This past weekend (Feb 1-4, 2019), the Pawlytics team went down to Austin, TX for the American Pets Alive! Conference to soak up information from some of the most successful animal welfare organizations in the country. One of the classes we attended was “Nuts and Bolts of Large Scale Cat and Dog Foster Programs”**, and here is a little bit of what we learned.

Foster homes are a key resource in any animal welfare project. You may be a shelter who needs foster homes to expand your walls, a foster based rescue who relies solely on foster homes, a TNR group needing fosters for recovery space, a group that helps people going through tough times with temporary boarding, or even a rescue dealing with a natural disaster. Fosters are a special kind of volunteer who is willing to lend space in their home and love from their heart to save a pet in need – they are this mythical creature who, when found, should be treated with the utmost respect and care. Then why, is it not uncommon for animal welfare organizations to have such a high turnover for fosters? We learned how to best run your foster program and empower the volunteers and fosters who keep it alive.

Be Specific

When dealing with any situation in which you need the public’s help, do not hesitate to ask. The problem many shelters and rescues face when asking the public for help, is they get flooded with questions about the “type” of help. This may make your group feel overwhelmed with answering social media posts rather than working with the animals. Specificity will be your best friend in pleas for help. When the folks at Austin Pets Alive! were dealing with the animals who needed help before, during, and after Hurricane Harvey, they had to scale up their foster program quickly. They found that when they posted “We need cat food.”, they would get flooded with questions of what kind of food, and where to deliver the food, and what time to deliver, and various little things that took time to respond to. This made the public feel flustered as well and not donate as much. When the time came again to ask for cat food from the community, they posted a much more specific ask: “We need Frisky’s Dry Cat Food delivered to (this adderss) between the hours of 6:00am-10:00pm. Or it can be left at these locations: ___, ___, and ___.” Over the next few days they were flooded with cat food donations and very few questions to answer on social media.

Do The Math

I have written a fuller blog on this so I just want to take a moment to point it out again. If you are a shelter or have a facility to keep animals, managing a foster program at full steam ahead could mean doubling or tripling your shelter’s capacity. In order to know how many foster homes you should be striving to attain, follow the simple equations laid out in our “Why are big dogs so hard to save” blog.

Too Long; Didn’t Read (TLDR) Version

“The equation for foster homes is: 3% of your total annual dog intake should be in a foster home at any given time.

Example: If your shelter takes in 10,000 dogs each year, you need 300 dogs in foster at any given time.”

Rethink Who Goes to Foster

Less than 16% of all people who foster are interested in fostering pregnant moms, bottle babies, medical cases, or behavior dog. But when it comes to cage space or space in your best foster homes, save those for the hardest cases. Send your “easy” pets to foster homes to keep foster homes fresh with new adoptable pets, to keep the foster homes available and interested. Fosters can become discouraged when a short-term commitment becomes a long term one, and this may dissuade them from fostering again. Keep in mind, however, that there are two types of behavior cases of dogs. The first are dogs that do great in shelters but terrible in homes. And the second type, are dogs that do terrible in the shelter but great in a home. If you have to put dogs with behavioral issues into a foster home, set your volunteers up for success. We explore large, adult dog foster practices in this blog to set fosters and adopters up for success and minimize foster turnover. For a quick summary: train your fosters best management techniques, have a volunteer ready to answer questions about behavior during the transition, and don’t count returns as failures they are an opportunity to LEARN.

Liability Woes

Many rescue coordinators have the same fears about liability as animals can just be unpredictable, or rather people can be bad at reading animals, but either way that can put people, their property, and their animals in danger. As much as we prepare people to bring new animals into their homes, there will always be the chance of people not listening, animals reacting differently than we’ve seen or known, or something in general going wrong. Having legal protection through a waiver is the best and often times only measure that can be taken. It is best to at EVERY touch point prior and at handing over the animal to the new foster family present the waiver. The first interaction is typically at the foster application/survey they must agree to the waiver at that time. Again, they should see it in their confirmation email. And one more time at the time they are given the animal. Explain thoroughly that you have disclosed everything you know to be true about this animal (and actually do that), explain that if the animal destroys their home or bites that the shelter or organization cannot be held liable. This works.

