When social media and animal rescue collide … good things happen

Family Dogs New Life Director Tasha, with her besties.

Family Dogs New Life Director Tasha, with her besties.

In preparing this article, this writer set off on a Google search, paused for awhile at Pinterest, followed a trail to YouTube, took a left at Tumblr, and wound up in the Facebook vortex, watching a video on The Onion before remembering the original mission. 

That’s how it goes for millions of us, every hour of every day.  Browsing, texting, tweeting, posting, sharing, friending (unfriending), following . . . whatever the verb, we’re an active bunch out there in the virtual world.

A recent Nielsen study reported that the amount of time spent on social media increased 21 percent in 2012 over the previous year, and that number is expected to rise, especially as social media has become more inclusive to people across the age spectrum, and as mobile networking has grown astronomically.

None of this will surprise Spot readers, many of whom are active in Spot’s own social mediasphere:  commenting on a tweeted article, Liking the bejesus out of a too-cute-for-words photo that Vonnie (Spot’s social media manager)  posted on Facebook,  alerting us to an animal-related event, and of course, sharing photos of animals in need.

Anyone in the animal world who is active in social media has logged on to find their newsfeed filled with posts about animals in need of homes, shelters requesting volunteers, supplies or donations, petitions to sign, fundraising appeals, and thankfully, plenty of happy photos of pets in the arms of their newfound forever families. 

Social media, and particularly Facebook, has allowed shelters, rescues and animal activists to exponentially grow their communities, expanding the reach of their missions and, for some, attracting new donors and volunteers.

Diana Grappasonno, Program Communications Coordinator at Multnomah County Animal Services (MCAS) says that while absolute numbers are difficult to ascertain she feels MCAS has reached people they may not have otherwise through Facebook and Twitter — the two channels they primarily use.  “Social media has increased attendance at our events and volunteer orientations,” she says.  “It has also enabled us to meet specific needs.  If we put a call out on Facebook for towels and blankets, we can be sure someone will show up willing to help.”  Grappasono adds, “Being able to directly engage and communicate with the public is both extremely valuable and very cost effective.  Social media enables us to let the community know that our shelter exists and what we do.”

Oregon Dog Rescue’s (ODR) Barbara “Bobbi” Roach, agrees.  “Social media has allowed us to interact with our followers on a more as needed and personal basis.”

 Roach says that over the past year ODR’s posts of specific needs lists on Facebook have brought supplies and volunteers to their door, including one follower who made a sizable cash donation to replace the shelter’s flooring — giving ODR great financial relief.  “For every item donated,” says Roach, “that’s money going toward another dog’s medical needs.”

Roach also credits Facebook for an increasing number of young people volunteering to walk dogs and hold fundraising events at their schools.  “They use social media religiously to communicate and I think our strong Facebook presence helps them relate to us and closes that age gap,” she says.

The welcome increase in volunteers and donations notwithstanding, the bottom line of every shelter is to find homes for the animals in their care, and social media has been a boon here as well.

A quick perusal of the Family Dogs New Life (FDNL) Facebook page shows several photos of recently adopted dogs, along with an inspiring report on the dogs who’ve found forever homes in recent months.  While it’s difficult to distill hard numbers for adoptions directly resulting from social media, FDNL Shelter Director Tasha Giacomazzi says she does feel their Facebook presence has made a difference.

“It took a couple of years of an active Facebook page before we really started noticing a true increase in adoptions that came from that,” says Giacomazzi.  “The cool part is when people are following our page and reach the point where they’re ready to adopt, they choose to come to Family Dogs.”  Giacomazzi also notes that the ease of posting photos means people keep in touch long after adopting through FDNL.  “They’re posting pictures of dogs in their new homes, giving feedback, and allowing us to stay in the dogs’ lives.  It’s been fun to see that increase in our community over the last few months.”

ODR’s Roach appreciates that social networking has increased the number of potential adopters viewing a particular dog.  “There are numerous stories of how posting a plea has resulted in a dog being rescued,” she says, adding that in a typical week, ODR’s posts are seen by approximately 8500 people. 

