When the COVID-19 pandemic began, shelters and rescues across the country were flooded with more applications from more potential fosters than many believed were even possible. Pets were sent to foster homes and adoption floors were emptied. Now that some of us are returning to our usual schedules, what can we do to keep these new fosters engaged with our shelters and rescues?
Here are 10 great ways to keep fosters engaged:
1. Connect with them. If you haven’t been reaching out to them all along, reach out now. If your pets are still in foster, create a waiting list and let them know what their place is in it. Be honest about the situation your shelter is currently in, and if you don’t need fosters at the moment, let them know what help you do need. Think outside the box—even asking them to like and engage with your social media pages can be helpful.
2. Help caregivers get their foster pet(s) adopted. Think about it: what foster doesn’t want their foster pet to find their forever home as soon as possible? There are lots of ways to do this, including marketing foster pets on social media, training fosters in marketing pets from their homes, providing resources and more. Our research tells us that helping fosters get foster pets adopted is an important buffer against losing foster caregivers. Marketing pets from foster homes not only makes your foster caregivers feel like you’ve seen them, it opens their homes for their next foster pet!
3. Offer training. Research tells us that shelters and rescues with online orientations and foster caregiver trainings had significantly more foster caregivers, and that a lack of training is negatively related to a foster’s propensity to continue fostering. While we have been social distancing we crave interactions with others, and scheduling trainings online is easy and (usually) free. Don’t have time to create a presentation? Ask your most experienced fosters to present short lessons back-to-back on the skills they’re famous for.
4. Automate everything! The less time you spend remaking the wheel, the more time you’ll have to support fosters. Create templates for answering frequently asked questions to save time.
“If you are looking at any software or programs, make sure they have automation options such as Acuity, which allows people to schedule their own appointments, provides them with certain information, and sends them text and email reminders.” says Sarah Aguilar, Foster Program Manager at Greater Good.
5. Acknowledge current fosters on social media or in your newsletter. Our research shows that shelters that do this have significantly more foster caregivers. What’s better? You can acknowledge your foster caregivers and promote their foster pet for adoption at the same time!
6. Improve communication. This is critical. When current fosters were asked, “What is the top change your organization could do to prevent you from hypothetically leaving?” the top answer was, “Improve communication.” If you’re struggling to answer emails promptly, consider leveraging administrative support from volunteers (see #10). Put systems in place to make sure your foster caregivers’ questions are answered and they feel they’ve been heard.
“Whether you create a Facebook group, a mentor system, or just regular follow-ups, you will save yourself more time in the long run,” says Aguilar.
7. Team up. In normal times, team fostering can be a lifesaver, but there are still safe, low-contact ways fosters can support one another in the meantime. Got a high-energy dog whose potential foster works all day outside the home? Look for another foster who lives nearby and can swing by to give her a midday walk. Have a volunteer who’s a gifted writer? Connect them online with a caregiver (or caregivers!) whose fosters need bios written. You don’t always need to be the person doing the matching—hosting social events for foster caregivers like happy hours or potlucks can make it easy for them to create teams on their own.
8. Recognize them. Thank them for their help as much as you can. Research suggests that the extent to which a foster feels their organization appreciates them is strongly correlated to their likelihood of fostering again in the future.
9. Allow them to participate in the adoption process, and train them in how to do it. Foster caregivers know their foster pets better than anyone and are often happy to speak with potential adopters about them, but it can be daunting for first-timers. Make sure they know your adoption process inside and out, know what to talk about during a meet-and-greet, are comfortable introducing their foster to potential adopters and their pets (if needed), etc. Provide them with email templates they can use to help them reply to those who inquire, information on the adoption process to give to potential adopters and opportunities to ask all of their questions.
10. Engage them in everything! If your organization is seeing a large number of fosters adopt their foster pets lately, you’re not alone! About 40% of foster caregivers decide to adopt their foster pet at some point. They know how much you need them and they care about homeless pets. Ask them if they’d be willing to pitch in for fostering in another way, such as helping you with administrative work from home or organizing foster supplies.
“Make every foster a volunteer,” says Aguilar. “There are fosters who are taking breaks, who have adopted too many times, who have extra time – they want to stay connected to the organization, they want to help more pets. They can do follow ups, write bios, take photos, data entry, process outcomes, schedule appointments, organize supplies, write social media posts….. the list of things that you need is long! Ask for help from those that already know the foster program from the inside.”
“The most important thing is that you have to be available, you have to provide emotional support, you have to create an environment that reassures foster parents that they are ok… that they can do it,” Aguilar says.
Learn more about foster engagement in the upcoming webcast, Supporting and Engaging Foster Caregivers during COVID-19 on Thursday, June 18 at 4pm Pacific / 7pm Eastern.