By Regan Goins
At Austin Pets Alive! (APA!) on Oct 14th, 2019, 60% of the 534 dogs in custody reside in foster homes. That’s 318 dogs in foster homes. We are working to create a culture that believes that a home is always better than a kennel. It is becoming a best practice all over the country that shelters house over half of their dog population in foster homes at any given time. But how do you recruit all of these foster families?
Here are 8 easy tips you can apply to your program today to get more foster homes.
People are used to convenient processes where they can get what they want quickly and easily, online or on their phones.
Most people have heard of “open adoptions”, but what about “open fostering”? When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017, Austin Pets Alive! pulled almost half of our yearly intake in a span of two weeks with no kennels for the animals to be housed in. We received over 500 foster applications in one day and more people were lined up down the block. The barriers we had in place made sending pets home with people impossible— we asked potential foster parents to fill out an application and wait for a “phone screening” before they could foster a dog.
During Hurricane Harvey we needed to send people home with animals right away, so we changed how we did things and never went back. We dropped the phone screening and made fostering quick and easy.
We learned that removing these barriers did not impact returns or success in placement. After doing away with phone screenings, we realized they were wasting our time and resources, alienating and losing our potential fosters, slowing down our process. Today, it’s easy to foster with APA!
What we do ask:
What we don’t do
This is probably the hardest piece for everyone to swallow, but it is truly one of the most important. Somewhere along the line, shelters decided that only the “broken” animals can go to foster homes. We get asked “why would I send them to foster? It’s just going to increase their length of stay, and they’re going to get adopted from kennel anyway”. What if I told you that APA! sends highly adoptable animals to foster all the time?
The majority of foster caregivers have other animals, young children, work long hours, and many live in high rise apartments or live in places with breed or weight restrictions. These people still want to help us. If all they can take is a “highly adoptable” animal, let them take it. Let them help! Any open kennel means another pet can be saved.
The biggest question we get from the public is “what is fostering?” Because everywhere we put the word adopt, we also put the word foster. What we’ve found is the public doesn’t know that fostering is an option. Tell people about fostering every chance you get. Everyone in your organization should be able to explain fostering options and why it is vital to the work we do. If you don’t have the resources to train everyone, create a flyer that provides an overview of your program to hand out and talk through with potential fosters.
When you are marketing a pet, think of this like a dating website. You aren’t going to put your worst qualities or your chronic conditions in your dating site. You are going to get to know a person first, and then share more about yourself. We don’t need to share all of a pet’s needs until the potential foster is sitting down with us. Behavioral and medical conversations require a lot of attention and are not effective to have over email or the phone. Be transparent about all medical and behavior notes, when you have people come to your shelter. If a dog or cat they had in mind is not the right fit, you can match them with another pet. Always be transparent, but get to know the animals in your care, so you can share other facts about them too, not just their challenges.
Do not only send available animals that need foster homes to your already established foster base. Branch out and make them public! Think of investing some time into getting creative and creating an online database, APA! Created a public Trello board. Consider featuring your available foster animals more publicly on public facing Facebook or Instagram pages so that all of your community can fall in love with their faces and potentially come forward to foster them. Put your foster pleas everywhere, in your news releases, foster page and anywhere else the public will see them.
It is our job to inform the public about the homeless pets in our community that need their help! When we surveyed our fosters at Austin Pets Alive! We found the biggest reasons people want to foster are:
When asked which types of populations they are willing to foster, the numbers were even more surprising:
On the Austin Pets Alive! website we frame fostering as a benefit to the animals and people. When marketing your foster program, capitalize on what you can provide to your fosters. If you provide medical care or supplies, tell people about it. Are you using pictures of your highly adoptable animals in your marketing or are you using sad, Sarah McLachlan type pictures of your “most difficult” animals? Make fostering sound fun, exciting and easy. Ask not what they can do for you, but what can you do for your fosters.
This is the single easiest way to grow your foster base. We all love when a foster can keep their dog until it gets adopted from their home, but some people just don’t have the time or confidence to do that. If all someone can offer you is a night, capitalize on that! Send them with a dog that doesn’t have home notes so that you can learn more about the dog and better market them. What you will also find is that many people will foster more long term or more often once they get their feet wet.
Read more about this in Five Undeniable Signs That Foster Really is the Future of Animal Welfare.
Hurricane Harvey, subsequent floods, disease outbreak and large impounds have sure taught us that when pets are in crisis, people want to help. Tell the public what is happening, how many animals are affected and how they can help. In October 2018, during a flood, 143 medium and large dogs found foster homes in just six day! Almost 75% of them stayed with their foster families until adoption. Not only were these pets safe, dry and warm in homes, we recruited lots more foster homes, many who still foster with us today!