Use Effective Means of Pleading for Animals

This means letting the fosters choose a pet when appropriate. During an emergency, we realize this may not be practical or even possible. But if you have the means to get an animal in front of a large audience of interested fosters, let the fosters pick! It will make the foster homes feel more ownership of their decision and more committed to making it work. Use easy and updated means such as a Trello Board (which is also free!) to let fosters sort through available pets that match their lifestyle and home. Of course, that means you must give labels to every pet.

Use Volunteers

Running a large-scale foster program forces your organization to not only manage pets but a large number of people between the actual fosters and the volunteers who keep that program alive. To keep compassion fatigue at bay and volunteer turnover low, break your foster program down into small and very specific tasks. An example is: let’s say you do use a Trello Board to keep track of pets who need foster. One volunteer’s sole job could be to upload the pets into Trello. When you break your foster program into small and specific positions, you may find that you need some more volunteers. The experts recommend writing job descriptions just like you would at a normal job. When filling that volunteer position, have SOPs (standard operating procedures) prepared so that training time can be low but efficient and the volunteer can feel empowered to manage their position without you there. A warning: SOPs must be EASY to read and comprehend. A good practice is to write them and let a friend read them who would have no clue how to do that job/position. If they can understand it – you are good to go! These days, people prefer to not leave their homes which has created a lot of keyboard advocates. There is nothing wrong with this because these are the very people who would love a volunteer from home/computer position! Think of all the volunteer positions your foster program needs that could be done from home or a laptop! If people want to help with the foster program in a new way, let them (within reason)! This develops a sense of ownership and leadership with volunteers and what is better than creating strong leaders within the organization that want to work with you to save more animals? Not much! One thing to keep in mind from a practical standpoint is that all volunteers must sign a confidentiality agreement. This is due to the fact that they may come in contact with people’s addresses, contact information, or even private information when working with the foster (or any) program at your rescue.

Show, Don’t Just Tell

If you find your shelter in a pretty serious bind, show your community what you need help with. If you are out of food, post a picture of the food shelves that are empty. Let’s say every kennel is full and you need foster homes, put on a Facebook Live Tour and walk through all the kennels to show them how packed you are (maybe a viewer will spot a pawfect friend they want to come get!). Remember – transparency is your friend!

In an Emergency or Natural Disaster

It’s hard to be the perfect matchmaker when you find yourself figuring things out on the fly in an emergency or natural disaster. It’s best to use specific pleas on social media and by email, handle foster matching in person and have a short face to face conversation with each person. Explain and have them sign the liability waiver there as well. Be specific about how long they may need to foster for (usually about 2 weeks) and manage expectations. If these families do have other dogs, send out your easy, play group dogs first. Many of these families may have never had a second dog in the past, but this is not an optimal time for meet and greets. It is best to have foster-go bags ready with printed information of how to introduce pets, deal with typical behavior/transition issues, and what to do in an emergency (as well as what constitutes as an emergency).

Adopt Animals Straight from Foster

This one is as simple as it sounds. Let people adopt animals right from foster homes. Do not make the animal come back to the shelter for this! This adds extra and unnecessary overhead.

Murphy’s Law: If it can go wrong, it will

Unsurprisingly, during the Q and A of this session, there were many questions about the safety of animals being sent into foster homes. As animal lovers, this is a natural response. But in these times, we need to remember that data backed methods are the best bet for saving the most amount of animals. Have there been times a foster has been killed by a family pet or vice versa because the family didn’t listen to your instructions? Have people demanded to give back an animal with little notice? Has there ever in the history of animal rescue been a foster home that abused an animal instead of caring for them like they were trusted to do? Yes. All of these things have happened and will probably happen again. But if they happen few and far between, isn’t it better to try? To prepare yourself for these worst-case situations, have contingency plans and SOPs written so very little “on the fly” thinking needs to happen. Being prepared for emergencies is much better than being blindsided by them!!

Foster programs are a huge responsibility but if managed well, can have huge payoffs for animals in need. Do you run a large-scale foster program and have some tips to add? We’d love to hear from you!

**This talk (Nuts and Bolts of Large Scale Cat and Dog Foster Programs) was given at the 2019 American Pets Alive! Conference by Monica Frenden (Maddie’s Director of Feline Lifesaving, American Pets Alive!), Kelly Duer (Foster Program Consultant), Lorian Epstein (Adult Dog Foster Coordinator), and Regan Goins (Maddie’s Dog Foster Program Advisor for AmPA! and the Dog Foster Assistant Manager at APA!).