The animal welfare world is divided primarily into two types of organizations- animal shelters and animal rescues.
Animal shelters have a physical location, where animals live on site until adoptive homes are found (though they may also utilize foster homes as a portion of their animal care). They can be private or municipal organizations, and often use the name “humane society” or “SPCA”- although unbeknownst to many, they are NOT affiliated with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) or the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals). These organizations also typically operate with a combination of staff and volunteers, together.
If private, their funding typically comes from foundations, endowments, grants and other public support. Many also contract with cities and counties to take in their stray animals- this may involve the municipality paying the shelter a fee per stray animal, or to fund an animal control patrol crew. Private shelters are typically 501c3 organizations- the type of charity that is recognized by the government to allow donations that are tax deductible. They may or may not be “open admission” which means they would be required to take any animal placed in front of them.
If municipal, they are a local government agency, much like city hall, or the police department. Their funding is earned significantly through licensing programs, although other state and government funding may be available. The taxes citizens pay may go to help cover the costs of the animal control system and housing the animals- though this is usually for a limited time. This is why animals at such shelters typically have a point where their “time is up”- the funds from the city or county only cover a certain number of days of care. Municipal shelters may utilize volunteers as well, though as city/county/government agencies, many are employees of that government. Many municipal agencies are “open admission” and must take every animal brought to them- this is another reason why an animal’s time would be up: to make space for the next animal needing their kennel.
Animal rescues are nearly always private organizations, and mostly volunteer. They are more plentiful than shelters, as they are typically smaller organizations, and usually don’t have the overhead of a physical location. Many operate via private homes, or a network of foster homes, and most cannot take in stray animals. Most are not open admission, and typically they have a waiting list. Some rescues may indeed be contracted by local city/county agencies, but without a physical space, or large facility, they usually cannot take in the large number of animals typically demanded of a traditional shelter.
The animals that go to rescues can be easily adoptable, but are often medically or behaviorally needy as well. They are often animals that have not been doing well in the traditional shelter system. Therefore shelters and rescues often times work together to resolve the different sides of the animal welfare world- shelters being the first, wide reaching net; rescues being a smaller point of coverage, with more specialized care. Many times however as well, shelters and rescues do not get along or collaborate, and may even have heated differences of opinion and strategy.
- research the animal welfare options in your area
- investigate the organization’s policies, especially regarding adoption and euthanization of animals
- trust your organization, it’s management, and their policies
- advocate for your organization
- remember that you are working for the animals, not doing favors for people or the organization
- take so much ownership in the organization and “improving” it, that you alienate yourself or others
- believe that you know more than other people involved, especially about your foster pet
- forget you are there because you want to be, and typically, so are others
- get frustrated by the negative
- forget you are a voice for the voiceless creatures
Check out the local animal shelter, humane society, or search a site like Petfinder.com for agencies near you (based on zip code). Proximity will indeed be key when it comes to longevity of the relationship- the deeper you may get involved, the more important it will be to be convenient for you too. This is perhaps less important when it comes to an infrequent volunteer shift, but will be critically important when it comes to considering fostering and being nearby the organization’s supplies, coordinators, vets, and more. You may need to attend adoption events with fosters too, or bring them to adoption meetings with new families, which will likely be a requirement for getting your foster pet adopted.
Read about each on their website and find one that speaks to you. You can get a good feeling about an organization based on their website, promotional materials and such- but keep in mind many smaller organizations may be wonderful, but may not have the resources (human or financial) to ”advertise” or market themselves either. Smaller may be more personable, attentive, and intimate, but perhaps less formal or organized. This could be an opportunity to help strengthen weaknesses of an organization that really needs help- or may be a detriment if you need more structure, assistance, and stability to volunteer. In all, each has it’s pros and cons when it comes to your position as a volunteer, and it’s more about what makes you comfortable as an individual, while you pursue the goal of saving lives!
In all the best advice is to give one a try- and not do not give up on the idea of rescuing if the first organization doesn’t end up being the right one for you. Try, try, again- you will never regret the lives you save.
