Volunteer Programs and Practices

Volunteers can have a huge impact on the quality of life for shelter animals, but they can also be your best advocates in the community, bring fresh ideas to your shelter, and handle lots of tasks to free up staff. Cultivating a vibrant volunteer program will infuse your shelter with good energy, make your animals happier (and more adoptable), and improve your relationship with your community.

Doggy Day Out

Doggy Day Out is a short-term foster program where the public can take dogs from local shelters on day outings.  A Doggy Day Out can include a hike, a trip to a beach or lake, or even a sleepover.  These field trips help shelter dogs manage kennel stress, burn off energy and get more exposure to potential adopters.

Doggy Day Out requires minimal training commitments for participants.  This encourages members of the public to engage with their local shelter and advocate for the animals.  It’s a great excuse to get out and have fun with a canine sidekick.

Good to have written guidelines as to safety protocol for the dog like double leash, use a harness, a list of dog friendly places, emergency contact information etc.   And helpful to have a bandana or similar item, saying I’m available for adoption.   Have the volunteer take pictures of the dog and provide a short summary of how the dog behaved.

Don’t Overwhelm New Volunteers

Often new volunteers are eager to take on any task that needs to be done but the danger is that before long they become overwhelmed and stop volunteering. Instead, volunteer coordinators should encourage new volunteers to focus on one or two areas. Many shelters report the highest volunteer retention rate when newcomers begin by performing tasks withing their comfort zone.

How to Find Volunteers

There are many ways to recruit new volunteers some are more expensive than others.

Ask for Help

According to Best Friends Animal Society, most people volunteer because they were asked. Here are just a few ways shelters can ask for help:

  • Invite current volunteers to bring a friend to a special get-together.
  • Ask board members to provide a list of potential volunteers.
  • Ask your members for help through your newsletter. Include a listing of your volunteer needs and provide a checkbox on the donation-response form for donors to request more information on volunteering.

Flyers and posters

A simple poster campaign is an inexpensive, but highly effective way to find new volunteers. Following are some tips when using flyers or posters as part of your recruiting process.

  • Ask current volunteers to help distribute the posters around town.
  • Your flyer or poster should list attractive, well-defined volunteer positions.
  • Offer a variety of opportunities, involving different skills and levels of commitment.
  • Keep the text on the flyer to a minimum and include pictures or graphics to grab attention.
  • Shelter flyers and posters should be displayed in as many places around the community as possible. Think of places animal lovers frequent and also businesses that get a lot of foot traffic. Some good examples include, local vet clinics, pet supply stores, groomers, doggy daycares, health clubs, places of worship, libraries, and on grocery store community boards.

Other ways to recruit volunteers

  • Take advantage of free volunteer listings in local newspapers.
  • See if your local radio station would air a 30-second public service announcement for seeking shelter volunteers.
  • Set up volunteer information tables at local pet supply stores or community events.
  • Post volunteer opportunities on bulletin boards at local high schools and colleges.
  • Online promotion is also effective. For example, using recruiting sites such as VolunteerMatch.com.
  • Colorful posters can also be posted and shared on social media.

Make Sure Volunteers Feel Appreciated

Volunteers are the backbone of many animal shelters and it’s critical to recognize their hard work on behalf of homeless animals. While certain times of the year like National Volunteer Week (the third week of April) are the perfect times to highlight the wonderful work being done by volunteers, saying thank you is important all year round. Central Valley Friends Petersburgh Animal Care & Control, VA uses Volunteer Appreciation Posts to thank volunteers and includes photos featuring volunteers interacting with the dogs at the Petersburgh Animal Shelter. According to the ASPCA, letting volunteers know their dedication to the mission of the shelter is appreciated helps:

  • Keep them happy
  • Provide motivation
  • Foster a sense of community
  • Reduce turnover.

When volunteers know they’re making a difference, they feel a sense of pride in their work, which ultimately leads to improved results for your community. The ASPCA offers tips on how to thank shelter volunteers.

Partner with Religious Communities

Some houses of worship have pet ministries with members eager to help homeless animals. The Covenant Methodist Church Pet Ministry in Cordova, TN recently teamed up with the All 4’s Rescue to help improve the lives of homeless animals in Memphis. Reach out to your local religious communities and ask for permission for a shelter representative to speak with the community. This is a great way to get the word out about the work being done at the shelter and how members of the religious communities can help in the shelter’s mission to save lives.

Promote Volunteering From Home Opportunities for Kids

Create a ‘Volunteer at Home’ document to give out when people inquire about children volunteering or possibly to hand out to local youth organizations. Include instructions for making dog/cat toys, baking treats, hosting a supply drive, doing a fundraiser, and anything else you can think of that people, especially kids, can do from home.

Reach Out to Former Volunteers

If you’re struggling for ways to attract new volunteers, consider reaching out to volunteers who have stopped volunteering for your organization to ask why they stopped. Their answers may give you insights into what you can do differently to attract and retain volunteers. It is also an opportunity to talk with that former volunteer about their ideas for improving your volunteer program, and potentially re-engaging them.

Seek Out Short-term Repeat Volunteers

Could your shelter benefit from short-term repeat volunteers? For example, at the Animal Harbor Shelter, TN shelter, students from the local university lend a hand at the shelter during school breaks. Whether serving on a long-term or short-term basis volunteering at a shelter is a great way to make a difference in the community while connecting and bonding with animals while making new friends.

Take a Shelter Dog to Work

Invite shelter volunteers to take a shelter dog with them to work either on a designated day (when you can take advantage of an empty shelter for some deep cleaning or staff training/appreciation) or as an ongoing program to help socialize the dogs.

Welcome Corporate Volunteers to the Shelter

More and more medium and large sized companies promote community service days when employees are paid to spend a day helping nonprofit organizations or causes in the community. This is a wonderful opportunity for shelters to get large projects completed such as landscaping, painting, or mending fences. Many shelters who welcome corporate volunteers say that it’s not unusual for a few people from these groups to become regular volunteers.

Volunteer Wheel

Build or buy a wheel (think wheel of fortune) and write jobs on the different sections with dry erase markers. If volunteers come in and staff isn’t available to tell them what to do or they don’t know which job to do, have them spin the wheel to find out. This is particularly brilliant if you have tween or teen volunteers. It’s just one more way to make volunteering at the shelter fun. If you can’t find a wheel, you could also place jobs on slips of paper in a box and let people draw for their day’s job.