Adopting a pet in need of a good home is one of the most rewarding things in life. One of the most exciting parts of the process is visiting your local shelter, meeting all the available animals and then choosing your soon-to-be pet, the one you feel that instant connection with.
Unfortunately, this important meet-and-greet element was scuppered early in 2020 by the Coronavirus. Animal rescues had to shut their doors to visitors, volunteers and in many cases most staff. Once the immediate need of feeding and caring for the animals had been dealt with by a skeleton staff and local fosterers offering space, the next challenge was how to find animals loving homes if people couldn’t come in and meet their potential pet first.
Fortunately for UK-wide charity Cats Protection, it had already embarked on a digital transformation project in late 2019, so the pandemic didn’t require starting from scratch to shift the adoption process from in-person to online. Helen Waterman, IT Project & Documentation Officer at Cats Protection, explains:
We'd slowly got started with Microsoft Teams, connecting up all our centers, branches and retail spaces. When the pandemic hit it obviously made us speed that up but we had to pause in lockdown to rethink how we were going to continue with what used to be face-to-face processes. People would primarily go to adoption centers or to the branches, they want to see the cats, it’s the USP of cute and fluffy. We had to stop and think about how we could still re-home without putting our staff and volunteers at risk. Once we’d stopped and thought and processed that, we came back with our hands-free homing process, which is a little like online dating.
Cats Protection already posted basic details of available cats online, so people could look through them and register an interest. Rather than the prospective adopter then coming in for a meeting, the hands-free homing process switched this to a few phone conversations and video meetings, via WhatsApp or Teams. The adoption center would also take a video of the cat/s and send it to the prospective adopters. Once a match was found, Cats Protection would arrange safe delivery. Waterman adds:
This was delivering cat in box on doorsteps, then standing two metres back and letting the owner pick their cat up.
While this was all a fairly basic transition to manage, Cats Protection still had to work out a way of dealing with all the paperwork and forms that have to be signed for adoptions, for insurance, for the medical summaries – for that, the charity turned to Adobe Sign to go paperless.
We already had what we call our Cat-a-log online database, which is the start of all the cat matching. When cats come in, we upload the details the vets put in, we put pictures up. So when you log on to cats.org.uk, it's all there for you to find, with videos mainly done on our staff phones. Getting Adobe Sign in place was very straightforward. I started looking at it back in April and we had it in within a couple of weeks. To set it up and configure it, was just read the articles that Adobe wrote for configuring, a few questions to our partners and a support teams that just meant a few changes to the settings, and it's all done.
The switch to digital rather than paper signatures has proved efficient in multiple ways. Cats Protection has benefited from a 98% reduction in the time taken to adopt a cat, and has saved on admin costs too, she adds:
It has saved all our postage costs, and a lot of paper and print costs. We don't post anything anymore, so it doesn't take two weeks for the paperwork to be complete. We can send the paperwork out as soon as it's back, say two hours later or even less, we can then call the adopter and arrange delivery of their cat. We're not waiting for Royal Mail to send it, and for people to forget to sign it for a week and send it back. It's also meaning we can get the cats to their new homes quicker and therefore we get those that are in need in with us quicker.
And despite negative media reports of people wanting to hand back their pets after rushing to buy or adopt one at the start of lockdown, Cats Protection has only seen a minor difference between the return rate than usual. This is down to a better matching process in the first instance, according to Waterman:
Because we don't get to have the face to face with people, staff are spending more quality time on the phone conversations to match the right cat to the right person in the first place. Because we haven't met the owners, we do three follow-up sessions over two to three months, so there's follow-up calls from the adoption centers to the new owners. And because we've matched them better in the first place, people are finding that they really want the cats. They're not wanting to give them back up when they want to go on holiday or anything like that. It's like, ‘You're making my life stress-free, we're keeping our cute and fluffies’.
For the staff switching over to the new e-signature system, it was a challenge at the beginning. The charity ran a pilot with four of its adoption centers in May and June to make sure it got the process, configuration and training and support materials as good as they could be. Waterman focused on getting staff buy-in at the beginning by attending their internal meetings and making sure the tech team knew what would be the adoption center challenges. One of the issues that arose was a seamless handover between staff on different shifts, she recalls:
We contacted Adobe to make sure we could set up groups within Adobe Sign so that they could share the paperwork between them when they weren't on shift. Otherwise that would have been quite an issue. You could send the paperwork out, but then you've got to wait for the person to sign it, to come back and then you'd have to wait for the person in the center to come back on shift. So the group functionality within Adobe Sign was key.
Hands-free homing was rolled out across Cats Protection’s 37 adoption centers in August and September. The organization plans to extend this to its approximately 230 branches this year, staffed mainly by volunteers, along with its 120 shops.
Even when the UK starts lifting restrictions once (if) it finally gets a handle on the pandemic, Waterman says the hands-free homing process is here to stay:
That’s not to say we won't have face-to-face meetings when we ever get out of this, because one of our larger fundraisers with the adoption centers and branches are the open days where people can come and meet the cats. But this process is in place, it’s seamless and it's highly unlikely to go away.
Waterman plans to extend Adobe Sign beyond the adoption process, for acceptance forms for taking cats in as well as them going out, and working with vet teams and practices, so they can update and sign off medical forms:
We've also got it currently in with our procurement and legal teams, for all the contracts with our suppliers and any legal documentation. One of my other big departments to look at this year is our income generation department, for fundraising events. People who are joining events, getting their documentation to say they're signing up for running, climbing or whatever for the cats. Anywhere we can go paperless and we don't have to rely on the Royal Mail - much as we loved them to bits in the pandemic for delivering us everything – is a benefit.
Despite the swift introduction of hands-free homing, the number of cats re-homed through Cats Protection last year is likely to be down once the final numbers are in. In 2019, the charity re-homed over 40,000 cats in total, 18,000 of which were via its adoption centers; between January and October 2020 (full-year stats aren’t available yet), it had re-homed over 9,000 cats from its adoption centers.
However, 5,000 of those adoptions were through the new hands-free homing scheme, highlighting how vital it was to have that up and running to replace in-person visits so thousands of cats could still go to new and loving homes.
Through all the challenges of 2020, there’s not one particular re-homing story that stands out for Waterman. Instead, she explains:
It’s just the benefit of knowing that people who are mentally stressed with this pandemic have managed to get a new family friend to help them through. I'm lucky enough I've got three of my own that have helped us working from home through this.
As the COVID crisis carries over into 2021, charities across all sectors will continue to face falling revenues as money-spinning events get cancelled and donors struggling with their own health, home-schooling and employment pressures find themselves unable to give as much.
The hands-free homing model is a simple and clever way of ensuring cats in need continue to be re-homed, freeing Cats Protection from any additional financial burden of keeping animals in adoption centers or foster for longer than necessary. And it’s a model that could be easily emulated by other animal charities whose main remit is to re-home.
And as a fellow owner of (servant to) three rescue cats, I can certainly vouch for the healing power of a furry friend during these troubled times.