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How to Create and Promote a Shelter Wish List

A SIGN of Success

The 2nd Chance Animal Shelter in Fruitland, Idaho, has found wish list success by “thinking outside the list.” “When people see a whole list, they tend to ignore it, or just never get around to bringing [items] by,” says director Barb Hutchinson.

To harness people’s limited attention spans, the shelter keeps it simple, using a donated message board—placed near a busy intersection—to promote one need at a time. “The reader board will read: ‘The vacuum quit! Can you donate?’ or ‘Lots of puppies—can you donate some puppy chow?’ ” says Hutchinson. “And after we get the vacuum or several donations of puppy chow, we write: ‘Thanks for the vacuum!’ or ‘Thanks for the donations of puppy chow.’ ”

Each message stays on the board for as long as it takes to receive the item, reminding drivers of the shelter’s needs each time they pass by. And it works; the shelter always receives what it asks for. “This has, by far, been the most successful thing we have done to get things from our wish list,” says Hutchinson.

Hutchinson believes that donors drop off items before starting their busy days, since staff have found most of the donations by the front door when they open the shelter. “So we know that [they are] being left by people on their way to work—so it is convenient for them to do it,” she says.

If the shelter knows the name of the donor, they’ll send a thank-you note. But if the donation is anonymous, it’s likely that the generous person will know their gift was appreciated anyway, says Hutchinson: “They at least see the thank you on the reader board and get the satisfaction of knowing they have helped.”

As the holidays approach, so do the holiday blues. Some people curse the worsening weather, some dread trips to visit bickering relatives, while others wonder how they’re ever going to accomplish (and afford) all of their planned gift-buying, decorating, baking, and traveling.

But despite the holiday stress, a feeling of good will and generosity is likely to be spreading in your community. That makes this holiday season the perfect time of year to create or improve your wish list. Some donors may prefer to give your organization something more tangible than a check, and by maintaining a wish list, you can help them help your shelter.

After all, who wouldn’t want to be able to tell stories like the one relayed by Shannon Asquith, a volunteer and special events coordinator for the City of Sacramento Animal Care Services in California:

“We had a 10-year-old boy who needed community service hours and was too young to volunteer,” says Asquith. “I directed him and his mom to the wish list posted on our site. He made a big poster of it and he and his dad sat out in front of Petco on a Saturday and Sunday and got tons of donations for us! Cash and gift cards too!”

Or the story told by Cindy Kalkbrenner, director of development and community relations for the Humane Society of Washington County in Maryland: “A local beauty salon donated all proceeds from the day to the shelter—over $1,700—but in addition, they had had copies of our wish list in their salon for two weeks leading up to the event and you would not believe it … every single item on our wish list was there!”

Animal Sheltering talked to several shelters with successful wish lists and gleaned some great advice on making your own wishes come true all year:

Think, then write. Consider which items will be easy for people to buy. What can they simply toss into their shopping cart during a regular trip to the supermarket? And what does your shelter need the most? “We usually try to have on the list things that anyone can donate,” says Bobbie Thompson, president of the Animal Rescue Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia. “Primarily, we ask for things that we need on a daily basis that everyone uses: paper towels, garbage bags, bedding materials. Aluminum cans and newspapers are some of our biggest items, along with bedding—towels, old blankets, etc.” Organizations like the Blue Mountain Humane Association in La Grande, Oregon, have had some basic needs completely taken care of through wish-list donations, says shelter manager Tabbie Coulter: “We haven’t had to buy cat litter, dog and cat food, laundry soap, hand soap, and numerous other items for the past five years.”

Place copies of your wish list in your lobby and other areas of the shelter, and distribute them at fundraising and adoption events, volunteer orientations, and any speaking events that staff attend.

