Volunteer Engagement

Cat colony caregiver and felines who are part of a TNR program for cats

Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.


As with animal welfare in general, community cat programs (CCPs) usually rely heavily on volunteers to achieve their goals. There are many opportunities for volunteers to contribute, whether it’s distributing door hangers in target neighborhoods, transporting cats to and from clinic appointments, or actually trapping cats.

A well-run volunteer program can dramatically increase a CCP’s effectiveness, and provide volunteers with a real sense of satisfaction. And a dedicated team of volunteers can also become the pool from which future CCP staff members are recruited. This is especially true of lead volunteers, one or two individuals who take on some of the work typically done by staff, as well as manage the team of volunteers. (See “Staffing Considerations” for additional information about this topic.)

The following guidelines are intended to help organizations recruit and retain talented CCP volunteers, and to provide their volunteers with a meaningful experience.

Preparation and recruiting

It’s easy to think of volunteers as supplemental to a CCP’s staff. And this is accurate in the sense that staff are employees, so the organization has somewhat different expectations of them. On the other hand, volunteers are responsible for much of the work associated with a CCP’s operation, and are therefore essential to its success. In this sense, then, volunteers aren’t so different from CCP staff.

Typical CCP volunteer positions

Again, there are many opportunities for volunteers to contribute to a CCP. Typical volunteer positions include the following:


Function: These volunteers work closely with CCP staff to trap cats in target areas. They often work with veterinary clinics, too, transporting cats to and from clinic appointments.

Core responsibilities: Trapping community cats. Often, the same volunteers who trap the cats will transport them to and from clinic appointments, house them before and after surgery, and, finally, return the cats to their trapping location(s).

Return-to-field transporter

Function: These volunteers work closely with CCP staff (or appropriate shelter staff) to pick up community cats from the shelter and return them to their trapping location.

Core responsibilities: Transport community cats as necessary, and identify additional community cats in the vicinity of the return site (documenting and sharing information with CCP staff).

Community educator and mediator

Function: These volunteers garner support for, and address opposition to, the CCP at a community, neighborhood and resident level.

Core responsibilities: Inform residents about the CCP, trap-neuter-return (TNR), local laws relevant to community cats and the use of humane deterrents. Also, resolve cat-related complaints among neighbors, whether on the phone, by email or in person.

Community cats ambassador and neighborhood canvasser

Function: These volunteers garner support for the CCP (and spay/neuter in general) at a community, neighborhood and resident level.

Core responsibilities: Distribute educational materials door-to-door, speak to residents about the importance of spaying or neutering community cats (and residents’ pets), provide referrals for low- and no-cost spay/neuter resources available for pet cats, and compile a detailed list of caregivers and complainants in the neighborhoods visited (to share with CCP staff).

Kitten and long-term foster parent

Function: These volunteers provide proper care for kittens and/or adult community cats until positive outcomes can be arranged.

Core responsibilities: Very young kittens need intensive basic care — bottle-feeding every few hours along with frequent socialization sessions. (See “Kitten Nurseries” for additional information about this topic.) Once the kittens are independent, the foster parent generally turns them over to the shelter for adoption (after they have been spayed or neutered). For adult community cats requiring long-term foster care before being returned to their trapping location (e.g., while an injury heals), the care generally involves basic feeding, cleaning and administering any prescribed medicines.

In addition, several “behind the scenes” jobs are generally done by volunteers, including:

  • Answering phones and returning calls
  • Doing data entry and filing paperwork
  • Cleaning (traps, transport vans, office space, etc.)

On the job

Again, volunteers are responsible for much of the work associated with a CCP’s operation, and therefore are essential to its success. As a result, managers may set expectations and evaluate performance in a manner similar to what’s done for CCP staff. There are, however, key differences between volunteers and staff that must be recognized on the job.

For example, volunteers are typically required to sign an agreement and release form, outlining their duties and the legal framework underlying their work with the CCP. An additional release may be required for volunteer work in a shelter. Volunteers are also generally required to identify themselves as such, by way of name tags or clothing. (Best Friends volunteers typically wear brightly colored T-shirts with “Volunteer” printed on them in large letters.)

Several examples of documents important for managing volunteers (volunteer release, safety protocols, etc.) are included in the appendix. (See “Staff and Volunteer Safety Protocols” for additional information about this topic.)

“Thoughtful and planned engagement of volunteers in a community cat program helps to achieve the goals that are set, and allows an organization to do more work towards achieving its mission. Meaningful volunteer engagement fosters a shared sense of ownership so that all are invested in the program and its result.”

—Pat Guerrero, national volunteer manager, Best Friends Animal Society

Retaining volunteers

Just as an organization strives to retain its most talented, most passionate staff, a CCP must strive to retain its most talented, most passionate volunteers. This means putting at least as much effort into training and retaining these remarkable individuals as is put into recruiting them.

Additional resources


  1. Example: Community cats volunteer sign in/out sheet
  2. Example: Agreement and general release for adult volunteers and non-employee interns
  3. Community cats: Volunteer safety protocols
  4. Community cats: Volunteer trapping safety protocols
  5. Community cats: Volunteer door hanger/neighborhood canvassing guidelines
  6. Community cats: Conflict management and resolution tips

The 28 chapters that make up the CCP Handbook fall into three sections, as follows:




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