After I wrote a post about the marketing power of free adoptions, and explained why I think charging adoption fees is an obstacle to our pet adoption mission, I started hearing from many, many rescue groups all over the U.S. that they can't possibly survive as an organization without revenue from adoption fees. Some have gone so far as to accuse larger shelters and foundations like Maddie's Fund of trying to "drive rescue groups out of business."
I'll be honest, I understand their feelings. A change in your revenue model can be a big paradigm change for a small nonprofit, especially one that doesn't have anyone on the team who is interested in marketing, fundraising, and development.
I think, however, that the benefits far outweigh the pain of change.
Let's step back and look at the big picture for a minute. Most nonprofits outside the rescue world don't have a fee-based revenue model. They raise money by cultivating relationships with individual and business supporters, with fundraising events, with retail operations such as thrift stores, and with development of grants, bequests, endowments, etc.
Of course, just thinking about that is exhausting for a small group made up of people who are mostly working in direct animal care rather than organizational work. In fact, we've created a culture where the less effort a nonprofit puts into anything other than direct services the more we praise them.
The problem is, that model is truly not sustainable. It leaves groups without a structure to rely on when market realities change.
For example, the adoption fee model might really go away as more groups realize the huge marketing benefit of fee-waived adoption promotions. Then you'll be competing with groups who adopt out pets for free or for "name your own fee" donations, and you'll be forced to change overnight instead of doing it strategically.
There are easy options to getting all or most of our revenue through adoption fees and tapping into the marketing power of fee-waived adoptions.
For example, what if you went to a local business, shopping center, nursery, big pet supply or farm store, and asked them to do a "We'll pay your adoption fees this weekend!" event in the parking lot? They get tons of customers flocking in, you get your adoptions paid for (plus donations if you play your cards right), the pets get the benefit of the marketing buzz, and everyone wins!
Additionally, you need to think outside the animal welfare bubble. I'm on the board of an animal organization that receives funding from a non-animal welfare foundation that supports charitable endeavors in our region. They give us money because we're local and meet their standards of sustainability, accountability, etc. As far as I know, we're the only animal organization they support at all!
This is why finding a volunteer with an interest in marketing and/or development is critically important for small rescue groups. You really can't survive long just caring for the animals and cramming in the bare minimum of organizational support and development while you have one hand on a kitten bottle and the other holding your eyelids open.
The whole point of finding people to help with this end of things is to free up each volunteer to focus on what she or he does best, whatever it is. After all, direct animal care is necessary! But so is organizational work such as marketing and development. Animal organizations need it all, or they won't be able to survive losing, say, their founder or core group of volunteers, or economic or market shifts.
I feel very strongly that rescue groups are mostly locked into an unsustainable model of helping animals, and I would really like to see us step back from how we are currently doing things and broaden our revenue streams and free ourselves to use the fee-waived adoption marketing model and any other innovations that come along when they're appropriate or helpful.
The animals need our best, not just in TLC, but in organizational professionalism.