The Animal Shelter Volunteer Experience

I’ve volunteered at animal shelters - municipal and private - in 4 States and 2 countries. 

I’ve volunteered at shelters lucky enough to have funding from their municipality to have up to date, up to code buildings that truly meet the 5 freedoms. I’ve seen dilapidated buildings that made me wish I had the money of a Bill Gates so I could write a check before it falls down around the animals. I have written checks to turn water back on for a shelter – shame on you city water municipalities – you know who you are - live with that!

I've volunteered at shelters with minimal funding who did a better job on save rate than some private shelters who were adequately funded! That is because the municipal shelter worked to establish strong community support for fostering, and partnerships with rescue groups for times when there was no more space but they must continue intake (municipal shelters are required to do intake regardless of space because they are tax payer funded; this is what leads to euthanasia situations). 

A common thread through all of them is lack of funding for enough staff. This is why shelters must depend on volunteers to ensure the animals get more than just the basic daily care; that they also get walked, loved, played with, toys, treats. This not only helps the animal not sink into depression or anxiety, but also helps them get adopted! 

But if a shelter is short staffed (and most are) - how are they supposed to recruit, train and manage volunteers? The answer is having a volunteer program actually run by volunteers. 

​For example, I ran the volunteer program at one shelter for 2 years. I worked full time.  Two Saturdays a month I taught Volunteer Orientation and immediately following Cat Care training for new Cat volunteers. I recruited 2 other existing volunteers who liked dealing with people (not just animals), to do the Dog and Cleaning training. And in case you're wondering, the length of orientation was 45 minutes including the shelter tour, a 10 minute break, then a 30 minute "hands on" class. The idea was - and it worked - that by having people start immediately, they understood what to do in future, had fun, and were therefore much more likely to return. The statistics show that on average only 10% return after orientation. 

I also held a once a month Volunteer meeting for updates, questions, appreciation. These were after work, SHORT (1 hour), and I would either bake or buy desserts (the shelter had coffee makers). People enjoyed meeting other volunteers who didn't volunteer on the same shifts as they did. This often led to great teams being formed for future events, and new ideas for how to improve animal socialization and promotion (getting their profile out there to potential adopters). One of those ideas was pairing new volunteers with a mentor, to ensure there initial experiences were good and they felt like they had someone to help them without having to bother staff swamped with the medical care of the animals. 

As for volunteer tracking tools, those are many and varied and most shelters have one they prefer you use to manage the pool. I found all of them excellent in terms of future posts for shifts and especially events like adoption events and fundraisers. It is an extremely effective way to both let people know well in advance so they could schedule it into their busy lives, and also to get a gauge on how many people are signed up. This also keeps a shelter from losing volunteers, because one of the biggest complaints I hear from people who've tried to volunteer at their local shelter, is events/shifts aren't posted ahead of time and they get a text literally an hour before an event asking for help. While some people can go at that short of notice, the reality is with most people working and having families, they cannot. It puts everyone in a bad situation when this happens, and discourages people from wanting to continue trying to volunteer.

If you have negative experience when you try to volunteer, speak up with positive, constructive suggestions. If you don't feel the volunteer coordinator is listening, make an appointment with the Shelter Director to have a positive, collaborative discussion. If all of this still fails, speak to the Municipal Council, or if it's private, speak to a Board member about your concerns. But please keep it constructive. 

Volunteering is ultimately about ensuring well cared for animals and finding them homes sooner rather than later - or never. The "payment" you'll receive in knowing you helped people (staff, public) and animals in need, the fuzzy kisses, the adoring looks, the nuzzles - well, that's priceless. Enjoy!