Wake County

Tar Heel: Susan Lilly works to help dogs lead healthier lives


Susan Lilly’s first experience with dogs was on her grandfather’s farm, where they were not pampered pets but creatures that helped out and were fed by humans, but little more.

“We had dogs, but they didn’t come in the house,” she says. “If they got sick and ate something wrong, they were on their own.”

But as dogs moved from the yard to the porch, and then into the house and, often, their owners’ beds, the will to cure what ails them has grown. And Lilly’s career has become increasingly focused on raising money to keep those treasured pets healthy.

Lilly for years headed fundraising efforts at N.C. State University’s veterinary college and its affiliated research foundation, where she helped raise money for the kind of increasingly cutting edge science that helps animals live longer and healthier lives.

Now, she’s heading the nonprofit arm of the American Kennel Club that funds veterinary research. Based in Raleigh, the AKC-Canine Health Foundation is in its 20th year, in which it has raised $44 million for canine research into everything from skin diseases to cancer to epilepsy. In 2014, more than 40 research studies that received support from the foundation were published nationwide.

Lilly took over as the foundation’s CEO in October, and has set about increasing the group’s profile and research dollars. While the AKC is best known for its work with pure-bred dogs, the foundation’s research benefits all dogs – and can at times be helpful to other animals and even humans.

“What we do impacts not just all dogs, but people, too,” says Cindy Vogels, a past president and current treasurer of the AKC Canine Health Foundation. “We’re good at what we do, and we’re hoping that with Susan’s passion for people and for dogs, she will help us expand our reach, to tap into those dog lovers out there who don’t know we exist.”

Finding her passion

Lilly grew up in a small Michigan town, where her family had long made its living in two of the area’s biggest industries; one grandfather was a farmer, and the other worked in the automotive industry.

Her father worked in a factory that made boxes. Lilly leaned toward the interests of her mother, a homemaker and avid seamstress who sewed clothes for Lilly and her three sisters.

Lilly thought she would put those skills to use teaching home economics, but she left college before graduating when she married and started a family.

When that marriage ended in divorce, she found herself as a single mom with two children, struggling to make a living. She worked in sales, at a bank, and later in the hospitality industry.

But she soon realized she needed her degree to advance her career. So Lilly returned to Central Michigan University, a rare 30-something undergraduate in the 1980s.

Between classes, she still worked arranging conferences and other events for hotels. When she identified fundraising as a career option, she tacked on an unpaid internship in the university’s development office to her already busy schedule.

That sacrifice paid off with a job in that office, and later at Michigan State University, where she would work for 14 years.

When her second and current husband retired, the couple decided to settle in North Carolina, and Lilly was thrilled to join the fundraising team at N.C. State University’s veterinary college.

Gone were the days when she was charged with the development efforts for all of the alumni in her region – whether they had studied art or genetics. At N.C. State and now with the Canine Health Foundation, her focus has been raising money entirely in the name of animals – a focus she relishes.

“There’s something about the animal community that has always made me predisposed to help them,” Lilly says. “They’re such endearing creatures, and they can’t talk for themselves.”

‘Must love dogs’

While Lilly has never bred or shown dogs, the main interests of the kennel club, she says she met one of the key requirements for heading the foundation: “Must love dogs.”

She had a variety of dogs throughout her life – a cocker spaniel, a poodle, an English sheep dog – each generation more spoiled until they became more like members of the family than her grandfather’s yard dogs.

In her adult life, her loves have been Scottish terriers, of which she has had five.

As executive director of the N.C. State Veterinary Foundation, she helped raise funds for research into the health of cows and chickens and cats, though she says dogs received the most research funding of any species.

Beyond specializing in a specific species now, her current job brought with it a new donor base – the dog show crowd.

Lilly says she’s been to at least 10 dog shows since she started with AKC in October, from local events to the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, where she met this year’s top dog, the beagle Miss P. She also speaks at kennel clubs and other groups devoted to dogs about the work of the foundation.

Part of her goal as head of the foundation is to raise its profile, both nationally and locally. As an example, she notes that few locals realize the AKC has a Triangle presence.

At the Brier Creek office, a statue commemorates the dogs who helped search the rubble for survivors after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s just one of the many ways, Lilly says, that dogs help people – from assisting the blind to providing companionship for people of all ages.

Lilly brushes off the notion that limited dollars would be better spent on research into human medicine. For one thing, canine research is increasingly being used to boost human medicine. It’s particularly useful for conditions such as cancer, when the dog’s shorter life span can yield important information more quickly.

“They’re such a great model for science,” she says. “What we can learn from the dog can in fact have a much wider impact.”

Often donors contribute to research into diseases that their own pets have suffered from, or that are of particular concern in a favorite breed. Other studies are intended for wider populations, such as a study into canine behavior aimed at helping to reduce the number of dogs that are returned to shelters.

Lilly says she sees her job as linking the people who want to help with the scientists who are doing the work.

“People do wonderfully generous and passionate things when they believe it’s going to do a difference,” says Lilly. “My job is to build that trust in a person so they feel that they can do those things.”

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Susan M. Lilly

Born: December 1952, Eaton Rapids, Mich.

Residence: Cary

Career: CEO, AKC-Canine Health Foundation

Awards: Outstanding Fundraising Executive, Association of Fundraising Professionals, Triangle chapter, November 2014

Education: B.A. parks and recreation and M.S. administration, Central Michigan University

Affiliations: Advisory board, Assistance League of the Triangle; chair of membership committee, Raleigh Professional Women’s Forum; Certified Fundraising Professional, CFRE International

Family: Husband Douglas

Fun Fact: Employees at the American Kennel Club’s Brier Creek offices are allowed to bring their dogs to work, but only if they pass the organization’s “Canine Good Citizen” test. Lilly doubts her Scottie, named Izzo after the Michigan State University basketball coach, will be passing the 10-step test anytime soon.