Do investigate the organization’s policies, especially regarding adoption and euthanization of animals
Knowing your agency’s policies will be especially important if you consider fostering an animal in your home. They will be important as well, when you show up on your volunteer shift and don’t see the dog you like- because it was euthanized the night before.
Some organizations will let you foster and adopt your charge, others will not. The reason being is that they need and want you to keep fostering, especially with the time and effort they have put in to train you- and it may be considered a loss for them, if you adopt and perhaps cannot volunteer any longer. Other organizations see it as a bonus, when you the foster, end up being the final home for one of the animals. Not only have you been screened to be a capable and loving home, but having the animal stay “in the family” means the animal gets exactly what it needed- which is an amazing home. Each organization will have it’s specific policies- and you are likely not going to change them. You should however choose your organization based on what fits in line with your ideals.
Understanding the true definition of No-Kill will certainly help you as well. The definition of No Kill is that no healthy, adoptable animals are euthanized for time or space. This does not mean that animals are never euthanized. Even a No Kill organization considers euthanizing animals that have serious, life threatening, dangerous, or critical health or behavioral issues. Animals that are suffering from poor health, and animals that are deemed dangerous would still be considered candidates for euthanasia. The reality is that not every animal can, or should, be saved. At some point, there is a fate worse than death. What these organizations don’t want however, is to be in a hurry to euthanize animals, to euthanize for reasons of overcrowding, and to be resolving the human problem of pet overpopulation, by killing animals that deserve a chance.
This topic can be very difficult to understand, and come to terms with. It can be especially difficult if this is something that comes up with your foster animal. They may do something dangerous or become critically ill- no matter how they are screened and evaluated. We are talking about living breathing creatures who can behave in many ways, or befall illnesses at any time. Most of the time these are not critical situations or issues, but through constant contact and communication with your organization, they will guide you in how to manage the matters at hand.
It can be very devastating to lose a foster pet- or to find the animal you looked forward to greeting in the kennel is no longer with us. You do need however to trust that the organization did the right thing for everyone’s safety and well being. Just because an animal acted one way with you, doesn’t mean it didn’t do something unsafe with another- or that the animal didn’t quickly succumb to a disease that can’t be treated or managed safely, especially in the shelter environment.
Life and death work can be hard, but it doesn’t always have to be sad. It can be very rewarding, although it is important to understand the downside before getting involved.
If you are in constant fear, worry or mistrust of your managers/the organization, you will not have a positive experience volunteering. This can be hard to do sometimes, but most times an organization was founded long before you came into it, and will be existing long after you might leave. There are people who care as much, if not more, than you do about the state of animal welfare. The policies may need updating and people’s attitudes may need to be adjusted to become more current- but being angry, defiant, political, and distrusting won’t often help accomplish your hopes and goals of helping the animals.
Hopefully your organization will welcome and respect inquiries, questions, and requests for suggestions/solutions- because typically, miscommunications and a lack of understanding of policies are the typical obstacles to seeing eye to eye. This doesn’t mean however you should demand answers to anything, or for the organization to explain itself at your every whim. It does however mean that hopefully a good rapport can be established, that can help clear the air and advocate for a culture of accountability and transparency. If you do make a suggestion to improve and change policies or otherwise, be prepared to suggest a solution too. Suggestions are only as good as the potential solutions- it is easy to see flaws but it is much harder to fix them! You will be respected and trusted if you truly show a critical solution based process behind your suggestions.
Chances are the organization knows what their weaknesses and issues are, but lack a solution. Pointing problems out will only be so helpful alone. Animal welfare organizations need assistance with changing and fixing, more than criticism. So if you find yourself unhappy with your organization, first see what you can do to help change things.
No one can speak for an organization like it’s own volunteers! You should be excited and proud of the work you do, enough to share it with friends, family without it feeling like a sales pitch or something uncomfortable. No one needs you to lecture them, but instead perhaps you can inspire someone else to find a rewarding and exciting volunteer opportunity- whether with an animal organization or not. Your support of the organization you work with should be second nature to you- not work.
