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What I learned when I re-evaluated our adoption policies

Guest blogger Emily Klehm addresses the challenges her team faced when they adopted a new adoption philosophy

Are your organization's adoption policies and application process facilitating real conversations with potential adopters?The staff at the South Suburban Humane Society nears their one-year anniversary of implementing Adopters Welcome.Adopters now enjoy the adoption process and return rates have not increased since implementing Adopters Welcome.

I got on the plane fresh from Animal Care Expo in 2015 and settled in with the Adopters Welcome manual.  As I read, I was proud to realize that my shelter, the South Suburban Humane Society—a managed admissions animal shelter and spay/neuter clinic in Chicago Heights, Illinois—had already implemented several of the suggestions for increasing pet adoptions. But as I read the rest, I immediately thought, “Well, this would never work for us!”
When I took over as CEO of South Suburban in late 2007, I was shocked to read the organization’s adoption policies. As written, I would have been denied an adoption! I worked full-time and I didn’t have a fenced-in yard—both reasons to deny, according to our policies. One-by-one, we opened up the policies to accommodate more adopters, and our adoptions increased accordingly.
But to go as far as Adopters Welcome was suggesting? Madness I thought! Volunteers, donors and the community would have my head!
The more I chewed on the book though, the more I couldn’t get it out of my head. Perhaps the most striking observation to me was this one on page 21:
“Landlord checks are a drain on precious time and they send a message to adopters that you don’t trust them. Consider the countless people who do find pet-friendly housing or manage to work through landlord issues on their own.”
I looked around at my own team, many of whom had worked through landlord issues themselves and were the best pet owners I knew. I recalled an adoption that seemed like an amazing fit, where we had done the landlord check and then two weeks later the dog was returned because the owners had to move. And I realized that the landlord check is simply one moment in time and, instead of ensuring that the pet won’t return, simply lengthens the process, frustrates adopters and, if we’re unable to complete it quickly, sends adopters away.
I’ll be honest … the policy of not requiring a “meet and greet” unless the adopter requests one scared me most of all. The what-ifs filled my head. But then I looked at my own little fur family. My alpha female would have failed a dog-to-dog visit at the shelter because her anxiety would have overwhelmed her senses. She’s welcomed two brothers to her home because I’ve had the luxury of introducing them in the way that best suits her. One morning on a walk with her, I realized with a jolt that enacting Adopters Welcome was really about forming a partnership with our adopters. With our long adoption application, rules and sermons delivered at the time of the contract, the shelter felt more like a distrustful bureaucracy than a welcoming place for families to grow.
It was then that I jumped into the driver’s seat of the Adopters Welcome bus with its fully open adoption policies. But I was still pondering how to get the rest of my team to climb aboard. I knew my management team would be game because they’re always willing to jump off the cliffs of progress with me. However, we had to take a hard look at the adoptions staff and realize that the radical changes we were proposing would be too difficult for some folks. Fortunately, we were able to reassign some people and hire some new ones who could embrace this methodology enthusiastically. It’s critical that your whole adoptions team wants to try Adopters Welcome or it won’t succeed.
I was most nervous about my volunteers and our community. We held a big meeting where I led them through the new strategies we were going to try. I explained how these could increase adoptions and why I thought they would work for us. And I also told them that if we found adoption returns skyrocketing or we realize some of the policies weren’t working for us, we’d change them again. I was shocked at the enthusiastic reaction. One by one they shared examples of how a welcoming policy could have improved an adoption experience or how they themselves felt during their own pet adoption process. And by the end of the meeting, my bus was filled with folks ready for the journey!
June 1, 2016 will mark our one-year anniversary of implementation of Adopters Welcome. Here are the most important take-aways as I reflect on the past year:

  • Adopters now enjoy the process. I was observing some adoptions one day with my adoptions manager and suddenly realized that I hadn’t gotten called to the adoption floor to mediate a problem in ages. The flexibility of Adopters Welcome allowed my staff to engage with adopters in a way that rarely requires “the person in charge” to intercede.
  • A check-box and short answer styled questionnaire allows us to have real conversations with adopters about what they want to know. Instead of powering through a list of 20 items that the adoption counselors were required to talk about (and knowing the adopter heard/retained about 10 percent of that speech), adopters check specific topics.  We’re able to dig deeper on heartworm prevention, crate training and feeding the pet. We might have assumed they knew about flea prevention because they have a current pet, but the checked box tells us we need to cover that topic. Our adopters are better informed than ever.
  • A no-fault return policy and welcoming strategies have not increased our return rate.  In fact, our return rate has fallen from 12 percent to 10 percent as we are able to assess what went wrong with the first adoption and use that information to make a better match for the family.
  • Adopters’ experience of the shelter is overwhelmingly more positive. Positive reviews and comments on social media have increased, complaints have significantly decreased, and I believe our community now sees us as a place that is focused on what is best for the pet as well as for the family.
  • There are still some pets in our care that do not fit neatly into the process. We still require shelter-observed introductions for a few dogs who are extremely choosy. We still require all members of the family to meet a few pets who react differently to different people. Some adopters give us reason to dig a little deeper into their current situations, so we do. The bottom line is that opening up the process and treating each individual match as a unique opportunity empowers staff and enlightens adopters.

I know from discussions with colleagues that implementing Adopters Welcome seems daunting. I know from my own experience how it initially seems like it can’t/won’t work. But I also know that we animal welfare professionals are constantly changing the landscape for our shelters, our pets and our community. Twenty years ago, pet safety nets didn’t exist and now they’re everywhere. From the proliferation of low-cost spay/neuter clinics to nationwide pet transport systems like PetSmart’s Rescue Waggin’, we are constantly innovating with a singular goal: to save more lives. Jump into your own Adopters Welcome bus and enjoy the journey towards more and better adoptions!
I’d love to hear from you and offer whatever further insight into our journey that I can. Please comment and ask questions below!

About the Author

Emily Klehm, CAWA, is the CEO of the South Suburban Humane Society in Chicago Heights, Illinois. During her tenure the organization has established a thriving high volume, low-cost spay/neuter clinic; partnered to open a low-cost veterinary services clinic; and has transformed from a 50% to a 90% live release rate. Emily’s previous background is in community organizing and nonprofit fundraising.