Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.
Much of the success of a community cat program (CCP) can be attributed to the relationship between CCP staff and volunteers and the community the program serves. By developing and fostering this critical relationship, CCP staff and volunteers build support for the program from the ground up. At the end of the day, of course, elected officials and other key players involved in shaping shelter policy and programming (e.g., shelter directors) must answer to the public.
Effective community outreach and engagement is therefore essential if a CCP is to garner the kind of public support necessary not only to get the program off the ground, but also to ensure its sustainability. Think of this as grassroots marketing. Marketing — the promotion of a product or service directly to an intended audience — is often done “top-down,” through advertising, for example. (See “Marketing and Public Relations” for additional information.) Community outreach, by contrast, is a “bottom-up” approach; the people with the message deliver it in person, generally by way of community-based outlets (e.g., at the county fair, via door hangers and block-walking).
As with any marketing endeavor, the idea is to get the word out — to let people know about the CCP and its numerous benefits to the community. If done well, the people you reach will then spread the word, effectively extending the reach of your messaging. Clear, concise messaging can be very effective not only at building support for a program (through policy decisions from elected officials, donations and grant funding, volunteer recruitment, etc.), but also for addressing opposition to it. And it’s better to be proactive — owning the conversation rather than finding yourself needing to defend the program.
Don’t forget: The CCP model is a radical departure from the traditional trap-and-kill approach to managing community cats. For some, it’s the answer they’ve been waiting for; others will be more skeptical, or even opposed to the program. Community outreach and engagement is especially important for reaching this second group (some of whom will likely become the program’s most enthusiastic ambassadors, once they see its benefits firsthand).
Outreach materials and opportunities
Many of the same materials developed for a CCP’s marketing efforts can be used for community outreach and engagement. This is especially true of printed collateral and promotional items, such as brochures, flyers, postcards, door hangers, posters and refrigerator magnets. The greatest difference is in how the materials are delivered. Remember, community outreach and engagement is grassroots marketing. Typical activities include:
- Block-walking (distributing door hangers and talking to residents)
- Distributing materials at local fairs and festivals, or outside local businesses
- Participating in various community meetings (for public housing agencies, police “block watches,” homeowners’ associations, etc.)
- Hosting information sessions, TNR workshops or winter shelter-building events
- Conducting cat food drives
The premise underlying community outreach and engagement is that significant social change is very much a group effort. Teaming up with individuals and organizations — especially those who are established and trusted in the community — can be a very effective way of extending a CCP’s reach. Among the many possible partners, consider these:
- TNR groups
- Rescue groups (including dog rescue groups)
- Veterinary clinics and schools
- Community leaders and block captains
- Community organizations (e.g., Rotary Club)
- Public health agencies
- Churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of
- Elected officials (who often host events)
- Mobile home community administrations
- Apartment complex administrations
- Homeowners’ associations
- Chambers of commerce
Tools and other resources
There’s more to community outreach and engagement than handing out brochures and business cards. Residents look to CCP staff and volunteers for solutions to their problems, from the loan of traps and help with transporting cats to and from a clinic, to the loan (and installation) of humane deterrents. These are valuable opportunities! Resources that a CCP should be able to provide residents (some examples of which are included in the Appendix) include:
- Brochures, flyers and other printed materials
- Door hangers (translated into other languages, as appropriate)
- Boilerplate presentation for use at community meetings
- Humane deterrents
- Caregiver-to-caregiver connections
- Guide to caregiver best practices (see “Colony Management and Caregiver Resources” for suggestions)
- Vouchers or coupons for spay/neuter surgery
- Information regarding pet-related resources (pet food pantry, dog training, etc.)
Community outreach and engagement requires professionalism, patience and empathy, so choose the right staff and volunteers for the job. Again, this is relationship-building and customer service. When doing outreach, listen more than you speak and, whenever possible, be sure to offer residents something — even if it’s nothing more than a follow-up phone call or visit. Often, this alone will exceed their expectations and help build trust. (See “How to Address Various Complaints” for additional information about this topic.)
Keep in mind that, as with any relationship, an up-front investment is simply part of the process. And for a CCP, the return on that investment can be significant: more lives saved.
- “Solutions to Cat-Related Issues”
- Best Friends’ community cats page
- “FAQs About Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR)”
- Conflict Resolution for the Animal Welfare Field
- Best Friends’ humane deterrents video: bestfriends.org/deter
 While it can be invaluable for caregivers to connect with one another (sharing best practices, filling in for absences, etc.), it’s important that information about caregivers and colonies be shared judiciously, as doing so carelessly can expose people and cats to unnecessary risks.
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