Consider yourself a part of the organization, not an outsider. You can help in ways you may not have thought, including perhaps in your own time, not just your volunteer shift. Hanging a flyer for the latest campaign, offering to post a classified ad seeking volunteers each week- or to share social media message on your pages, can also help. Never forget you can be a fundraiser too- design a drive for bedding, food or supplies. Ask for sponsorship donations to do something unusual, or help organize a fundraising event of sorts. These events don’t have to be big- maybe a small raffle (check your state’s laws and the rules of raising funds this way, online), a trivia night at your local watering hole, or more. The staff and other volunteers of your organization only have so much time and energy. Chances are they want to do more to engage the community and raise funds, but they probably don’t have enough people to go about doing it.
When it comes down to it, most organizations hurt for human resources most. Without humans to carry out the duties, even if funds allowed, there is little work that will get done. You don’t have to be rich or have tons of experience to affect change with an organization or save more animals’ lives- really, it’s just the opposite. All it really takes is a willingness to get involved and advocate!
Volunteer organizations have a somewhat unfortunate reputation of not always being organized, or well run. This is clearly because the purpose and cause is what guides the volunteers, not necessarily their skills or experience. This means that on occasion you will encounter potentially difficult people, frustrating situations and even some disappointments along the way. Many times in fact, people gravitate to animal organizations because they are not great with people. However, working with animals VERY MUCH involves working with people. The key is to remember that you are not there doing these people a favor, you are there to serve the animals.
Remembering this fact will likely help inspire you in the event that things get a little hard or stressful- especially if you occasionally feel like your efforts may not be as recognized or appreciated as you would like. Being overly busy, in such a heated, emotional, and often, draining world can keep people from expressing gratitude as they should. But chances are your effort is noted and appreciated- not least of which is by the animals! In the end, isn’t that what matters most?
Animals are the only ones that will suffer if you can’t get along with someone or a policy. Letting this go and focusing on the good you are doing, will help you sort out your (or another’s) emotions that can be difficult to manage. Be your own pat on the back, and see what you can do to help make volunteers feel more appreciated all around.
Don’t let anyone stop you in your purpose to help animals. Period. There will always be an excuse or obstacle in your way, when purusing anything meaningful- just don’t let it be someone who is a bad sport, poor manager or otherwise not remembering the point of why they are there.
Do not take so much ownership in the organization and “improving” it, that you alienate yourself or others
There’s something to be said for striving to improve the weak links in the chain of your organization- but there’s also a limit. Not every idea you have or effort you make will be heeded or implemented. There is likely a reason for this- and it isn’t because no one wants things to change or improve.
Change takes a long time within an organization, and may even be resisted. What helps is being the change you want to see (while still adhering to the rules), documenting and highlighting opportunities and instances where a “new way” has worked- or at the very least- won’t hurt to try.
Organizations that encourage thoughts, suggestions and ideas from their volunteers and staff are going to be organizations that also try to make it happen- but again that means they need someone to pioneer the process- and heed the concerns of the group.
No one loves a know it all either. Make sure that whatever ownership you take and involvement you feel with the organization isn’t more about “me” than “we”- or in this case, “them”, the animals. Egos can be one of the biggest obstacles in animal welfare- don’t let the problem be yours.
You may be an expert dog trainer, and experienced foster, or volunteered for numerous organizations- but the fact is, you do not know everything. You need to be humble and let the organization teach you about their ways, their processes and most of all, let their experience in placing animals be a part of placing your foster animal.
Many times people take so much ownership in their position (especially as a foster family), they forget this is a partnership and a collaboration. You may have the pet in your home, and perhaps even “know them best”- but without your organization’s input, funding and guidance, you’d be on your own. So remember that caring and placing animals is a joint effort.
Actually sometimes the organization too can take too much ownership as well, not allowing a foster family enough credit for their “part” either. Volunteering with an organization should be a balanced relationship of best intentions and objective pragmatism.
In all, if there is a power struggle or some kind of imbalance in “ownership,” you need to discuss and remedy the situation- because the pets should never be “caught in the middle.” Volunteering should be fun, and it should feel like a partnership, for the benefit of the animals.