Don’t be afraid to ask for “big-ticket” items. Along with typical items like pitchforks and straw, the farm wish list at the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm in Fairport, New York, once included something a bit bigger—a tractor. And before long, they had one. “Don’t be afraid to ask, no matter how big or expensive an item is,” says farm manager Joanna Dychton. “You never know what you’ll get.” The Capital Area Humane Society in Lansing, Michigan, had its “big wishes” come true, says Judy Brown, vice president of volunteers and customer service. Donors have given the shelter a power washer, forklift, laptop, and more. “Think big, and encourage staff to brainstorm ideas,” says Brown.

Spelling out just what your organization needs can limit unusable donations.

Be specific. You know exactly what you mean when you write “dog food” or “cat toys,” but donors probably won’t. Spelling out just what your shelter needs can prevent unusable donations. “If we need 55-gallon trash bags, that is what we must say,” says Alisa Webster, operations and volunteer manager of the Vanderburgh Humane Society in Evansville, Indiana. “If we say that we need ‘trash bags,’ we will end up with 20 boxes of 13-gallon bags.” Being specific can be especially important when asking for food. “We ask for hay, but only good hay, not moldy or dusty,” says Dychton. “It is best to keep animals on the same type of grain and not switch it around too much, so we will put the brand and type that we use.” If your list includes items whose shelter use isn’t obvious, provide an explanation so donors understand why you need them—for example, you might write, “Shoeboxes (used for cat beds).” If certain items pose a risk for shelter animals, make note of that too—for example, the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm asks for hay for their farm animals by specifying “1st cutting timothy mix hay (no mold or dust).”

Keep it organized. A long list of items may look overwhelming to a potential donor. Organizing it into sections can make it more manageable. If your list still looks huge, consider rotating items. The list kept by SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. of Spokane, Washington, is organized into operational sections: animal care, behavior and training, veterinary clinic/grooming, investigations, pet-assisted therapy, education, special events/development, and miscellaneous. The Oregon Humane Society’s list highlights “urgent” needs and is also organized into categories like “Grooming items” or “Health items.” The Humane League of Lancaster County in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, takes a slightly different approach and sorts its list by who needs the items: “Our CATS wish for …” “Our OFFICE STAFF wishes for …”


How-To for teens who want to fundraise for their local shelter

Successful wish lists

Assign a list-keeper. It’s probably best to have one person in charge of the wish list. That person at the Winnipeg Humane Society in Manitoba is Aileen White, manager of public relations and marketing. White keeps the master list and revises it when staff request that items be added or removed. When it’s time for a new issue of the newsletter, White asks all departments to notify her of changes. To prevent mistakes and confusion, the only person who can request that a particular item be taken off the list is the staff member who originally requested it to be added. The list-keeper can also lend a hand in keeping staff and volunteers informed about which common donated items cannot be used—electric blankets, for example. That way, those items won’t accidentally end up in a kennel. (A central location where items are placed upon donation and reminder signs for staff can help, too.)

Make it easy. Most wish list items should be easy to find and easy to purchase. For more unusual or specialized items, suggest names of local stores that carry them. You can also mention specific websites where things can be purchased. That strategy has worked for SpokAnimal C.A.R.E., whose list names the websites of the companies that sell certain products. “At their convenience, donors can go online, order, pay, and we can have the items shipped directly to us,” says executive director Gail Mackie. “Works well for everyone.” Some companies, like Kuranda Dog Beds (, can provide you with a link to put on your webpage that, when clicked, will take the donor directly to another page that will ship donated items to the shelter (sometimes at a discounted price).

Spread the word. Putting your wish list on your website and publishing it in your newsletter are just two of the many ways to reach potential donors. Like many shelters, the Vanderburgh Humane Society staples copies of their wish list inside the information packets adopters receive. Staff make sure to point out and explain some of the items. “Most people are surprised that we need more than dog and cat food,” says Webster. Place copies of your wish list in your lobby and other areas of the shelter, and distribute them at fundraising and adoption events, volunteer orientations, and any speaking events that staff attend. The Oregon Humane Society periodically sends press releases to spotlight certain items, says public information manager Kathy Covey. She makes sure the organization’s holiday press releases mention the list, too.

