Skip to Content

Treat your shelter volunteers well

In April I filled out a volunteer application with a local shelter …

I listed that I was available for cleaning morning and night and interested in fostering.

I filled the form out at the shelter and physically handed it over.

A month rolled around, then a few more weeks, and I never heard anything back.

I didn’t get any emails (checked my spam). Didn’t get a phone call.

This left me feeling like either the shelter didn’t want my help or that for some reason I wasn’t good enough. Or, more likely, the shelter was unorganized.

Either way, I wasn’t all that excited to volunteer after I didn’t hear anything back.

Whenever I had talked with people from that shelter, they sounded in need of volunteers. But when I stepped up to help, I got no response.

Is this a common problem?

Do shelters and rescues have bad customer service?

Let’s just say there is room for improvement.

I wonder how many others have tried to volunteer at the above organization and those like it? How many potential volunteers will try again if ignored?

How many adoption applications go ignored?

I know what it’s like to run a business. I know what it’s like to volunteer for a nonprofit. Customer service should mean the same thing across the board.

Since I’m a veteran as far as shelter volunteering goes, I know not to take anything too personally and I know sometimes all it takes is a second phone call or a second email or to stop by in person.

Someone new to the animal sheltering world would not know this and could easily slip through the cracks.

I’m not trying to pick on this particular shelter. I do understand it is run entirely by volunteers – people with full-time jobs, family commitments and their own pets. That’s no excuse for a lack of communication, but it’s the most consistent problem I’ve experienced with rescues and shelters in general.

I know, I know. Papers get filed away. Email piles up. It happens.

And, no matter what, there are always more cats and dogs. More animals than you know what to do with.

So, here’s the lessen behind this:

If you want to volunteer and you haven’t heard back – try, try again!

When I didn’t hear anything back, I emailed the shelter and asked if it still needed volunteers (it did), and when could I start? (I started right away.)

And if you’re in a leadership position at the shelter, do not let potential volunteers get away! You need them on your side.

Make sure you are connecting with every single person who expresses interest in your organization, even if it’s to say “Thank you for contacting us. How would you like to help?”

Heck, it can even be an automated email. Just make contact somehow.

Volunteers are probably the most valuable part of a shelter or rescue.

Most volunteers will even forgive a shelter for honest mistakes like misfiling an application or not responding to an email.

Bottom line is, if someone truly wants to volunteer, she will probably find a way to volunteer. It just shouldn’t have to be so hard.

If you want an endless team of dedicated volunteers at your shelter, then treat each volunteer like gold.

Do that, and each one will give you her all.

Have you tried to volunteer at a shelter? Did you hear back right away?


Thursday 14th of June 2012

I also recently tried to volunteer at the local (very large) shelter & applied for a very specific position they had posted (though I was willing to do other things, it's something I was qualified for that many people would not be).

It took a long time for someone to get back to me, months before the next time they'd have "orientation" (which turned out to be NOT an orientation, but rather a 5 minute interview with someone who never read my application & didn't know anything about the specific position I had applied for. There was absolutely no organization about how these interviews were being handled. I had cleared my calendar to go to this orientation that had been misrepresented to me.

Instead of asking me anything or reviewing my application (let alone calling my references), the person I met focused exclusively on trying to figure out which slot I could do a different job than the one I applied for (or even the backups I suggested that I know the shelter needs). When I expressed that my work schedule was flexible, so I could commit to nearly *any* slot, he got very confused & insisted on having me select only 1 time per week (I don't know if the time I chose is one that they needed -my point was that I could fit the slots they needed in general!) There was absolutely no effort to evaluate experience with the shelter animals or tasks involved in any shelter work, let alone the position I was trying to volunteer for.

I was contacted nearly a month later informing me that they had many interested volunteers, so they weren't going to want/need me. To date, I have no evidence that anyone has actually read my application and strong evidence that no one has at all. The position I had applied for is still posted, and I never so much as got to speak to the person supervising that unique job or who even knew about what they needed.

I know that many shelter workers are dealing with budget cuts and being understaffed.

This place has a significant amount of resources, a larger staff, and even more volunteers. I'm sure I could try harder to locate the specific people/department for the position I applied for, and I'm sure I could do more to follow up and get "accepted" as a volunteer. But you know what? My time is limited, and I try to volunteer in ways where I can best use the skill set I have & in organizations that won't waste my time. This isn't the only shelter near me or place where I can help dogs/cats (unfortunately). I live in a region where many people do want to volunteer at shelters, especially kids in high school or college or senior citizens. This place obviously has so many people constantly trying to volunteer with them (as the well known big shelter around) that they can't be bothered reading anyone's application, and the sad part is that they'll never learn how to fill their more unique positions.

Lindsay Stordahl

Thursday 14th of June 2012

Thank you for sharing your experience. Unfortunately this is all too common. I hope you find somewhere that will appreciate your time and talents!


Wednesday 13th of June 2012

I know that in some areas they are just better than others, but that is a shame. At my local humane society, they have it set up so you don't have to wait for a call. Just fill out paperwork and talk to the volunteer coordinator about upcoming volunteer classes, then sign up. I hope you can find a place near you that does this. SO much easier.


Wednesday 13th of June 2012

It took two or three months for the local shelter (this is in one of the country's biggest cities) to get back to me and set up a time for orientation. They're overburdened with too many animals and not enough staff, plus the volunteer coordinator is disorganized. Our city is bankrupt and the shelters were one of the first things to have funding cut, very sad. A volunteer was actually the one to get back to me about the orientation and then the dog handling class (2 seperate days a few weeks apart) so the shelter is lucky to have her to help coordinate volunteers. A couple of the volunteers are pretty helpful when I have questions. When I applied I was underemployed and had plenty of time to volunteer. However, unfortunately I don't get to go in often because I work a lot now. The paid workers don't walk the dogs -- only volunteers do, so volunteers are really important here.

Lindsay Stordahl

Wednesday 13th of June 2012

Interesting. Thanks, Jackie.


Tuesday 12th of June 2012

Just found your blog while doing a little searching something else and had to comment because I've experienced the same thing many times. I've even offered to help from the organization/administrative and when that is ignored as well, it's a bit frustrating. In my experience, I've had to find one person, latch onto them and work my way in. A lot deal with a lot of flakes and unreliable people which I understand as well but having a process to try to manage is important as well if volunteers are truly needed.


Tuesday 12th of June 2012

My husband and I started to volunteer at the local shelter a couple of years ago because we couldn't have a pet on our rental. So we thought one way to help animals we love is give the gift of time. We started doing routine chores like cleaning, then we walked the dogs, helped the cats' socialization, etc. After we found a new place to live and adopted a shelter dog (from euthanasia list from an animal control facility), we decided it was time to help in another way: being a foster home (since we knew this shelter constantly asks for fosters). So on April this year we contacted them and through several communications (email, facebook posts, even face2face meetings with the person in charge) we left our contact info and said we were more than willing to foster one of their dogs. It's been 2 months already and even thought I still see their facebook posts saying they're in desperate need of foster homes, nobody has contacted us so far. I will definitely try again, will go to the shelter and will talk to someone in person once again. But if they don't get back to me, I will go to some other shelter where our help is appreciated.

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 12th of June 2012

Very, very frustrating. It could be that they are looking for a certain type of foster homes and your home doesn't fit that criteria (maybe they need homes without other pets, for example). But more than likely they are just unorganized. And even if your home doesn't fit what they are looking for they should still contact you! Good grief!