As a volunteer position you have chosen to be there- and so have others. You may make “better” use of your time, in terms of enjoying it and what you get out of it- other people may not. Be sure that your position is in some way rewarding to you, and feels useful- nothing will kill a volunteer’s motivation quicker than not feeling needed! If for some reason you are starting to feel like your impact isn’t making a difference, say something, take on another duty or ask for some new training for other duties as well. Volunteering is really what you make of it and initiative takes will never be bored!
Remember too, others may be there because they have to be by court order, or for credit. Hopefully these people still want to be “there”, as opposed to picking up trash on the side of the highway, or whatever the alternative may be- but even people who want to be there, may sometimes act like this work is an obligation. Hopefully you can remember to not let their attitude affect you and make this adventure feel too much like work- or maybe you can help inspire them to find a better outlook, and a more positive work ethic. Reminding yourself and others around you, how much the animals need and appreciate your work, will help.
There can be a lot of negative things in animal welfare. Everyday you see horrible situations, horrible people and you are basically challenged daily with the trials and tribulations this world can throw at you. However, as a volunteer you will be somewhat sheltered from a lot of this- at least unless and until you want more responsibility and exposure. Either way however you can go home thinking three animals lost their lives that day- or two were adopted. Somedays the numbers will be backwards, some days will be hard- but it is always worth the effort.
They have done studies in advertising that show that negative, guilt ridden messages create a hopelessness. People give to these causes because they feel horrible- but they often only do it once- otherwise they can’t bear the negativity of the message. However, when the positive sides of a charity’s message are shown, the viewers feel inspired and uplifted to help- and want to continue because they see results of their efforts. The more frequent and positive the stories, the more people want to hear- and this creates a solid foundation. Although this is typically discussed in terms of donor retention, it must also be in the back of your mind. You can become overwhelmed and consumed by the oppressive sadness of homeless animals, dying (literally) for a chance at life- or you can feel powerful and useful helping create a happy adoption for even just one animal!
Positivity in volunteering is what keeps people in tune, involved and enjoying it. Be sure and share that message with your volunteer managers and higher ups in the organization. This kind of positive, empowering culture breeds success and longevity.
Use it wisely, and speak thoughtfully and tactfully. Preaching and condemning others for their behavior (or lack of “passion”) will not help you accomplish your goal. Whether you’re trying to spread the message of spay and neuter, or how fostering can save lives, or just encouraging someone to give volunteering (anywhere) a try. Planting a seed in someone’s mind will be much more effective than turning them off to your message by ramming it down their throats. Don’t let your message get lost in the delivery, make it stick. You may not impact someone today, but an effective message will have lasting results. Keep this in mind when talking to other volunteers, managers and such as well, your message can get lost in the delivery. Make every word count, because the animals are counting on you!
To get involved in an animal rescue near you:
- Find a rescue organization or shelter near you:
Petfinder.com is a national listing of animal organizations, many with foster homes. Some exist only as foster homes, without a physical facility. You can search through them by zip code, and find an organization to contact in your town. You may not even know they exist because they are foster based only, and therefore virtual!
There are other sites like adoptapet.com, Petango.com and more, where you can also find this kind of information.
- Contact your selected organization and ask about their volunteering or fostering programs. Some may not have this option, but perhaps then you can find other ways to give back to the animals. Even very well run organizations need plenty of help from dedicated and passionate people- and every foster based organization needs new foster families!
Remember though that many of these organizations run solely on volunteer help, and that because of this applications and response times can initially be slow. This doesn’t mean they don’t want you, or they are not worth fostering wit, it does mean however, they probably need help with more than just fostering! Don’t be afraid to jump in. Contact them a few times if need be, and show them your enthusiasm, don’t let their potential lack of human workforce stop you from getting involved.
- Make sure you understand their mission, euthanization policy and other such founding principles.
- Keep in regular contact with your organization through a Volunteer or Foster Coordinator or foster buddy. Make sure you have the rules about vetting information, emergency visits, as well as feeding regulations, and other such policies. Remember these policies are meant to keep you and your foster pet safe, so if you have questions about them, ask - but trust the organization’s experience too.
- Remember this is serious work, but it should also be fun! This is the most rewarding side of animal welfare work, so give it a shot, and save a life today!
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