With more than 7 million animals entering into the shelter system in the United States every year, the need for people to volunteer their time and energy is ever present. Many shelters and rescue organization work to provide housing, medical care and adoption services to animals on very limited funds, and, therefore, rely on the hard work of thousands of selfless souls to make ends meet.
While the effort those make as a volunteer is beyond appreciated, there are a few things you should consider before lending a helping hand.
1. Must love animals.
I know many of you are reading this like ”duhhhh,” but when I say “animals,” I mean ALL animals: not just the cute ones, good ones, old ones, hostile ones, dirty ones, barking ones and everyone in between. Maybe you don’t have to love them all, but each one is entitled to receive the same level of care and respect, whether that means when you visit, take a dog for a work or decide to foster. A happy, healthy animal has the best chances at finding a forever home, and this is your opportunity to make that happen! Well worth it, I promise.
2. If possible, be consistent.
While some shelters do not enforce a minimum hourly requirement from their volunteers, many do — usually around two to three hours per week. This way shelter staff can have an idea of how often they can expect help, and it ensures that the time and resources spent assessing applications and training in orientations is spent on a person who is serious about their commitment to the team.
In my own experience, the most frustrating aspect encountered with volunteers (according to staff) was taking the time to train someone, only to have them disappear after a few days. Help is better than no help, but it might be something to consider if you aren’t ready to make a consistent commitment.
3. You need to be flexible.
The most helpful volunteers are the ones who show up, ask where they’re needed and get to it. While for many, it’s like some sort of fantasy to get to hang out in a puppy playpen for two hours a week, the honest truth is that there is work to be done. Cleaning kennels, feeding and watering residents and going out for walks are among the many duties shelters needed at shelters. Of course, volunteering is certainly not meant to feel like punishment and most applications ask if you have a certain area of expertise or interest in which you feel your time could be best spent. Administration, marketing, event staff (such as mobile adoptions, or holiday-themed adoption events) and even legal advisors are all important in furthering the success of a shelter within its community.
4. Ability to take direction.
A tip to remember: While you may love and care about these animals just as much as staff, you do not work there. The ability to work independently and without much supervision is critical in a volunteer but “team player” really is the trait that allows the entire operation to run. Shelters can be stressful, a lot can go wrong with dozens of displaced dogs in the house, and staff may be privy to information critical to the care of an animal that the organization doesn’t find necessary to share with everyone. It is so important to treat staff with respect. You are there to help them just as much as you are the animals.
5. Professionalism is key.
Last but not least, it is incredibly important to always do your best and bring a certain level of professionalism to your services. As a volunteer you are essentially an ambassador for the organization you help out and the animals they represent. (I know if I were looking to adopt, I would feel best speaking with someone who seemed to care for and take pride in her work.
After all is said and done, shelters and rescue organizations do rely on the care and compassion given freely by all of their caring volunteers. If a shelter you hoped to volunteer at has its needs met at the moment, it is without a doubt that they have the name of a dozen more that could use your help.
If you do not have the ability to volunteer your time, donations are always accepted and appreciated, especially essentials such as newspaper, old towels and sheets for bedding, food and bowls. You can also ask if that specific organization has an Amazon “wish list” of items they are currently in need of.
Volunteering is infinitely rewarding to yourself, the shelter in which you are helping and any animals housed there. As the adage goes, “saving one animal won’t change the world, but it will change the world for that one animal.”