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Rescue Resources

Adoption Fees

No doubt about it, rescue has always been an expensive project. Vet bills, dog food, advertising, gas, supplies, telephone bills, equipment -- I don't know of a single rescue service that doesn't have trouble making ends meet. For many of us, the ends aren't even close together! 

Raising enough money to provide basic pre-adoption care is an active, time-consuming job. Even a healthy incoming foster dog requires an investment of several hundred dollars to provide it with a vet exam, vaccinations, heartworm testing and spay or neuter. Costs associated with dogs that are sick, injured or have serious conditions can run into thousands. 

Although nearly every rescue struggles financially, I think the newest and smallest groups have it hardest. It takes time for a new group to establish itself and gain the credibility necessary to develop a donor base and acquire discounted services. Many small rescues are one and two person operations, working on their own without the support of a larger group or breed club. Squeezing their rescue work in between their jobs and families, they don't have time to put in the huge amount of work fundraising requires. 

Oddly enough, these same groups often sell themselves short on their single most reliable source of income: adoption fees. Many of them don't charge enough and some charge nothing at all. When asked why, I'm usually told "I'm not -selling- dogs, I'm just trying to find them loving homes". They worry that it's not right to charge for a labor of love. Some think that a fee will scare adopters away. Others feel uncomfortable asking anyone for anything, including help and donations. 

Well, get over it! An adoption fee is an established, accepted, responsible procedure in today's world and is actually -expected- by most adopters. You can and should charge a reasonable fee to help offset the costs of your rescue program. 

What is a "reasonable" fee? That appears to vary among groups and breeds. While I don't think that there's a flat amount across the board that will apply appropriately to everyone, I have a basic formula that can be used to determine what's reasonable for your breed and your area. 

To apply the formula effectively, I think you must first understand why people adopt rescued dogs. Some want to do a good deed and save a life but a great many are looking to save money. They can't afford (or don't want to pay) the going rate for a well bred puppy from a reputable breeder. They're looking for a good value. The adoption fee must appeal to their sense of good value as well as their other motivations. 

A rescued dog *is* a good value, absolutely. Temperament tested, healthy and fully vetted, spayed or neutered, usually housebroken, sometimes even microchipped or tattooed, the investment made by the rescuer can save an adopter hundreds of dollars and precious hours of time. That investment is worth something to an adopter, but not as much as you might think. It's an unfortunate fact of human nature that "new" appears better to people than "used". Setting fees based on what you've spent to save the dog rarely works because people just aren't going to give you everything you've put into a "used" dog if they can get a shiny new puppy for the same price elsewhere.

To see how your rescued dogs might fit into an adopter's perception of "good value", you need to compare them with inexpensive dogs available from other sources: animal shelters, "free to good home" ads, backyard breeders, puppymills, petstores. And I think we need to be realistic about it -- whether we consider ourselves to be "selling" dogs or not, we are competing with them for homes. No matter how much educating we do, people are still drawn to the more dubious sources on that list and probably always will be. The temptation to get a cheap puppy in a hurry is tough to overcome. 

Frankly, I don't think rescue can compete with free or dirt cheap puppies so I don't even try. Neither can we compete with reputable breeders; their buyers are looking for something specific, they're willing to wait for it and will pay what it takes to get it. What I'm after are the people in the middle -- those willing to spend a moderate price on a puppy but can be persuaded to consider a rescue when they're shown that it's a much better deal. Essentially then, I believe rescue competes most with backyard breeders and puppymills and that's what we should be considering when setting our fees.

Here's how my formula works: take the average price in your area for backyard-bred puppies of your breed -- the average price of a Chow Chow puppy (my breed) in my midwestern region is $250, no health guarantees or much in the way of pre-purchase vet care included -- and cut it in half. That's my adoption fee, $125, an exceptionally good value when compared to a questionably bred puppy that will cost that much in its first year of shots alone. 

You have some flexibility with this, of course. If your breed is hard to come by or is traditionally expensive, a higher adoption fee will not seem unreasonable to people. In a few breeds, demand for rescued dogs actually exceeds the supply (lucky them!) and higher fees won't discourage adopters. Most rescues also charge higher rates for puppies since there are never enough to go around, helping to offset lower ones for seniors or special needs dogs. 

However you set your fees, the key is to find a reasonable middle ground between recovering some of your expenses and helping the public see your rescued dogs as a bargain they shouldn't pass up. Don't sell yourself short.


by Vicki DeGruy, originally published in the NAIA NEWS Rescue Column  2002


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