Oregon Dog Rescue Volunteers (L-R) Melissa Jarvis, Kim Harney, Barbara Roach and Angie Henderson Rapp.

Oregon Dog Rescue Volunteers (L-R) Melissa Jarvis, Kim Harney, Barbara Roach and Angie Henderson Rapp.

Roach says these numbers reflect as much on the shelter as the community itself.  “Facebook gives us a heart; it gets us person-to-person so they feel like they know us.  I’ve had people walk into PetSmart, people I’ve never met other than through Facebook, and they hug me like they’ve known me forever.  You can’t do it with PetFinder.  People tend to Like groups they are passionate about, and share that information with their friends — leading our dogs to a much larger population than ever before.”

Engaging as a shelter or rescue with potentially thousands several times a day requires some thought.  All who contributed to this story agreed, saying they are aware of and conscientious about what they send into the social network . . . and what resonates with their followers.  Not surprisingly, adoption notices and “feel-good” stories are among the most shared and Liked posts.

“Happy ending stories are the most popular by far,” says MCAS’s Grappasonno.  “We feel it's important to share the successes.  We want our social media communications to be upbeat as much as possible, because it encourages people to follow us.”

FDNL’s Giacomazzi agrees  “We use Facebook to generally promote success stories versus posting pleas for help or adopters.  We try to keep our page a fun place for people to visit.  We’ve noticed that that seems to be a good way for our supporters and adopters to feel involved, part of the family, and come back to see what’s being posted.  When we do need something, like when we’re low on dog food or have a dog that’s been with us long term that we want to draw attention to, we tend to get a better response versus posting sad or depressing images.  If people are mostly getting things that are positive in their newsfeed, they’re less likely to skip or ignore our posts.”

Clackamas Dog Services Program Manager Deena Morando also finds that uplifting updates, interesting news and educational posts are the best way to represent their organization.  “We think of [our Facebook page] as a conversation with the community, and one of the driving motivators for us is to keep it positive.”

Morando notes another factor in not posting alarming content.  “If we have a dog we’re worried about, say a great dog that’s been sitting and sitting, we pursue other options, other rescues.  We never put out urgent messages because we don’t want people adopting out of desperation or guilt.  It’s tempting sometimes, but I don’t think it encourages adopting for the right reasons.  I’ve personally known of several really bad mismatches because people felt like they had to save this particular dog.  While that’s a noble motivator, long term it’s not usually best.”

MCAS volunteer Molly with a "Pittie in Pink".

MCAS volunteer Molly with a "Pittie in Pink".

Roach — who also manages a private network for a 300-member community of NW rescues (not related to ODR) —  finds that constantly being presented with extreme cases, particularly as a network expands, requires discipline — especially for rescues that rely solely on foster care, or in the case of her network, focused on regional rescue and transport.  “In the beginning I would look at every case, until I said, ‘No, we have to pick what we know we can handle.  You never take a dog that you don’t have room for because if you’re foster-based, you can have that dog for two years — are you prepared to do that?  It can get very overwhelming — I think over time you have to get a little hardened to all of those posts and use discretion.  I mean, we can’t help dogs in Connecticut or New York.”

Even with the potential challenges of social networking, overall, its impact on animal rescue has been positive and substantial.  Locally, tens of thousands of animals have been served, from those who’ve found perfectly matched forever families, to those who received vital vet medical care thanks to funds raised. 

Considering the newness of social media (that ubiquitous Like button’s only been around three years!), the future of animal welfare, with the addition of social media, has become much brighter. 

Have you adopted, fostered or volunteered as a result of seeing a post on Facebook or other social media? We’d love to share your story and photos.  Join the conversation with Spot’s community, which includes the rescues and shelters featured here, and so many more, plus pet lovers around the globe.  Find Spot on Facebook (Spot Magazine and Spot to the Rescue), Twitter or at SpotMagazine.net.