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Who fosters? iFoster

Shelter boosts adoptions with virtual foster program

From Animal Sheltering magazine March/April 2015

People have lots of reasons for not fostering animals: I don’t have room for another animal. I’m allergic. I’m afraid I’ll get too attached.

Well, now there’s an app for that—one that allows people to “foster” virtually, and serve as public relations agents for the animals they choose.

As a dog trainer at the Dearborn Animal Shelter in Michigan, Linda Thomas had heard loads of people say they’d love to foster an animal, but couldn’t. She told shelter manager Heather Mehi that it was too bad they couldn’t just have virtual fosters. And like Newton getting hit on the head with an apple, an idea was born. Why couldn’t the shelter create a virtual foster program?

Through iFoster—operated by Friends for the Dearborn Animal Shelter (FFDAS)—people can foster cats, dogs and the occasional gerbil, bunny or other small animal, without ever getting hair on their couch. Foster families use social media, email, texts and even cocktail party conversation to drum up interest among potential adopters. Once their animals are adopted, participants have the option of being paired up again—and some even opt to take on multiple pets at the same time.

“It definitely helps,” says Sandra Boulton, public relations director for FFDAS. Since the program’s inception in August 2013, roughly 100 iFoster participants have helped around 250 animals get adopted. Because it capitalizes heavily on social media, the program required virtually no financial investment to get started.

Typically, Boulton says, iFosters use Facebook and Twitter, but some have branched out to Pinterest, Tumblr and other social media. FFDAS provides a Facebook link that iFosters can use to easily share their animal’s profile; some pets have a cute video, too. For those who want to use more traditional advertising methods, the shelter offers templates for fliers and business cards.

The participants’ families and friends generate a lot of interest in the program, Boulton says, which is part of the strategy—to not only make it easier for folks to help individual shelter animals, but also to reach the six degrees (or more) of people in the virtual foster caregivers’ social circle.

FFDAS recently kicked the program up a notch by adding a little friendly competition. Now, iFosters can earn points for each animal they help get adopted. Kittens, who are usually easy to place, garner one point, while cats ages 6 months or older earn three, as do lap dogs. Larger dogs 6 months or older net five points, while bully breeds rack up eight. Finally, the longest-term shelter residents—whether dogs or cats—earn an iFoster a whopping 10 points. The winning iFoster will receive a small prize.

With its low cost, broad appeal and ease of implementation, there’s no reason other shelters shouldn’t have a similar program, says Boulton. “It if works here, it’ll work elsewhere.”


See more information on the iFoster program.

About the Author

Kelly Huegel is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.