Foster On Deck - It Really Works!

April 18th, 2020

By Jennah Billeter 

Director Of Volunteer & Foster Resources at Humane Rescue Alliance

Several years ago when I first stepped into the role of Foster Program Manager I was strug-a-ling to keep everything organized. I just couldn’t keep all the information straight about who could take what animal. Then, one day I came across a webinar by Dr. Sandra Newbury, who discussed the idea of a “foster on deck” system to help organize foster parent information. Hello, light bulb moment!

Foster On Deck is a tool that allows foster parents to indicate when they are able to foster and provide information about the age and populations of animals they are able to care for. Foster parents are in complete control of all of their information and are able to edit as necessary. Giving foster staff up-to-date information on who is able to be matched with what animal. We implemented this system, and BAZINGA, we were able to significantly reduce the amount of time animals were waiting to be matched with a foster home. Sounds magical? It is, but it was also a big change for our foster parents, and change is hard, so it definitely took some work to get everyone to buy in. But, we eventually got there.

How We Got There with Foster Families

When we first launched this new system, we created a series of teaser emails to let fosters know that a change was coming. We then sent a very detailed email explaining why this system was helpful for both our animals and for them. This email described several populations of animals and what their timelines for placement looked like with the use of Foster On Deck and without the use of Foster On Deck. It essentially painted a picture of animals languishing in the shelter for days or even weeks longer than necessary when Foster on Deck wasn’t used (eh hem - tug at those heartstrings with the truth). And then, we sealed the deal with the idea that this would make getting placed with a foster animal much easier for them.

Once we implemented the On Deck system and had buy-in, we worked on shaping up their use of the On Deck system. If a foster emailed us to tell us they were available to foster, we emailed them the link to get On Deck. If they told us they were interested in a specific animal, we asked that they update their information On Deck. If we emailed them and told them they were matched with an animal and they declined a pick-up because they forgot they were signed up, we asked that they change their availability – and let them know that if it happened again, it could jeopardize their ability to participate in the foster program. Asking fosters to help us in ways that were helpful to our animals, our staff, and to them paid off.

So How Does it Actually Work?

On Deck is a fairly simple system:

  1. Foster parent signs up, tells us who they are, about their household, and the types of animals they’re willing to foster.
  2. Our foster department cross references that with our list of animals needing foster placement
  3. We email the foster parent they have been matched
  4. The foster parent picks up their foster animal within a designated time frame.

The Logistics

We started with a simple Google Sheet with a link that was shareable to anyone. The sheet had tabs for adult cats, adult dogs, kittens, and small animals. Each of the tabs asked for the foster parent to give us their contact information, tell us about who was living in their house, and what populations they were willing to foster. For example, on the kittens tab there were columns for URI, kittens between four to eight weeks old, neonatal kittens, kittens requiring socialization, and medical case kittens; the foster parent could then indicate yes or no in each of the columns to let us know if they were able to foster those populations of kittens. We then used this information to match foster caregivers with animals that met those criteria.

The Benefits

For the Foster Parent:

  • Makes explicit the animal populations that are be available to foster
  • Prompts for very specific household information to ensure most appropriate placements
  • Puts control in the hands of the foster parent

For HRA:

  • Cuts down on time-intensive back and forth communication
  • Gives a clear picture of current capacity to care for any particular population of animal
  • Provides ease of coordination between foster staff members

For Matchmaking:

  • Clear Expectations
  • Foster parent already knows what populations of animals they could potentially be matched with
  • Known that foster staff are the ones selecting which animal is placed in which home
  • Foster parent understands that if they are on-deck and are notified of a match, they are expected to pick up the animal

How On Deck Helps During Emergencies

When we’ve had to respond to emergencies, like a shelter evacuation or the ever changing landscape of COVID-19 response, knowing exactly how many homes we have available to take in specific populations of our animals has been instrumental in allowing us to be nimble and strategic in our decision making process. On Deck helps us immediately understand our resources and where to focus our attention. We are easily able to determine how the foster department can be helpful with current resources. For example, if we know that we have 20 homes available to take in dogs but 15 of those are only able to take dogs under 40 pounds, we know how to message our foster community to ask for exactly what we need - whether it be more large dog fosters or more emergency temporary fosters. Additionally, On Deck also allows us to mobilize placement of animals quickly and efficiently because we already have a built in infrastructure of sign-up, matching, and pick up. We can do this in times of emergency, but we also use it on a daily basis. On Deck helps us determine the flow of animals out of the shelter and communicate with our colleagues in animal care and adoptions so that as an organization we can better plan for all of our animals.

If you’re interested in developing a tool kit for your organization that includes capturing information about what animals need foster placement, what people are available to help them, and who’s been matched with which animals, we have a tool kit for you.

Visit to get started!

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