This post originally ran in August 2020. It’s always in-style to focus on retaining and appreciating your foster caregivers.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic, shelters have been cleared out and foster homes have been filled. While it is truly the silver lining to this all, foster programs have been learning and pivoting in ways to support their new and long-time caregivers. Lea Williams, Ph.D, a nonprofit consultant and researcher, provides us with recommendations for foster teams on how best to support and retain their fosters based off of her research.
What makes fosters choose to stay with an animal shelter or rescue organization? What causes them to leave? In 2018, Williams and her team at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, in conjunction with Maddie’s Fund®, conducted a survey with over 4,800 participants. They were foster caregivers across the U.S. from various organizations broken down into three types of foster caregivers: current fosters, those on a “break” from fostering and ex-fosters. Here’s what they found:
Top four factors critical for foster caregiver retention:
- Making foster caregivers feel supported by the organization
- Feeling like their input matters
- Feeling recognized/appreciated by the organization
- Receiving basic training from the organization, especially on the topics of basic handling and behavioral issues
To focus on foster retention, Williams believes it is important to understand the factors that may cause a foster to either take a break or decide that they can no longer foster. Williams asked ex-fosters in the same survey why they decided to stop fostering and the responses varied from: too much time spent away from their own pets, a busy schedule, personal issues or obligations, too many “foster fail” cases or their living situation was no longer suitable to be a foster home.
“This list is very interesting because these are factors that are mostly outside of the control of the organization,” Williams says. “While this might be frustrating to hear, I think this means that organizations should focus on the aspects they can control, like the factors for retention or implementing foster teams.”
Williams believes that if your organization can provide additional support and flexibility, then you’re in a good place. Where to start? As she stated earlier, foster teams act as a great buffer. For example, perhaps you have a foster who is thinking about no longer fostering because their schedule is changing. You can propose that if their schedule no longer works well to be a foster, they can participate in a role that is more suitable like a “bio writer.” In this case, the volunteer is still able to be involved in the organization by being part of a “foster team.”
“It’s important to mention that our research showed that foster caregivers were very excited about the foster teams concept,” Williams states. “In our survey, we told them a bit about the foster team concept and over 80% of caregivers agreed/strongly agreed that the foster team concept could work well for their organization.”
According to Williams, small gestures go a long way in making your fosters feel supported and recognized by your organization. Williams states, “I know this can sound expensive and time consuming (especially during COVID-19 when emotional and monetary resources are thin), but it really does not have to be. In the open-ended comments section of our survey, we had many participants saying that even a text message would go a long way to making fosters feel appreciated.”