How Animal Shelters Perfected the Art of the Pivot

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Recently, a friend of mine posted a meme on Facebook. It was a takeoff on sports tournament brackets, but instead of sports teams, it was a head-to-head matchup of overused business jargon. All the usual suspects that people like to roll their eyes about were there: “circle back”, “synergy”, “lean in”, “deep dive”, and so on. (Full disclosure: I use all 32 words in the bracket, and I’m not sorry.) Most of them probably are overused, to be sure. There was one word, though, that made me gasp in that “How DARE you?” sort of way, and that word was “pivot”.

I wish I knew who to credit for this meme that caused me such shame…

Pivoting is a concept about which I feel genuine passion. I’m not married to the word itself, but without the concept of pivoting, there’s no room for putting learning into practice in profitable ways. Without the pivot, you either succeed or you fail. Add a pivot, though, and you can gracefully back away from the things that aren’t working and build on the things that are. Pivots help us take advantage of changes in the market — new competitors, new customers, new problems — and make our products and services even more useful and impactful.

When you think about the art of pivoting, you might not think immediately of animal shelters, and I wouldn’t blame you. Public animal shelters are generally a function of local government and have all of the red tape and bureaucracy that goes along with that. In big cities, sometimes animal shelters are part of a large system within another large system. Los Angeles, for example, has two shelter systems; Los Angeles County Animal Services, which has seven animal shelters and is governed by the LA County Board of Supervisors, and LA Animal Services, which is made up of six shelters and is governed by the Board of Animals Service Commissioners. Trying to make a change at one shelter in Los Angeles is probably a lot like trying to get approval to install a Starbucks inside the Department of Motor Vehicles…good luck.

That’s why it’s absolutely astounding what the animal welfare world has been able to pull off during these unprecedented times of COVID-19.

While we were debating masks (for god’s sake…wear one) and trying to make one roll of toilet paper last six weeks, the animal welfare world was busy making changes, big and small.

I interviewed some of the most forward-thinking shelter directors around the country, and I learned how they thought fast and acted faster to make sure they were able to help animals, service the community, and protect the health of their organizations during COVID. Here are the big problems they solved and some standout examples of their pivots:

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Problem #1: COVID has made it unsafe for people to be together indoors.

Pivot: Appointment systems. This was almost a universal pivot. All of the shelters I interviewed have implemented an appointment system of one kind of another. Most commonly, people interested in meeting animals for adoption make appointments online from home, and sometimes sign in at a kiosk outside the shelter doors and wait to be called. The shelters that have continued to accept owner-surrendered animals (more on that later) also require appointments for that, and limit the number of surrender appointments each day.

Benefits: The obvious benefit is that appointments allow the shelter to limit the number of visitors in the shelter at one time. But there are some other major ripples that have come from this pebble:

  • Knowing how many visitors to expect each day, and when, makes staffing needs easier to anticipate, and allows staff not needed for adoptions to be repurposed for other things, like providing counseling to people so they don’t end up relinquishing their pets to the shelter at all.
  • Adoption-floor staff are now able to spend more time with each adopter, helping them select the right pet in a very supportive way. The end result has been a big decrease in pets returned post-adoption and an increase in successful long-term matches.
  • A better user experience for adopters. No more waiting in front of kennels for long periods of time for a free staff member to answer questions about an animal or facilitate a meeting. No more standing in long checkout lines to complete the adoption. And, because staff can be repurposed, some shelters are actually answering their phones for the first time ever (instead of relying on recording messages) and giving amazing customer service. This has resulted in many more adoptions and more prevention of owner surrenders.
  • Some online appointment systems also allow adopters to fill out all the necessary paperwork from the comfort of their homes, reducing the time spent at the shelter. This benefits everyone: the shelter workers trying to reduce COVID exposure, the other adopters who are waiting for their turn to enter the shelter, and the adopters, who would rather get home with their new best friend than fill out time-consuming paperwork at the shelter.

