Depending on your organization’s overall mission, a well-developed foster program can make a difference for hundreds or even thousands of animals. Whether there are underaged, orphaned or feral kittens, animals recovering from a medical condition or have behavior issues, a temporary home provides a much-needed break from the shelter and maximizes the number of animals saved!
Here are five important steps to building a successful foster program:
1) Recruitment: Reach out to existing foster families, volunteers, staff, and community members via word-of-mouth, creative marketing and social media posts. Target those who want to experience the joys of having a companion pet in the home but are not ready or able to adopt. Some popular groups include senior citizens, individuals who work from home and people who want to work directly with animals but do not have the time or desire to volunteer at the shelter. Continue to ask and ask again, and educate! The more your community learns about the benefits of fostering and the impact they’re making, the more likely they are to keep at it.
2) Technology: Record keeping is vital to managing foster animals and their caregivers. There are online systems that can track this information in an easily accessible format, but even a simple excel spreadsheet that lists foster parents by name, email, and phone number, and includes information on the animals they are willing to or are currently fostering, can be beneficial. For consistent onboarding of fosters, develop on online orientation so people can learn about fostering at their convenience and from the comfort of their home. (This also saves you time and resources, too!) Your orientation should include: a description of your mission and services, an explanation as to why fostering is vital to saving lives in your community, guidelines, requirements, and procedures of the program, general animal care, and types of animals available for foster.
3) Training: Hold classes for new and current fosters on general neonatal kitten care and kitten development. Have a vet tech, staff member, or experienced foster parent/volunteer demonstrate bottle and syringe feeding, health assessments, and medical care with actual kittens. This will help give your fosters the training and confidence they need to have a positive experience. Schedule pick up days for new fosters and include a 30-minute training prior to taking the kittens home. Include pre-built foster kits to make the process seamless. Depending on your resources, foster kits could be a “starter kit” and contain basic supplies, such as a litter box, litter scoop, a week’s worth of wet and dry food, and a bag of litter, or you can provide your foster parents with everything they need for the duration of the foster period.
4) Communication: Have a specific staff member, such as a Foster Coordinator or an experienced volunteer, who will be the primary point person for the fosters. This dedicated contact will help address individual needs and form one-on-one relationships with the fosters. Make sure the fosters know that they can and should call this person with questions or concerns. You should also have a medical professional available, such as an Animal Care Manager, Veterinarian, or Vet Tech, who can handle after-hour emergencies. Your fosters should be reminded that they have constant support and can openly communicate with the foster team.
5) Retention: Burnout can also be a problem for foster parents. Not only is it important to recruit as many fosters as you can in order to lighten the load on each foster family, it’s critical to let your foster parents know how much you appreciate what they are doing. Sending thank you notes, gift cards, certificates of achievement, and other forms of recognition help develop heartfelt and long lasting relationships with your fosters. A simple “thank you” can go a long way and doesn’t cost a thing. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth and how a positive experience can reap great rewards!
One last piece of advice: Start small. While your foster program develops, you will see what works and find that things you thought were out of reach are suddenly in your sights. As your foster parent network grows and becomes more experienced, your program can benefit even more with taking on more difficult cases as well as recruiting new foster families. A foster program is one of the easiest ways your organization can partner with your community and work towards a common goal of saving lives.