Proven Strategies

Tabby cat lying on cat bed with front paw out with orange wall in the background

Up for a Challenge?

Maddie’s Fund Offers Opportunity to Raise Cash While Returning More Pets to Homes  

Does your shelter want to keep more pets in homes instead of your kennels? Could your bottom line use a little padding (financially speaking)? Then the Maddie’s Fund® No Place Like Home Challenge is for you! And there’s no time to waste; registration is one week only—today through Friday, January 15th.  

Maddie’s Fund has offered Challenges in the past, but this year not only is Michelson Found Animals Foundation, Inc., partnering to fund $150,000 in grant money, but a total of 10 major animal welfare organizations around the country are collaborating to support the event. Adoptimize, the ASPCA, The Association for Animal Welfare Advancement (the Association), Best Friends Animal Society, HeARTS Speak, the Humane Society of the United States, National Animal Care and Control Association and Petco Foundation are all working together to put the issue of returning pets to their homes front and center in sheltering.  

So what’s this challenge all about? I spoke with Sharon Fletcher, director of marketing and communications for Maddie’s Fund; Brittany Ransonet, marketing communications project manager for Maddie's Fund; and Gina Knepp, national shelter engagement director at Michelson Found Animals Foundation, Inc., to get the details. 

We are encouraging network partners to participate in the Return to Home (RTH) Challenge because we all know pets belong with their people and getting them back home is some of the most important work we do. Tell us how you decided on this topic. 

Brittany: This is Maddie's Fund’s third Challenge—we did the Get ‘Em Home Challenge in 2018 that focused on adopting out dogs and cats who had been in the shelter for more than 30 days, and in 2019, the Foster Express Challenge focused on getting more pets out of the shelter during the hectic holiday season.  

This year when we talked to shelter directors across the country and asked them what their biggest challenge was at the time, they overwhelmingly said return-to-owner (RTO). Particularly with COVID and the subsequent closure of shelters to the public this year, it’s been both harder and more important than ever to keep lost pets out of the shelter. The issue just rose to the top. 

I love that you are referring to this as “return to home” rather than “return to owner” because language matters. RTO feels so transactional and, in some cases, limiting. The reality is, we are sending pets back home whether that is a dog with a microchip or a community cat. We are creating pathways to reunite them with the spaces, families, and homes where they belong.  

Gina: I’m excited that we are focusing on what I like to call both ends of the leash. When an animal comes into the shelter, instead of the first thought being about fast-tracking them out to rescue or putting them on a transfer to another state, our first thought should be that this is a wonderful dog so clearly there is a family attached to him. Someone is missing him.  

And just because someone’s pet went on a walkabout does not mean the family is bad or undeserving. Our industry falls into that thinking too much, but I think the stresses of 2020 have caused us to shift our judgment dramatically. Just because someone doesn’t look like me or live like I do doesn’t mean they don’t love their animals.  

When a shelter makes RTH a priority, then everyone on staff has a proactive mindset to do whatever they can to help reunite that family missing their pet by scanning for a microchip, getting a good photo up on the website quickly, and so on.  

As you say on the website, the goal of the No Place Like Home Challenge is about making RTH part of your culture. That’s asking for a change across animal welfare, not just at one individual shelter or rescue group. How else do you see this being a Challenge to the industry to change?  

Sharon: I think we have to trust and empower people, and that includes when they find an animal that appears to be lost. For years we’ve told people to bring the dog or cat to us and we’ll handle it, but we know that person really wants to help, and that means we are already ahead of the game. Why should that pet—who was probably found in the vicinity of his home—go through a shelter every time? We can empower those Good Samaritans, help them be good neighbors to each other and in the process make them feel like superheroes. Then shelters don’t even have to be involved.  

Gina: On the flip side, imagine you are someone who has never lost a pet before. You don’t know where to go or what’s the right thing to do. We are supposed to be the ones with the answers, but in the San Francisco Bay area, for instance, I can go to nine different organizations’ websites to find out what to do when I lose a pet and see nine different kinds of advice. As an industry, we need to be speaking the same language and providing clear, tangible, actionable language about what to do when you lose or find a pet.  

This Challenge has all the bells and whistles. It comes complete with a healthy dose of competition paired with tons of resources to help bolster RTH programs. Tell me a little about how it is structured. 

Brittany: We wanted to make sure we weren’t being prescriptive. It’s important that people feel comfortable applying and feeling like they could achieve improvement by doing as much or as little as they wanted. Overall, the hope is that participants will try something new.  

If they want, they can choose what they want to try from an all-encompassing list of doable things that the collaborating groups came up with, which include:   

  • All animals in community have ID 
  • RTH policies and lost/found techniques are marketed to community 
  • Organization embraces culture of RTH 
  • Organization works with community to help facilitate RTH 
  • Technology is used to help reunite pets and owners 
  • Regulations and laws encourage RTH 
  • Animals are returned in field rather than at the shelter  
  • Other (for things that didn’t fit into one of the other boxes) 

When participants click on any of these topics, it takes them to a series of written or video resources that talk about how to facilitate these practices in their own shelter. Those can also be jumping-off points for new ideas we may not have even thought about around RTH. 

OK, so I’ve signed up. What happens next? 

Brittany: February is prep month, so it’s about sharing lots of info to inspire people and get ideas. We'll be hosting eight huddles throughout the month where speakers will discuss the above practices. These are opportunities to hear from people who have done some of the things we suggest and who have seen success in their RTH numbers. There is also a Maddie’s Pet Forum where people can talk directly to each other, share ideas and get even more inspired. 

March is the actual month of the No Place Like Home Challenge, and there is really no limit to what people can try around increasing RTH or implementing RTH at their shelters. We’re excited to see what kind of creative concepts come out of this. 

In addition to having the opportunity to win a portion of the $150,000 in grant funds, the Association will award up to 15 individual annual memberships and choose 50 organizations for a free registration to the next virtual conference. Adoptimize is also offering every participating shelter free access to the shelter technology for one year, with a $500 prize for the highest improvement in RTH rates using the software and a special $50 bonus for any shelter that increases their cat RTH rate by 25%.  

Finally, is there anything else about this Challenge that you want to share? 

Gina: The collaboration with 10 heavy-hitters in the industry is unique to the Challenge and I’m hopeful that it will mean we get even more applications than any of the previous ones. I’m also excited because, when I was a shelter manager, I saw that whatever the big organizations focused on got done. If the focus was on doing mega-adoptions, then we all did mega-adoptions. I don’t know if that’s FOMO or what, but it works. 

RTH is very close to my heart. The Challenge is out there and if leadership in shelters around the country decide to make it a priority, it will finally get the attention it deserves. 

To find out more information about the Challenge, go to the Maddie’s Fund website.  

Bethany Heins  
Director of Operations and Strategic Projects, National Programs
Best Friends Animal Society

If you enjoyed this program spotlight, you can find our complete catalog of spotlights here