Pivot: Outdoor meetings. Some shelters turned to outdoor meet and greets, not allowing adopters inside the shelter at all.

Benefits:

  • According to one shelter director, keeping people off the adoption floor is resulting in healthier animals. One indicator she noticed is that, for the first time in her memory, no cats were on medication. This could also be because pets aren’t staying very long in the shelter due to increased adoption demand, but it’s worth noting.
  • One BIG benefit to outdoor adoptions is that the pets are presenting much better. Kennels are stressful places for pets, and even the most well-behaved, docile dogs can exhibit compulsive barking, pacing, and cowering behavior in the kennel. Bringing them out of that environment to a quiet place allows them to decompress and to shine. I heard from quite a few shelter directors that this has been a game-changer, leading to many more adoptions.
  • One permutation of outdoor meetings has been the rise of curbside pick-up of foster animals. Volunteering to temporarily foster a pet has never been easier.
Photo by CandidShots on Pexels

Problem #2: There are too many pets in the shelter, overwhelming the limited number of staff that can be in the building at any one time.

Pivot: Reuniting lost pets with owners without ever taking the pets into custody. Forward-thinking shelters are directing animal control officers to attempt to return lost pets to owners while still out in the field instead of bringing them to the shelter. If the animal isn’t wearing a collar, animal control officers can scan for microchips from the field. Similarly, they’re encouraging citizens who find roaming pets to keep them and try to locate the owner. This is a big change; historically people have been required to bring loose pets to the shelter right away. But why not empower them to return pets to their neighbors directly?

Pivot: Surrender interventions. As I mentioned earlier, many shelters are requiring appointments for owners who want to surrender their own pets. Not only is that helping the shelter manage visitors, but every shelter director I spoke with told me that delaying the surrender is actually resulting in fewer surrenders. Left without the “easy” solution, people are able to find other, better, options than relinquishing their pet to the shelter.

Almost all of these forward-thinking shelters are encouraging pet owners to find new homes for their own pets using tools like Adopt-a-Pet.com’s Rehome program, which is our safe, supportive, free, peer-to-peer adoption platform.

Pivot: Expanded (or brand-new) foster programs. I’m going to expand on this one quite a bit because I believe that when we look back on how COVID became an inflection point for animal welfare, this is going to be the largest, most impactful pivot we’ll be able to identify. Shelters that already had foster programs have expanded them exponentially, and shelters that didn’t have them at all have created robust foster programs in a short period of time.

When the shutdowns were first beginning around the country, shelters found themselves in a jam. As usual, they were filled to capacity with animals, and they were facing the prospect of having no adopters — nobody knew then that they’d figure out ways to continue to offer adoptions and, in fact, many shelters had to close all programs for a period of time while they worked out these pivots we’re discussing. In communities across the country, shelters began putting out the call to their communities for help…some for the very first time. And people answered…in droves. The shelter made it easy for new fosters to sign up to help, and thousands upon thousands of people volunteered. Curbside pickup became the new normal, with lines of people in cars waiting to be handed their new foster pet through their windows.

Shelter directors worried that as time went on and more people returned to work, these foster pets would be returned in huge numbers, once again placing a burden on the shelter. But that has not happened, even in communities that have opened up for business. Instead, these pets are being adopted, either by their foster families or by others in the community.

As we look toward the future, forward-thinking shelter directors are planning for a world in which the majority of their pets are sheltered in foster homes, creating a community-shelter dynamic. Pets in foster homes stay healthier, happier, and more adoptable. Instead of developing behavior issues in the stressful shelter environment, they’re receiving basic training in their foster homes. And, of course, foster parents get to know their foster pets very well and are able to give prospective adopters all of the information they need about the pets’ temperament, energy levels, how they get along with other animals and children, and any special needs they have, resulting in more successful adoptions.

