Proven Strategies

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A roundup of resources advocating for fee-waived or reduced-cost adoptions

May 23, 2023

The thought of reducing or eliminating adoption fees can be scary, particularly if your budget relies on such income. There are benefits to considering a change in your fee structure, however, that might just make doing so worth exploring.

We’ve touched on this topic many times on our website, so we thought we’d do a roundup of that content. And we’re sharing it just in time, as the first of this year’s Best Friends National Adoption events is taking place June 30 through July 2. Last year’s events saw a significant percentage of partners take advantage of the adoption stipends to try out changing fees – and many of those had never reduced or waived those fees. Here are some resources your organization can (hopefully) use to consider experimenting with adoption fees:  

First things first: let’s talk money

Losing critical revenue is probably the top reason shelters and rescues don’t want to think about changing adoption fees. Especially with municipal agencies, fees are often a line item used to justify smaller portions of the governmental budget. Best Friends has created a document outline suggesting policy and legislative changes for local governments which touches on this very issue. We also created an infographic for municipal shelters to use in countering the outdated practice of underfunding.  

Nonprofits aren’t immune to this mindset, either, as Bonney Brown, president of Humane Network, notes:

“This idea that we are funded with fees is a business model that never worked. If we were only fee-based, the IRS would not allow us to be nonprofits. The government, in a sense, is acknowledging that we cannot operate solely on fees — hence the allowance for tax deductible donations.” 

But shelters need solutions now if reliance on adoption fees stands in the way of changing them. One approach is to ask adopters for donations to support the organization. The number one reason people give for not donating to a charity is that they were never asked. Think about adding this request to your adoptions processes even if you don’t change your fees; a “pay it forward” campaign is one possible approach.  

There’s nothing that says you must entirely waive fees, either. Reducing them or offering 2-for-1 still brings benefits, especially for special needs animals or certain adopter groups like seniors or veterans.  

Challenge belief that free adoptions = bad homes   Man in gray shirt holding black kitten

Your organization would not toss out its adoption criteria along with changing fees. An effective process will net quality adopters. Data also exists to refute the belief that a free home isn’t a good home:

  • After launching a free adoption program for cats in 2008, the ASPCA found adopters “showed no difference in the way those cats were being treated as compared to those adopted with a fee.”             
  • A 2009 paper examining adopters' attachment to their cats in relation to the payment or waiver of an adoption fee showed no significant difference.             
  • A Maddie’s Fund study found 95% of dogs and 93% of cats were still in their original homes after being adopted for free.  

Consider other benefits

Adoption specials will draw more traffic to your shelter, and the greater the number of adoptions the fewer animals will be left needing your help. That leads to a healthier population (which reduces medical costs), alleviates staff stress, and improves morale.

Also evaluate true costs of care. The longer animals stay in a shelter, the more likely they are to develop health and behavioral problems, which cost money to treat. Reduced or no-fee adoptions can save money in the long run.

Be prepared for the backlash  

There will always be people who don’t like the changes you put into place, but that shouldn’t mean you don’t make controversial changes. Just be prepared by building advocacy for the decision internally and externally. Meet with board members, staff, and volunteers to explain why you’re making the change, and try to get media coverage that gives you a platform.  

And never engage in a tit-for-tat on your social media. There is no winning such battles and engaging just keeps the fight alive.

Be encouraged by other organization’s successes

Two women sitting on couch with cat on one's shoulder

In CEO Julie Castle’s blog “No-fee dog and cat adoptions: value added, not taken away,” Makena Yarbrough, Best Friends’ senior director of lifesaving programs, talked about her experience removing adoption fees when she was executive director of Lynchburg Humane Society in Virginia:  

Our experiences did not line up with the fears about why fee-waived adoptions shouldn’t happen. We had a lot of great adopters who were willing to give these pets wonderful homes. . . Great homes are great homes, regardless of whether an adoption fee is paid. Take the leap and learn this for yourself.

Or – if you want to think about the issue from the proverbial 50,000-foot view – there’s this insight from another of Julie’s blogs, “You can’t put a price on your best friend:”

Dollars-and-cents cost accounting of a pet’s life is what makes the pet trade such a despicable industry. There, it makes no business sense for a pet store to invest more money in pet inventory (for breeding, feeding and health) than can be earned by selling the dog at retail plus a profit. Why would anyone in animal welfare want to attach that type of thinking to a rescued pet who we hope will become a beloved member of someone’s family?

Additional Resources:

Making the leap to fee-waived adoptions” program spotlight

Reflecting on rescue roadblocks” program spotlight

Free to a good home: How fee-waived adoptions are saving lives” Best Friends Animal Society magazine article

Adoptions Training playbook  

Paying it forward for pets” online article

"I just trust people" Best Friends podcast #81

Liz with cat

Liz Finch
Senior Writer
Best Friends Network

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