Foster Care Volunteers are Lifesavers

2009 by Brenda Barnette

Audience: Executive Leadership, Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers, Veterinary Team

For more about Seattle Humane Society's Foster Care Program, click here to view the power point presentation given at the University of Florida's Maddie's® Shelter Medicine Conference

Seattle Humane Society Dilemma

The Seattle Humane Society wanted to remain an open door private shelter and the number of pets coming in exceeded the space we had to properly care for them.

Our shelter was relocated to our current campus in the early 1970s. Our current shelter was originally a veterinary clinic. We don't have very much expansion space and, in the face of the recent economic downturn, we are not ready for a large capital campaign. The local public shelters desperately need our help. Our holding space for animals is limited. We have a huge spay/neuter bottleneck in our tiny and outdated veterinary clinic. Our surgical suite for two vets is a converted closet!

Never the less, it is difficult to explain our constraints to the animals when they look at us with such love and trust and hope.

The Solution

We asked our community for help. We asked them to open their homes and hearts to bottle babies who needed around-the-clock feedings, to dogs rescued from puppy mills who had no previous housetraining, and to dogs and cats recovering from surgical procedures who needed nursing care and special supervision.

We didn't just ask one time. We ask almost every month. We try to convey our sense of urgency. Whenever we've had a chance to improve the lives of pets in our community, we've stepped forward to help: taking in 40 extra and unplanned cats in a hoarding case, rescuing 90 dogs in a puppy mill bust, dealing with influx of kitties during kitten season and giving older cats infected with URI the medicine and TLC they need to recover. Whatever the need, we have taken that need to our community and asked for help.

The foster care program at the Seattle Humane Society has grown and so has our ability to save animals' lives.

How We Did It

According to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great and the Social Sector, "The real path to greatness, it turns out, requires simplicity and diligence... A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness."

Simplicity and diligence were key for us. We create a sense of urgency through press releases, e-blasts to donors and volunteers, and interviews with the media. (Side note: Develop a relationship with the media. They are among your best friends and donors. Send them regular updates/press releases. Make yourself available when they contact you. Stick to the facts. Do not say anything disparaging about other local groups. Keep up with current events so you can comment on animal stories in the news. If a station gives you some superb coverage, give them a scoop the next time something exciting is going on at your shelter.)

We dedicated resources to the foster care program. We hired a Dog Foster Care Coordinator and a Cat Foster Care Coordinator. We did the math and found out it is far more cost effective to have these two staff positions to coordinate foster volunteers than it would have been to build a new building and hire the necessary animal care staff to keep the animals in the shelter.

I have noticed that some shelter staff do not have the most positive view of working with volunteers. Take time to work with your staff so they feel confident training and supervising volunteers. Help them learn to love and appreciate volunteers. Volunteers are essential to providing enrichment programs for shelter guests and for doing all of those extras your staffing budgets can't cover.

We have a "Cats are Cool" campaign to elevate the status of our feline companions and to increase adoptions. We playfully adapted some of the copy to be about our volunteers:

Like cats, Volunteers are COOL! You don't have to pay them. They clean up after themselves (if you train them). They say good things about you to their friends...and they are worth a fortune.

Foster volunteers are extremely valuable. We calculated that it would have cost the Seattle Humane Society $1.6 million dollars in staff time to care for the 3,001 animals we had in foster care last year.

What We Learned

While I am an occasional foster volunteer myself, I don't work directly with the foster program so I thought it would be prudent to ask our team what they have learned and would like to share about our foster program. They were asked four questions:

  1. What are the key things that make our foster program successful?
  2. What were the biggest hurdles to overcome or best lessons learned?
  3. How would you like to enhance our foster program?
  4. What other information should I share with a group starting a foster program?

Here's how our team responded:

1. What are the key things that make our foster program successful?

  • The Board and Senior Management recognize the value of the program and dedicate resources to the foster care program.
  • We provide initial and follow-up orientation/training for Foster Volunteers.
  • We hire dedicated staff who will build relationships with the Foster Volunteers and always have someone on-call when the foster volunteers need to get help quickly.
  • We provide supportive vet services and answer questions even if the question seems silly.
  • We treat our Foster Volunteers like the life savers they are.

2. What were the biggest hurdles to overcome or best lessons learned?

  • It's great to be organized, but it helps to be able to go with the flow. Foster Volunteers will show up late for appointments or have a sudden need to return their charges because they are leaving town.
  • It is difficult but very important to prioritize the needs of animals on campus and focus on providing foster care to those with the highest needs first.
  • Talk with the Foster Volunteer and get an understanding of what your Foster Volunteer can handle.
  • Start Foster Volunteers off with a relatively easy pet to build confidence.
  • Make sure you have the Foster Volunteers take breaks when they need it!