One extremely progressive shelter director told me that they’re now thinking about pet care the same way we think about providing human services. The majority of human services are provided in the community, through social workers, nutrition programs, vocational training, etc. A tiny minority of cases involve intake into a facility. And that’s how he’s seeing the future of animal welfare, and his shelter will be working to make that vision a reality. Bravo!

Pivot: Expanded return policies, trial periods, and foster-to-adopt programs. Let’s face it: adopting a pet is a big decision. And it’s really hard to make that decision based on a 10-minute meeting in the shelter environment. I’ve long been an advocate for trial periods; they take away a huge barrier to adoption, and shelters and rescues that offer them report that a huge number of these trials become permanent adoptions. I’m thrilled to see that this is catching on across the country. In essence, telling adopters, “Hey…give it a try. You have nothing to lose!” removes mental and emotional barriers to adoption, and it’s helping shelters stay as empty as possible.

Pivot: Removing discriminatory and needlessly stringent adoption criteria. In the early period of COVID, when shelter directors and staff were desperate to get the animals out of the shelter and into safe homes, they examined their adoption procedures and found that some of their requirements and screening methods were needlessly strict. In addition to being time-consuming, these directors suspected they were screening out potentially good homes for animals. So they relaxed their standards. In some cases, they stopped asking about personal financial status, as they’d found that socioeconomic status isn’t a good predictor of responsible pet ownership. They stopped discriminating against people who live in apartments. They relaxed rules for renters and stopped requiring written permission from landlords. They stopped requiring that every member of a family be present at the shelter for adoptions. In short, they decided to trust people to take care of pets. And, to a person, they’ve reported absolutely no downside.

Benefit: The Paradox of Choice wins. In addition to making it easier for limited staff to provide care, reducing the number of pets available for adoption has had a really cool side benefit. Author Barry Schwartz could have predicted this one. His book (and TED talk) The Paradox of Choice talks about how, when consumers are given too many choices, they become indecisive. Conversely, when choices are winnowed down, it becomes easier for consumers to take action. So many of the shelter directors I spoke with identified this as a huge win. Adopters are making decisions quickly, and reducing the number of available pets has resulted in even traditionally harder-to-adopt breeds of dog and dogs who had been in the shelter for long periods of time have been adopted, and with no increase in return rates.

So, how did they do it?

Every shelter director I spoke with uttered some variation of these words: “We would never have been allowed to do this before, but the emergency situation allowed us to have more leeway.” Actually, three things happened. One, yes, is that COVID helped them get approval from the powers that be and bureaucracy to try new things. But, before that happened, these leaders had to be ready to let go of paradigms and ideate brand new ways of doing things. They saw opportunity in the chaos and difficulty and they seized it. And they were fearless. They enacted new policies, knowing that they’d received backlash from the community and from their own internal staff, and they did it anyway.

As a result, we have a blueprint for the next iteration of animal welfare in this country. When I asked the question, “Which of these policies do you think you’ll keep after COVID goes away?” I heard, over and over again, “All of them.” The future of animal welfare is a community model. Animals will be sheltered in private homes. Barriers to adoption will continue to be lowered. Staff will continue to be repurposed for better adoption counseling, customer service, and behavior consulting. Rehome will continue to grow in importance, as will other types of intake intervention. And, as we lessen the burden on shelters, not only will they reap the benefits, but animals will as well.

The big takeaway

Disasters and pandemics are horrible, no doubt about it. And they also provide fertile ground for innovation and big pivots. Most of us don’t face the same kinds of bureaucratic and regulatory obstacles to innovation that animal shelters face; if they can make big changes, what can we do? Take some time to think about the problems your product or service aims to solve. Mentally wipe away the current solutions that our society has come to expect, or that we accept as the only way to do things. Pretend that you are a solutions architect with carte blanche to come up with something from scratch. If you had no limitations, how would you solve the problem?

Also…go sign up to foster a pet at your local shelter. True love awaits!

Socially-conscious product leader, Lean Startup evangelist, COO and Chief Product Officer at Adopt-a-Pet.com

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