Finding Help at the Holidays
Some people’s generosity during the holiday season extends beyond their friends and family to encompass local nonprofits in need. Other people look to make a few more tax-deductible donations before the year ends. Your shelter can benefit from both.

The best response to the wish list set up by the Animal Rescue Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, comes at the winter holidays. The shelter puts up a “Santa Paws Wish Tree,” full of tags, at the local mall. Each tag on the tree is decorated with a cute holiday animal picture and lists a need on the bottom tear-off section, says president Bobbie Thompson. The needs include monetary donations (from $5 to $100) and items like “washable cat toys” or “dog collar for large dog.” Pre-addressed donation envelopes are also available.

Across the country in southern California, community activist Justin Rudd organizes an extensive holiday drive for local shelters and rescues on behalf of Operation Santa Paws. Donors can drop off supplies—which range from dog treats to trash bags to mops and brooms—either at shelters or specified drop box collection locations, including Petco stores. The drive focuses on food, toys, grooming products, and treats. For more information, visit

Keep tabs. Your list-keeper should update your wish list on a regular basis by keeping track of which wishes have been fulfilled and which items are still needed. Putting some things on your list may guarantee that soon you’ll be up to your ears in them, as the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm found. “We used to have Q-Tips listed on the wish list,” says assistant volunteer coordinator and gift shop manager Alex Chernavsky, “but we ended up getting so many boxes of Q-Tips that we’re all set for the next few decades, I think.” And be prepared for big surprises. One generous donor had the idea to buy the Heartland Humane Society in Corvallis, Oregon, a year’s supply of a specific “wish.” The shelter, although grateful, was also a little overwhelmed, says community relations and volunteer coordinator Dani Bolda. “We ended up with 400 bottles of bleach brought to the shelter at one time—a great gift, but it was hard to find storage space!” Since then, the shelter’s wish list asks donors to check with the shelter before bringing large quantities of an item. (Bleach and other products have limited shelf lives, too—something else to consider when well-meaning donors want to contribute a lifetime supply.)

Encourage kids. For budding shelter supporters still too young to volunteer, a wish list can present the perfect opportunity to lend a hand—either as part of a community service project or as an individual endeavor. Scout groups, clubs, or school classes can team up to collect items, and some remarkably generous kids have asked to be given wish list donations for their birthdays in lieu of gifts. The Gulf Coast Humane Society in Corpus Christi, Texas, finds willing helpers at the nearby university, whose students organize donation drives. “Getting the college kids involved has seemed to be our best bet,” says volunteer coordinator and humane educator Cody Rice. Kids can help in other ways, too. The Lycoming County SPCA in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, places wish list collection bins in local stores and malls, says executive director Victoria Stryker. The bins, which look like doghouses, were created by kids, including an Eagle Scout who used them to earn his merit badge.

Show your gratitude. When someone comes into the shelter to drop off a donation, it’s likely that she’ll catch you in the middle of doing three things at once. Try to put your work aside for a moment to look her in the eye and offer a sincere thank you—people are more likely to keep on donating if they feel like their efforts are appreciated. If they tell friends and family about their positive experience, the public perception of your shelter will get a boost, and your donations may, too. You can also include a message of thanks on your wish list itself. “We try to let people know that each donation enables more funding to go to the animals,” says Mackie of SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. Some kids who contribute to the Humane Society at Lollypop Farm receive special recognition—which is likely to make their day. “When children bring us a large amount of stuff, we use our digital camera to take a picture of the kids in the lobby together with the loot, and then we publish the photos in our quarterly newsletter,” says Chernavsky. The shelter gives regular donors a receipt with a description of the items given, but leaves the monetary value for the donor to determine, says president/ CEO Alice Calabrese Smith.


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