘careful what you wish for’ story. Probably the other dominant theme in the book is that moment when a child understands their parents are human and that we all make mistakes.”

It was her high school job as a waitress that pushed Culp away from her tendency for timidity. It’s the kind of first job she recommends for others.

“I’m actually an introvert,” said Culp. “That’s where I learned how to talk to people. Everybody ought to have a job where they’re serving the public. It teaches good communication skills, and it keeps you humble.”

What makes humility a desired trait?

“I think people need to be treated with compassion and respect and to have a job that interacts with a wide variety of backgrounds. It enriches your life,” she said.

Her creative bent, education and professional experience have contributed to Culp’s definition of a successful life. That’s a tough sell to some, she said, amid a society caught in its own “me-first, self-importance.”

“Success is making a difference every day doing something that you love,” she said. “It’s not about status or fame; it’s about using your gifts to make a difference.

“My dad told me there isn’t anything people can’t take from us, except for our integrity. We have to give that away. If you base your decisions on integrity, you’ll be OK.”

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