What should the goal of a Shelter Ally partnership be?

“Shelter Ally” partnerships should not be the equivalent of transport partnerships with a little extra advice thrown in here and there. While transport can be an important part of helping reduce animal populations for mentee groups in the short term (and it can certainly be a benefit to the mentor groups as well), the true goal of any shelter ally partnership must be long-term transformation of the mentee group in all aspects of their operation, from intake to population management, adoption policies to community outreach. 

Ideally, with the support and guidance of their mentor group, mentees should, at a minimum, achieve:

  • Stability in their shelter population, maintaining their humane capacity for care through intake management and diversion practices and enhanced live release options;
  • Trap/Neuter/Return and Return to Field programs for community cats;
  • Adopters Welcome adoption policies;
  • Accurate data collection and routine, transparent data reporting through Shelter Animals Count;
  • Commitment to ensuring all 5 Freedoms for every animal every day.
  • Comfort in appropriately navigating and implementing positive policy changes to help more animals at the organizational and local ordinance levels

Mentor groups should strive to support and elevate their mentee to the point at which they are able to manage their own population effectively and contribute to  the ‘next’ best practices in animal sheltering.. As a shining example of humane animal caretaking and model shelter operation, the former mentee group will be in a position to “pay it forward,” helping to elevate other groups—in short, the mentee group should become a model shelter/mentor for their area. What’s more, their excellence should serve to shine a spotlight on local groups not employing best practices, and influence them to change. In sum, the goal of the Shelter Ally Project is to support and build leaders who were once struggling, and turn them into local influencers for positive change.   

Is mentorship right for my organization?
The keys to a successful partnership are thorough planning, allocation of resources, clear agreements and long term commitment to the project. For mentor groups, particularly those that rely on transport to meet adoption demand, taking on a partner can seem like an easy decision. But remember, the goal of a Shelter Ally partnership is transformational change on the part of the mentee group, not just a steady source of adoptable transport animals (in fact, if mentorship is done correctly, that source of excess animals from the mentee group should all but dry up). Before signing up to serve as a mentor, groups should ask themselves:

  • Do we have full commitment from leadership? Mentorship can’t be just the work of one or two individuals; it must be a program with full support and dedication from leadership and should be factored into strategic planning, budgeting, staffing, etc. Support from the mentor group must continue even if individual staffers close to the program leave the organization. 
  • Do we have staff buy-in? After all, shelter work is difficult enough; asking staff to take on mentorship of another organization, experiencing their challenges and heartbreaks, can be overwhelming. Be sure that staff understand, and share the long-term commitment to helping save lives in another community.
  • Do we have the financial resources required? Mentors certainly cannot be expected to fund their mentee shelter (although income realized from adoption of transferred animals should be reinvested in the source shelter), but the mentorship process unquestionably involves devoting staff time and expertise, travel and other resources to another group, rather than applying them locally. 
  • Do we have support from our donors and community? It can be difficult for those not in our field to see the critical importance of spreading lifesaving efforts even beyond their backyard; communicating the message that their local support is being magnified globally is essential.
  • Do we have the expertise, or are we willing to get it? Mentor groups should be realistic about their strengths and abilities and look for a mentee that generally aligns well with their areas of expertise (for example, a cats-only group probably shouldn’t take on a municipal dog shelter as a mentee unless they are willing to bring on supplemental assistance).
  • Do we have our own house in order? Every group has unique operating needs and philosophies, but there are well-accepted industry best practices that mentor groups must have in place themselves before they try to help others. Before taking on a mentee, it is vital to perform a comprehensive self-assessment. There are a number of useful tools for this purpose, including  those listed at animalsheltering.org/assess. At a minimum, every mentor group needs to be enrolled in Shelter Animals Count and the Million Cat Challenge and practice open, conversation-based adoptions (ideally implementing Adopters Welcome). 

Of course, mentor groups can never be expected to provide for their mentees at the expense of animals in their own facilities and/or communities. However, they will be expected to devote considerable time and resources to supporting and elevating their shelter ally over a long period of time. What that investment actually looks like will vary greatly, depending on the needs of the mentee shelter. Some groups may need primarily advice, guidance and a shoulder to lean on, while others may need more tangible resources like vaccines, handling equipment and animal care items. Some will already be well-versed in humane sheltering and best practices, while others will need help with basics like sanitation and intake practices. Mentor groups will need to be flexible, work to understand the needs and abilities of their mentee shelter and establish and execute a plan for moving forward. 

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