One Tail at a Time, based in Chicago, IL, was in a tough spot. Their shelter partners were quickly filling to capacity and were asking for help. At the same time, they were experiencing a drop in new fosters and foster placements due to vacations, returning to work and other factors. “With scheduled transports and our commitment to our local animal care and control, it was not an option for us to stop or severely slow down our intake and we needed to act,” says Foster Program Manager, Shannon Wilson.
They decided to hold a foster open house. “Our foster open house was pieced together pretty much within a week,” Wilson tells us. “We had over 120 guests come through our doors in a 5–hour window, with over 75 new foster applicants onboarded and many new existing foster families leaving with a dog or a cat. We had 18 animals available for fostering on-site that day, and all went home to a foster. We also were able to connect with homes that may be better candidates for our pets with more behavioral or medical needs, and were able to recruit quite a few homes with fenced yards, no resident pets, etc.”
How did they do it and during a pandemic, no less? They used these five strategies:
Look at the big picture. “We have been completely virtual for so long, and have been missing on actually connecting with people who are interested and taking time to form that relationship to give them the confidence they needed to foster an animal,” Wilson says. “While we provide around-the-clock support for our foster families, there’s something different about connecting in person and cultivating that relationship. Many of the people that walked through the door have been curious, but hadn’t understood the concept of fostering. Having not only staff, but experienced foster volunteers on hand to share their experiences and ease any worries helped to reassure those on the fence.”
Try something new. “I think this was so successful due to the novelty of the event as well as changing how we connect to fosters,” says Wilson.
Go all-in on marketing. “Our development team issued press releases, including teasers of animals that would be available, our social media team fully focused on this event on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook for the week leading up to the event, and we solicited volunteers and fosters to share in neighborhood Facebook groups or just in general on their social media. Any applicant that applied to foster the week prior to the event was sent an invite directly from our application processing team, and all existing fosters were sent an invite via Mailchimp,” says Wilson.
Streamline your onboarding process. The goal was to fully onboard and train all new fosters, so they could leave the event with their first foster pet. “We took the different parts of our onboarding process and made them ‘stations’ within our clinic,” Wilson tells us. “They were then shuffled into our conference room, where instead of having each individual applicant go through our interactive orientation online (as they normally would), we had the orientation playing on loop to groups every 15 minutes, with a volunteer and our executive director in the room to field any questions. From there, we had kennels set up with dogs and cats. Each party of people could walk through with a volunteer, learn a bit more about the dogs, and take them out to our play yard to meet. We also had appointments set up for those with resident dogs to come meet dogs in the yard with their own dogs. We did have additional signage up that advertised our dogs that were not a good fit for such a packed event that may have more behavioral or medical needs, so those were posted along the walls as well for people to review and inquire more about.”
Keep participants safe. “We have continued to require masks over your mouth and nose indoors and had a circular flow of traffic in our small clinic to ensure safety for guests,” says Wilson. “We did not offer food and drink due to COVID-19, but are hoping to be able to do so in the future!”
If your organization is thinking of hosting a similar event, “Our advice would be to do it!” says Wilson. “As long as you are ensuring safety, there’s no harm in inviting guests into your facility– people are curious and want to be more involved, it’s just a matter of how we can reach them. Expect it to be a bigger event than you anticipated, and be well prepped with staff and volunteers knowledgeable about the foster program.”