Monday, June 4, 2012

Open Adoptions - A Call to Action for All Animal Shelters

There is a concept in animal sheltering that is slow in moving through our community, and in my opinion it is the next turning point in making a significant impact on placement statistics for shelters.  Open Adoptions is the practice of opening your adoption criteria to include a larger number of potential adopters. 

To begin, it might be a little easier to explain what Open Adoptions is not.  Open Adoptions is not punishing a person because they had to give up a pet 10 years ago; Open Adoptions is not turning away an adopter because they don’t have all the answers about how to train a dog; Open Adoptions is not penalizing a person because they chose to not vaccinate their indoor house cat last year; Open Adoptions is not sending home empty handed an adopter wanting to bring a new pet home for his/her significant other.  And on the same token, Open Adoptions is not giving a pet away to any person that walks into your shelter.  Rather, Open Adoptions is shifting the approach of adoption counseling to utilize the process as an educational tool and in doing so, ensuring the best possible match of person and pet is made.   

Open Adoptions asks us to rethink our adoption criteria and rather than create barriers for an adopter, aims to set up building blocks that become the foundation of a long-lasting relationship between pet, adopter, and your organization.   The main focus in Open Adoptions is meeting the needs of adopters and their new pets during the adoption process and after adoption.  This is achieved when animal shelters commit to an inviting and non-judgmental adoption process culture and think first about how they can facilitate a conversation with adopters and educate them about pet care and animal needs.  It is time to abandon the inflexible adoption guidelines of the past and move forward toward a friendly and conversational approach to adoptions.  In doing so, shelters and rescues stand to increase their adoption numbers, increase their influence on adopters, and also gain community support.

On the opposite end of Open Adoptions is the process of maintaining communications with new adopters, ensuring the bonding and acclimation periods are going well.  Again, this is a necessary shift of resources for many organizations; many groups adopt pets and then send them home with their new family usually never to have contact again.  With an Open Adoptions culture, it is essential to maintain contact with new adopters (and even ‘old’ adopters for that matter) to provide them with support, advise, and resources should they need help. 
There are a multitude of ways an Open Adoptions culture can be achieved, and the roadmap to achieving this at your shelter will look a little different for everyone.  Here are some ideas to get started:

1.     Institute a pet match program at your shelter.  Meet your Match from the ASPCA is probably the most well known, but a homegrown version will work just as well. 
2.     Consider prescreening applicants and approving their application even if they have not yet found a suitable animal in your shelter.  Make the application approval good for 60 days (or whatever time frame makes sense for your organization) and they can come back to your shelter within that time and select an animal.     
3.     In the same spirit, maintain a request list for adopters.  If they are looking for something very specific (eg: neutered, all-white, front declaw, 4 year old cat), give them a call when you get an animal that fits their description.
4.      Send all adopters home with a resource packet, both in print and electronic.  This will give your adopters a point of reference for any questions they may have post adoption.  Even if your organization cannot provide for all their post adoption needs, give them resources for other organizations or businesses who do.
5.     Hire staff or volunteers to make follow-up calls/checks on adopters at various points post adoption.  This will remind the adopters you are committed to the success of their placement and the resources available to them.  As an added bonus, it will widen your circle of supporters, probably increasing donations and return adoptions when adding to the family.
6.     Speaking of return adoptions, go ahead and give return adopters a “Go Directly to the Front of the Line” pass.  You already have their information and know they have successfully adopted from you in the past, so make the process even easier for them the second (and third, forth, fifth, etc!) time around.   

Open Adoptions can increase your live release rate
*Photo courtesy of Chris Tanaka

I challenge all readers of this blog to do an internal examination of their adoption process and start implementing some of the ideas presented above.  It will be worth your time to take a look at your recent adoption applications and do a mini-analysis of the percentage of applications you turn down and for what reason.  Based on this data, decide how you can make the process easier for adopters and guide them through the process rather than turn them away and risk losing their support now and in the future.  Of course, in the animal sheltering business we want to do what is best for the animals in our care, and it is very difficult to decide if someone would be a good fit for an animal in just a few hours.  Therefore, utilize these Open Adoptions concepts and create a long-lasting relationship with adopters in which your organization continues to be instrumental in the connection between the adopters and their pets thus ensuring the animals are well cared for long after they leave your doors.