As we move toward community-centric animal services practices, many shelters and rescue organizations are considering creating safety net fostering programs. These programs provide temporary care for pets whose owners are in crisis, but who would like to keep their pets in the long term. “I think there’s been a growing interest for programs like this over the last couple years, particularly as shelters began working more in the community and outside the walls of the shelter,” says Dr. Lisa Gunter of the ASU/VTMaddie’s Nationwide Fostering Study on safety net fostering. “Now as Covid-19 eviction moratoriums may be lifted around the country, Safety Net Fostering programs will likely be needed more than ever to keep people and their pets together.”
We asked Gunter and staff at several other organizations to chat with us about their best strategies for recruiting fosters for owned pets. Here are our top five takeaways:
Reach out to existing fosters and volunteers to gauge interest. “By querying existing foster caregivers as well as volunteers, shelters can learn what type of bandwidth they have for a safety net program as well as what features are attractive that they can focus on as they expand the program and where educational opportunities, such as supplemental training and/or a virtual town hall, could be beneficial,” says Gunter.
“For many organizations, there is already a good amount of internal interest from both current foster caregivers and volunteers wanting to learn more about safety net fostering and possibly becoming involved, says Gunter. “As for their reasons why, it seems that over 70% are drawn to the program because they want to help those in their community that are struggling, and over three-quarters would like to help a pet stay with its family – so both of these ideas resonate strongly with fosters and volunteers, which we think could help shelters direct initial recruitment efforts as they learn more about what particular components resonate with their own community.”
Explain how fostering an owned pet will help the animal, their owner and the community as a whole. Market research tells us that the majority of the public may not understand how fostering works or how it helps pets. Explaining how fostering a pet whose owner is in crisis can help keep their family together and keep the shelter from unnecessary intake can help motivate people to sign up.
Emphasize how well you know the pet. Since the pet’s owner can tell you just about everything about them, (Are they housetrained? Good with other pets? Crate trained?) you can make great matches.
Highlight the temporary nature of this type of fostering. Foster safety net programs are temporary by design, as pets generally return to their owners after a predetermined amount of time. Letting potential fosters know that the length of time they need to commit to is limited can help to lower the bar for fostering, allowing people to participate even if they’re busy. “I named our program the Foster Sitter program to get across that it’s a pet sitter/foster hybrid,” says Kristina Sands Pulsipher of Ruff Haven Crisis Sheltering in Salt Lake City, UT.
Tell stories, while protecting owners’ privacy. Stories cause us to feel emotions, and emotions can cause us to take action. These stories don’t necessarily need to be about the owner of the pet— you can tell the stories of pets in foster care and their foster caregivers as well. Make sure to get written permission if you include photos or identifying details. “We have a photo release to be able to share photos and stories,” says Sands Pulsipher. “All communication comes through leadership. We do not have the fosters and owners communicate directly, in order to protect privacy and boundaries.”
“When we post about fostering, we emphasize that we could use fosters of all kinds: short-term, long-term, medical and more,” says Nikki Reck, Public Information Officer at Pima Animal Care Center in Tucson, AZ. “We also share success stories that help show the rewarding side of fostering.”