3. How would you like to enhance our foster program?

  • Recruit and train more foster parents!
  • Be able to offer more resources such as customer friendly exam rooms, and to offer equipment on loan, such as scales for weighing puppies and kittens. Note: Our clinic is very small and we do not have separate exam rooms.
  • Develop enhanced continuing education so some Foster Volunteers can advance to more challenging shelter guests.

4. What other information should I share with a group starting a foster program?

  • Work to develop a diverse range of Foster Volunteer abilities/experience such as the ability to offer care for dogs and cats who need recovery from surgical procedures and URI, behavior training, bottle feeding and care for underage babies, and care for pets about to give birth.
  • Avoid delays between sign-up of Foster Volunteers and providing them with a foster pet. Be ready to send a foster animal home as soon as the volunteer has completed orientation.
  • Create a sense of urgency around the need for foster volunteers.

Summary

Foster Volunteers have dramatically increased our life-saving ability, whether they are giving older cats a break from the shelter environment, providing isolation for cats or dogs possibly exposed to contagious disease, carrying out behavior modification programs for dogs to make them adoptable, or tending to a myriad of other special needs.

I'd like to share a couple examples of special ways we work with our Foster Volunteers. When we helped rescue 90 American Eskimo dogs from a puppy mill earlier this year, we held a special workshop for Foster Volunteers and new owners to help them succeed and to provide ongoing support.

The Foster Volunteers willingly give of their time and sometimes their sleep to take care of foster animals. We created a special adoption event for them that resembled a county fair, so they could proudly show off their foster dogs and cats to would-be adopters. We billed it From Foster Home to Your Home. The event was well publicized and people lined up outside hours before we opened; one family even arrived at 3:30AM to make sure they had first choice at a future family companion. Passersby may have thought we were holding a rock concert! The Foster Volunteers loved it - as did the community - and some very happy dogs and cats were adopted to homes of their own that day.

The animals provide the magic and the community is the key. Show off really good pictures of your shelter guests - ones where they seem to be looking right back at you. Tell a few happy ending stories without spending too much time on the sad story of how they got to you. And then tell the community how much more you will be able to do with their help. Give them choices about how they can help you, and be sure that becoming a Foster Volunteer is one of their choices!

Brenda Barnette

Brenda Barnette was appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Seattle Humane Society in June 2006. During her tenure, the agency has increased its live release rate to nearly 90%. The foster program has grown dramatically and often includes over 400 animals per month. Previously, Brenda served as CEO of Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation, Executive Director of Pets in Need and the development director of The San Francisco SPCA.

The Seattle Humane Society

The Seattle Humane Society (aka The Humane Society for Seattle/King County), founded in 1897, is a private nonprofit dedicated to bringing people and pets together through a variety of programs. Our vision for the future is to save the lives of all homeless companion animals in our community.

Shelter guests are spayed or neutered, micro-chipped, vaccinated, examined by one of our veterinarians, and temperament tested prior to being made available for adoption. All healthy and adoptable companion animals are given as long as it takes for us to find them a home of their own, regardless of age, beauty or infirmity.

In addition, we provide medical care and treatment for our shelter guests who need a little something extra to make them adoptable. Treatments can range from repairing broken legs; performing amputations; eye removal; care for sore ears, skin conditions and wounds; and treatment for kennel cough and upper respiratory infections in cats.

The Seattle Humane Society is a private open-admission shelter. Appointments are scheduled to allow us to collect as much information as possible about the incoming pet. Appointments are first-come, first-serve without regard to age, beauty or breed. If someone brings in an animal without an appointment, we will admit the animal immediately. This is a free service and we ask the person dropping off the pet if s/he would like to make a donation.

During our last fiscal year, we placed 4,881 dogs, cats and critters in homes of their own and we are on target for a 15-17% increase this year. Our Asilomar Live Release rate for FY 08-09 was 88.6% and we are operating at over 90% so far this year. Last year we performed 2,775 in-house spay/neuters; 1,508 public spay/neuters; 659 other life-saving surgeries. Our Behavior department temperament tests dogs and is starting to assess cats too.

We have a staff of 70 with over 1400 volunteers. Seattle Humane Society is housed in an older facility and is constantly being upgraded to provide enriched environment for our shelter guests when money is available. There are two public shelters in King County and one in the city of Seattle, and we try to help each of them.

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