In 2017, the ASPCA launched the ASPCA Los Angeles Foster Program in partnership with the County of Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control (LA DACC).
At first, the program only worked with 1 of LA DACC’s care centers and focused on kittens aged 4 to 8 weeks old. This allowed staff to learn along the way and adjust processes as needed, eventually expanding the program’s reach to other populations. Now the program works with all 7 LA DACC care centers and has assisted more than 8,000 felines.
We talked with Debra Olmedo, RVT and Foster & Community Outreach Manager, and Nadia Oseguera, Senior Manager of Foster Care, to get an insider’s perspective of this successful initiative.
Q: What advice would you give to an organization looking to start a foster program?
A: For organizations wanting to start or grow their foster programs, we recommend starting with obtainable goals within your capacity. From there, you can learn and adjust as necessary and potentially grow your program even further.
Q: What are some of the most successful foster recruitment strategies you’ve discovered?
A: When we first launched our foster program, we grew our foster base from scratch by tapping into people’s desire to help animals. There are many cat and animal lovers out there who might not know that there is a need for cat or dog fostering. We aim to facilitate connections between people who want to help and the animals who need help. We also strive to remove any barriers to fostering, making it easier for people wanting to help to do so. One way we’ve done this is by creating a flexible fostering experience with online training materials and allowing people to start fostering the same day they apply to become a foster. Once they decide to foster, we give them the option to select which population of kittens they are most interested and/or able to foster and for how long. What we found, for example, is that there are people who can only be on standby on an emergency basis. Perhaps they can foster kittens for 2 days while we find a more permanent foster home, which allows us to quickly place those kittens into a foster home without needing to stay in a shelter setting. We also found foster volunteers who can only take adult cats. By allowing different people to get involved based on their capacity, we can make a bigger impact.
Q: What are some tips for foster retention?
A: We have 3 main strategies for increasing foster retention and keeping our fosters coming back for more.
Prioritize strong relationships:
We get to know our foster volunteers, and we strive to tell them how grateful we are for them. While it may seem like a small gesture, we say “thank you” to our fosters anytime we talk to them. We want them to know they’re making an impact.
During the height of the COVID pandemic, we hosted Zoom sessions with foster volunteers to talk about bottle babies, answer questions, and get to know each other. We also hosted roundtables to offer different learning opportunities on topics like ringworm or upper respiratory infections.
Lastly, during Volunteer Appreciation Week, we put together a video showing them their impact, which goes a long way to build that connection with them.
Support foster growth:
We noticed that people were learning by doing. We had foster volunteers take weaning kittens for the first time, and with lots of support and talking them through the process, they managed to get the kittens to eat on their own and are now more likely to foster weaning kittens again.
With more people staying home and having more time on their hands, foster volunteers expressed interest in challenging themselves. That’s when we launched our online training for bottle babies and under-socialized kittens. These trainings are completely optional for foster volunteers, and we don’t expect them to become experts by attending; however, most of the learning will come from taking on these types of foster animals.
Offer resources and support:
We emphasize to our foster volunteers that they’re not alone and have a team of people to support them through their foster experience. We offer medical services, such as vaccinations, spay/neuter surgery, and supply support. We have also found that having a Facebook group for our foster volunteers to connect with other fosters and ask questions has been instrumental.
Lastly, we encourage foster volunteers to become adoption ambassadors for their foster pets and offer training if they’re interested in facilitating the adoption process.
By allowing different people to get involved based on their capacity, we can make a bigger impact.
Q: What’s next for the program?
A: We are excited to announce our new pilot Community Foster Program. This community-based program works alongside community members already helping orphaned kittens or who have found community cats that have recently given birth. In essence, we are taking the idea of flexible fostering one step further by providing supplemental support to the life-saving work people are already doing within their community.
In its pilot phase, we are focusing on a community that has a high kitten intake at the shelter.
Our program helps empower community members to care for kittens until they are adoption-ready. We provide resources, counseling, veterinary services, and supplies, all free of cost. We also discuss alternative options for kittens if they cannot care for them, are sick/injured, or have a mom cat who is currently caring for them. Another big aspect of this program is our ability to address the issue of where these litters are coming from by providing access to resources for Trap-Neuter-Return programs.
Our goal is not to convince people to become foster volunteers but rather to support community members already doing the work in high kitten intake areas. We simply provide them with resources they didn’t previously have access to, including medical and behavioral information, supplies, and spay/neuter surgery.
Q: What other tools have you created to support the community and help divert healthy kittens from entering the shelter?
A: Alongside our community foster program, we have a bilingual online interactive tool to help people determine the best course of action when finding kittens outside.