As the longtime CEO of the Austin Humane Society, Frances Jonon is a fierce animal advocate, helming the city’s largest no-kill nonprofit shelter with grace, understanding and an abundance of compassion.
By Jenny Hoff, Photos by Rudy Arocha, Hair and makeup by Alicia Beller, Styled by Niki Jones, Shot on location at Mueller
Just weeks after Frances Jonon was named CEO of the Austin Humane Society, Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana and left thousands of animals in Texas’ neighboring state in need of shelter.
Organizing disaster relief certainly wasn’t how Jonon had planned for her first few months as a young CEO. She had spent the previous nine years fastidiously rising through the ranks at AHS, but she’d never dealt with a need of this scale, accommodating animals that still had owners and helping displaced hurricane survivors stay in constant contact with their pets. Her expertise was in dogs and cats, not pigs, geese and other surprising house pets that would flow into her facility in the coming days.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that how we envision our lives and how our lives actually turn out is usually very different,” she says, smiling at the memory. “And we’ve got to be open to that.”
It’s a lesson Jonon has learned again and again in her career and personal life. As a girl, she pictured herself as a doctor, healing and offering comfort to the sick. While in college, she focused her studies on biological sciences and worked at a hospital. But her plans got sidetracked when she left the hospital, and eventually college, to join her best friend, Tammy Fox, as an employee at the Austin Humane Society. Starting out on kennel duty, cleaning cages and feeding the animals, she felt a sense of belonging, the kind of camaraderie she had hoped to experience at the hospital, only to find it too clinical an environment for her personality. Before she knew it, she had stopped taking college classes altogether and instead, took on full-time roles within the organization, including foster supervisor and director of operations.
While she loved the work and the organization, she never imagined she would one day become the face and heart of it.
“I didn’t intend to become CEO. I thought a CEO was loud, commanding, tough. I’m not like that. I’m much more soft-spoken. I love strategy and,” Jonon admits with a laugh, “I’m not a huge fan of public speaking.”
But Jonon is a huge fan of solving problems, helping animals and connecting people with pets that complete their families. The Austin Humane Society’s motto is “Unleash Hope,” and Jonon says she relies on that motto in her organization and in her life. Even when confronted with sad stories and occasional tragedy, there is always a brighter road ahead. That philosophy, coupled with a great sense of humor, has helped her get through some of the more emotionally taxing days to thrive in her position.
“Once I accepted putting away perceptions of what it should be and made it my own, I found what I love and enjoy the most,” she says. “I love the people aspect. Our work is heavily tied to people as much as animals.”
It’s people working together, Jonon has found, that can help make the impossible possible. When Hurricane Katrina hit, Jonon immediately reached out to her former boss and mentor, Karen Medicus, who led the Austin Humane Society when Jonon first joined. Medicus, who was working with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals national organization during Hurricane Katrina, helped train Jonon and her team for disaster management. Together, they worked with the City of Austin to organize a way for evacuees to stay in contact with their pets, providing shuttles that ran throughout the day between temporary housing and the Austin Humane Society.
“It was all they had, their animals,” Jonon recalls. “Some of them came over in the morning to hang out all day and take the shuttle back at night. They would help us, and it was an amazing experience.”
Medicus, who now works as a business consultant, describes her former employee as the kind of leader who doesn’t micromanage, but who motivates her team to take ownership of their roles.
“Frances is herself building other leaders,” Medicus says. “A great leader really recognizes the strengths in their team and gives them what they need to excel at what they do.”
It’s a lesson Jonon learned from Medicus when she was early in her career with AHS and one she instills in her own staff today.
When AHS’s current chief operations officer, Dr. Katie Luke, first applied for a job with the organization 13 years ago, she didn’t consider shelter work a serious career path. As a young veterinarian still deciding how to best use her skills, she popped into the shelter on a Saturday in shorts and a T-shirt while on her way back from a garage sale in order to inquire about part-time opportunities performing surgeries. She wasn’t too serious about it. This wasn’t part of her life plan. Then she met Frances Jonon.
“Thinking back, I remember there was this twinkle in her eye as I told her I was only looking for part-time work,” Luke recalls, laughing. “It turns out she had much bigger plans.”
Once Jonon convinced Luke to join her team, she got to work on turning AHS into the state’s premier feral-cat spay-and-neuter center. Jonon used her ability to collaborate and her deep knowledge of animal care to convince Texas A&M University to loan out its teaching-facility surgical suite to the center so AHS could offer spaying and neutering for feral cats. AHS now conducts more than 5,500 surgeries each year. It’s the largest program of its kind in Central Texas, if not the entire state.
