Six Steps to Create an Adoption Academy and Increase Horse Adoptions
Like most equine adoption agencies, West Virginia Horse Network (WVHN) has more horses available for adoption than adopters. To address this imbalance, WVHN developed an Adoption Academy to grow their own adopters. “So often people are interested in owning a horse and are open to adoption but are just missing the equine experience they need, so we targeted the program not just to first-time horse owners but also to people who hadn't owned horses for many years. By empowering people with knowledge, experience, and support, we were able to help them build the educational foundation needed to be great adopters,” says Nicky Walters, president of WVHN.
Walters says creating an Adoption Academy isn’t difficult even for a small organization like theirs, operated entirely by a handful of volunteers, most of whom have full-time jobs. Industry leaders were more than happy to volunteer their time to teach their classes, and putting together the student workbook was easy. “Despite overwhelming challenges due to COVID-19, we were able to meet and exceed our goals by offering live streams of our lessons through an Adoption Academy Facebook group and recording the sessions and posting them on our YouTube channel,” she says.
Follow these six steps to create a similar program at your organization.
Walters recommends asking and answering the following questions before you begin your program:
What is your intention with the program?
What specific skills do you want participants to have at the end of the program?
How many participants do you hope to register?
How many adoptions would you like to do as a result of the program?
What other benefits (new volunteers and donors, a wider audience on social media, better engagement with the equine community in your area, etc.) might your rescue and the animals experience as a result of the project?
The class content sets the tone for learning, so make sure you provide helpful resources that support and enhance your classes.
Create a guide that covers all the lessons you plan to cover in your course. Use WVHN’s workbook as a model.
Consider putting training content online. WVHN uses their Facebook page as an additional channel to share information.
Consider investing in a consumer-quality camera and microphone or coordinate with a local videographer who may volunteer or discount their time to help record your sessions. At a minimum, capture them on a cellphone.
Encourage guest speakers to provide handouts that further explain the topic they are discussing.
Ideally, the instructor will bring the handouts, but if they can’t, you should be prepared to print.
Finding community partners to help teach the class was a lot easier than Walters anticipated. Here are her best tips for reaching out:
Don't be afraid to ask. The worst that can happen is they say no.
Find professionals in your community whose values align with those of your organization.
Clearly communicate what they will be expected to do and make participation as easy as possible.
Plan ahead to make sure scheduling with equine professionals is as easy as possible.
Share your big-picture vision with potential partners. Tell them WHY you are operating the program so they realize what they are doing can have a significant impact on equine welfare. And let trainers know they may even get new clients out of partnering with you.
This program changed my life. I took lessons when I was a kid but had not been around horses in about 20 years. I feel this program provided me with enough confidence to go after my life-long dream of horse ownership.
Most communities have an abundance of inexperienced horse enthusiasts. Walters finds that offering a balance of course requirements and perks results in students who are serious about adoption. Here’s a blend of obligations/incentives that works for WVHN:
Students must log two hours of volunteer time per month or 16 hours total during the program.
All graduates receive vouchers to cover 50% of their adoption fees when they adopt. Vouchers are good for 12 months and include one free monthly riding lesson monthly if minimum requirements are achieved.
Assessing the impact of the program is critical to its success. As a direct result of the Adoption Academy, six horses found homes with students. Additionally, WVHN surveyed all fifteen graduates at the end of the program and most indicated that if they hadn't already adopted, they planned to within the next year. One student had already adopted but felt she needed additional support to be her best for her adoptive horse.
Fifteen additional people signed up and casually participated but didn't fully complete the program. “We still consider their participation a success because they had access to all of the great information and resources that were provided through the academy. We also had a few situations where spouses accompanied students to the sessions and benefited from the knowledge and experience as well,” says Walters.
WVHN also noted these positive program outcomes:
Participants gave 530 volunteer hours over the course of the Adoption Academy, which greatly benefited the rescue with horse care, fundraising, and adoptions.
Students received hands-on experience with horses, helping them to network and develop connections in the local horse community.
Five of the Adoption Academy students (from 3 total households) volunteered to foster horses. That extra space allowed WVHN to help more horses in 2020 than they had in previous years.
Just Do It
Walters says she had no idea how receptive the horse community was going to be to the program, “but I was honestly moved by how enthusiastically our horse community embraced this. Just ask. People will be thrilled to participate in something that makes the world a better place for horses.” She also recommends making the course as easily accessible as possible. Rather than being rigid about people showing up on a particular day at a particular time, make the information as convenient and easy to consume as it can possibly be. People are very busy, and with COVID, life is more hectic, and in-person learning opportunities are more difficult than ever.