This is a guest post written by Kristen Hassen-Auerbach, Director of the Pima County Animal Center in Tucson, AZ.
Does your organization embrace fostering as a key, lifesaving strategy? We gathered information from the most successful foster programs in the country to learn about what makes them work so well. These seven guiding principles will help you understand how your organization can effectively put fostering at the heart of your mission, creating a safer, more humane shelter for the vast majority of shelter pets.
1. Foster care is a humane, cost-effective and safe alternative to the confinement and stress of kennel housing. Fostering just makes sense. It’s cheaper than housing pets in kennels and it reduces stress levels almost immediately, helping pets become more easily adoptable. Dogs and cats are just like us – social creatures. Living in a foster home is more humane and less scary than the confinement and isolation of kennels.
2. Foster care is the preferred alternative to shelter care for the vast majority of pets. If a pet isn’t directly benefiting from care in the shelter, it should be available for adoption or foster. Pets housed in foster homes are more likely to stay healthy and less likely to face behavioral decline associated with the stress of near-constant confinement. Not only that, foster care makes marketing a pet for adoption so much easier because it helps potential adopters connect through photos and stories of pets in real-life situations!
3. Fostering a pet is easy and accessible.We want people to foster pets, right? So we should make the process easy and fun. At foster-centric shelters, most foster caregivers can take home a pet the same day they sign up to foster. Instead of barriers, lengthy onboarding processes and blanket restrictions, the organization uses an open, conversation-based approach with foster caregivers. The process helps potential fosters to understand the range of pets available and gives them multiple options for how long they keep the pet in foster. User-friendly (for the shelter and the foster!) mechanisms are in place for scheduling medical appointments, veterinary and behavioral support. Responses to emergency and routine questions are honest, prompt and helpful. Fosters receive active and ongoing help to get their pets adopted.
4. Each pet is recognized and treated as an individual with its own, unique set of physical and emotional needs. Successful foster programs use a case management approach, treating every cat and dog as an individual. Even in small shelters, it’s challenging to get to know each animal, especially considering most pets act differently in a shelter environment than they do in a home. Using foster as a tool, shelters can better serve the needs of every pet because it’s so much easier to learn about their unique personalities, likes and dislikes. Every dog or cat is different; a successful program celebrates individual differences. Ultimately, this leads to better homes for shelter pets.
5. Foster care is a priority function of the organization.Forget about the days of having one person responsible for every single element of the foster program. At a foster-centric organization, the foster coordinator manages an entire ‘shelter’ that is located outside the shelter’s walls. Because of their key role, the foster manager is a part of the shelter or rescue organization’s upper-level staff team. At a foster-centric organization, all staff, including management, take responsibility for the success of the program. Many or all staff can process foster placements and fostering is considered just as important as adoptions. The foster-centric shelter talks about foster all the time, constantly recruiting new fosters and marketing fostered pets. Simply put, it’s a part of their organization’s culture.
6. Foster caregivers are celebrated and have the tools they need to be successful.Foster caregivers are VIPs. Foster caregivers have access to regular training opportunities and are respected, supported and empowered by staff members and volunteers. Policies and expectations are clearly communicated in writing and foster caregivers are able to communicate directly with staff members on a regular basis. The organization trusts fosters to make decisions. Foster caregivers are permitted to adopt their foster pets themselves or facilitate their adoption to others. Foster pets are allowed to stay in foster for any duration, provided that foster caregivers follow the rules and guidelines provided by the organization. The shelter monitors the number of foster caregivers who are leaving the program. Some attrition is normal, but data spikes may indicate areas for improvement.
7. Shelter/rescue leadership sets measurable goals for the foster program and tracks its data. The organization tracks the number of pets going to foster homes, broken down by species, age, condition and reason for foster care, along with the duration of foster or type of foster placement. They know how many active and inactive foster caregivers they have, what types of pets they take care of, and how many pets they’ve fostered. They set goals for the number of pets sent to foster care as well as the number of new foster caregivers. Successful high-volume programs focus both on the pets with special medical or behavioral needs, including the cats and dogs with the longest shelter stays, along with making foster a possibility for nearly every pet. We know it’s possible for one shelter to send 3,000 or more pets to foster in a year, but even small shelters can set a goal of sending 50% or 75% of the animals for foster placements of some kind. Using a data-driven approach helps organizations identify gaps in service and look for ways to build and improve the existing foster program.