What was supposed to be a part-time job has become the most fulfilling career Luke could have imagined, due in no small part to Jonon, whom she describes as a visionary CEO who also understands what it takes to make those ideas become reality. She’s also a CEO who wants to see her team members get the recognition they deserve. Luke has spoken throughout the country about the importance of shelter medicine and the various job opportunities for veterinarians who want to be animal advocates. In the spring, she and Jonon were asked to teach the shelter-medicine elective course at Texas A&M University. They attracted three times the number of students who usually sign up for the class.
“That’s something I’m really proud of,” says Jonon, who never finished college herself but is now an in-demand instructor at Texas’ premier university for veterinary studies. “It’s exciting to see interest in this field growing.”
Under Jonon’s leadership, AHS has grown from servicing 2,500 animals per year to helping 11,000, though, in 2019, it had a record year, serving more than 13,000 animals. It’s the largest no-kill shelter in the city. With 43 employees and more than 750 volunteers, Jonon has her plate full and a job that keeps her busy. She has a close-knit team and a deep knowledge of an industry she’s been a part of for more than 23 years that allows her to grow the organization in a way that best benefits the animals in her care.
But perhaps most important for a leader of an organization, she knows work isn’t everything. It’s a lesson she learned when she confronted one of the most challenging periods of her life.
“I had all these visions of what life would look like, and it included children,” she says. “My job got so busy and we put off having kids and then, when we did, it didn’t happen easily. There were a lot of raised hopes and letdowns.”
Suddenly, Jonon added in vitro fertilization treatments, hormone shots and the emotional toll of miscarriages to her already immensely busy life. She still showed up. She still delivered. But she also let her team offer the support she needed.
“Each of us have dealt with maternity leave and losses, and we’ve always banded together like that,” Luke says. “One of the biggest benefits of working here is we’re like a family and we care about each other.”
Eventually, Jonon and her husband were able to conceive, and she gave birth to a little girl, Julia, now 4 years old. Pictures of the adorable child with her mom’s big smile dot the walls and shelves of Jonon’s office, along with pictures of their rescue dog, Olivia, who, admittedly, was not quite as excited about Julia’s arrival as her parents.
“It gives you such an amazing perspective on what really are the big things and what are the little things,” Jonon says.
One of the biggest things, she believes, is knowing when to ask for help. Her husband stays home with Julia so she can concentrate on her work. Her team members ensure no one gets too overwhelmed with a job that can often feel overwhelming. And when Jonon suddenly and tragically lost her beloved father, she sought out a therapist to help her deal with the grief.
“I can very easily get emotional when I’m talking about her because I know what she’s gone through in her life,” says Tammy Fox-Royer, executive director of the Florida Keys SPCA and the best friend Jonon followed to the Austin Humane Society more than 23 years ago. “She tends to be the one who holds everything together, who takes care of everyone else’s needs. I know this was a really hard time for her.”
But, Fox-Royer says, Jonon is also resilient. Perhaps it’s something she learned as she watched the Hurricane Katrina evacuees break into smiles of joy when they greeted their pets, even after they lost everything else. Perhaps it’s from working with animals, some that are in tragic situations but that are always willing to give love to a new caretaker. Perhaps it’s from learning an important lesson early on: that life doesn’t always turn out to be what you expect—and that’s the beauty of it.
“When I talk to younger people, I always say, ‘You don’t even know what you don’t even know, and you should remember that always,’ ” Jonon says. “Your path changes and your story will be your story. Do your best, be a good human and appreciate all the good things in life. That’s really what life’s all about.”
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Austin Woman: What would you say to a woman who wants to be in a leadership position but isn’t sure she’s cut out for it?
Frances Jonon: “I would tell them my story. My first role here was working in the kennels and then I was a foster- care coordinator. The future is possible. Everything you want is within reach.”
AW: What have you learned about leadership in your career with the Austin Humane Society?
FJ: “I do think, in leadership, it really is about building a great team that is communicating effectively. I feel like I had to learn how to do that and hire people smarter than me in whatever area they’re working in.”
AW: You originally wanted to be a doctor and then left college to work full time at the Austin Humane Society. How did you reconcile what you wanted to do with what you thought you should do?
FJ: “I found myself loving what I was doing here. It took me awhile to realize what I loved to do should be what I want to do.”
AW: What’s your advice to someone thinking about getting a pet?
FJ: “I feel like it is really important to find the right fit. The right fit might not be what you expect. Someone who comes in probably thinks they want one thing, but what they find might be different. It should be what is right for their family and life.”
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