Ever wonder why foster caregivers stop fostering? How can your organization increase retention? Maddie’s Fund® set out to answer these questions by sponsoring a recent study at UNC Charlotte on foster care. The results, and what your organization can do about the problem, may surprise you.
“The purpose of this study was to better understand the reasons why foster caregivers stop providing foster care,” said Dr. Sheila D’Arpino, Director of Research at Maddie’s Fund. “In addition to reasons for turnover, the project also intended to uncover potential ‘buffers’ that organizations can put into place to increase retention of foster caregivers.
As part of this study, respondents were asked to self-identify as current foster caregiver, foster caregiver taking a break or former foster caregiver. All respondents were asked to indicate how important the factors were/would be in their decision to stop fostering.
Wondering how many people took the survey? Over 4,800!
“Being a researcher, it’s normally like pulling teeth to get people to respond to a survey, so this was incredible!” said Lea Williams, doctoral student and researcher at UNC Charlotte who worked alongside Dr. Steven Rogelberg on this research project. “We thought 250-300 people would be a great sample to have solid results. I was very happily surprised to see this community take this and run with it and be so excited at the opportunity to want to give their feedback.”
The study revealed that the top five reasons for not continuing to foster, across caregiver types, were:
- Needing time to focus solely on one’s own pets
- Adopting too many of the foster animals themselves
- Schedule not compatible with foster caregiving
- Personal issues (i.e. age/health-related issues, taking care of loved ones, divorce, etc.)
- Living situation not compatible with foster caregiving
So how can animal welfare organizations increase foster retention? One way? Foster teams.
Foster teams are groups of volunteers who work together to coordinate and implement all aspects of the care, marketing, and adoption of foster animals. In the survey, over 80 percent agreed or strongly agreed that foster teams would work for them and their organizations; over 75 percent agreed or strongly agreed that it would allow more people to be involved in fostering. In addition, 70 percent felt that volunteers would be more satisfied if they were part of a foster team.
“These are some really strong reactions, and this was only after reading a short paragraph about foster teams,” said Williams. “I think if we could provide more education about how it would work, and how it’s not a huge undertaking, that we’d have even more of a positive response.”
She continued, “If you think about it, the top reasons people stop fostering may seem like people can’t be involved at all anymore despite their desire to, but teams would allow them to do so. For example, if someone can’t have a pet in their home but they have a car, they can still transport a pet to vet appointments. Or they could help with taking photos, social media or bio writing. There are so many ways to still be involved in the foster process without having to have a pet in your home, and that’s the idea that we really want to drive home.”
There are a few organizations around the country embracing the foster team concept, but since the idea of foster teams is a relatively new concept, Maddie’s Fund and UNC Charlotte set out to evaluate it at a few shelters. The first was a pilot at Philly PAWS in Pennsylvania.
“We learned a lot from our pilot at Philly PAWS,” Williams said. “They were able to adopt out dogs and while dealing with some difficult cases. It really allowed us to develop more materials and ideas about how to implement foster teams.”
After the success with Philly PAWS, Maddie’s Fund sponsored a retreat led by UNC Charlotte for about a dozen other animal welfare organizations across the nation to learn about foster teams in September of 2017. We’re currently pilot testing with the organizations and expect to have data and results to share later this year.
Williams shared that one of the exciting things to come out of the retreat was that the organizations came up with some other ways to use foster teams, like having a specific team for certain medical or behavioral cases, like a heartworm team, or neo-natal kitten team, etc.
“They were asking, ‘What if we could get people excited about working with these kind of animals because they’re on a team? And that way not one family has to handle everything?’ So we’re really excited to see the results from that,” she said.
Thinking about how foster teams might work in your organization? Williams encourages groups to give it a try, and start on a very small scale.
“It can seem intimidating, but it shouldn’t be. Our advice is that you do not need to overhaul your entire foster program system, especially because so many people have things in place that are working. And we’re not saying that you’re entire foster program needs to be made up of teams, but that this is just another tool to have in your toolbox to get more people involved and have good outcomes for animals.
“Give it a try with just one team. While we’re still testing and developing new resources, you can see the current resources available, like role descriptions for each team member. They’re very flexible, so you can tailor them as you see fit.”
The bottom line? “Don’t think you need to stop everything and re-invent your entire program.”
It’s also important to note that foster teams addresses some of the other
“We talk about making volunteers feel supported as possible, but I think we need to rethink what that looks like,” said Williams.
She continued, “Some organizations think they need to have big recognition events or give more money to folks fostering and they simply can’t afford to do that, but what we can see is that we need to make fosters and volunteers feel supported in new ways, with initiatives like the foster teams.
We hear foster caregivers saying they don’t have the time but they still want to be involved and this is a great way to make them feel heard and supported; and understanding that their input matters.”
One final note from Williams is not to lose sight of the importance of training, no matter what type of foster program(s) you offer.
The survey revealed that around 20 percent of respondents said they did not receive any type of foster training from their organizations, and not having that training was correlated with not continuing fostering.
“We also found that the type of training people want the most is basic handling and behavioral issues, along with healthcare and medical issues training,” she said. “I know organizations are strapped for resources, but if you have limited resources, not losing sight of putting some of them toward limited training would be helpful in retention. We did not ask about format, but if nothing else, taking advantage of Maddie’s Fund Flash Classes or Maddie’s Pet Assistant could help in this area.”
Dr. D’Arpino concluded, “‘We know that foster care helps dogs and cats, and believe that foster teams further increase the involvement of our communities in foster care and lifesaving. By involving more people in the foster process, we can build a stronger support system for our volunteers and exponentially increase our ability to save lives.”
Interested in learning more about the study and foster teams? View the study summary, resources including team role descriptions and more on our website. And stay tuned for more information in the future, including other ways to combat foster turnover.