When The Checks Create Imbalances
The ASPCA’s B.J. Rogers reflects on the nature of open adoptions—and what can happen when we presume the outcome is “yes.”
A while back I was speaking to a gathering of donors, board members and staff of a humane society that was in the last stage of preparing to implement a more open adoption process. They’d asked me to come and speak about the role of conversation-based adoptions in saving more lives.
When an attendee asked about the primary difference between “traditional” adoption practices and more conversation-based practices, I heard myself say something I knew I believed, but hadn’t quite articulated. Namely that, “In the end, the primary and critical difference is that one process (traditional application-based) is transactional, while the other (conversation-based) is relational.” A far from earth-shattering comment, I still found myself thinking about that idea quite a bit in the days that followed.
For a long time, many in our field have treated the process of adopting an animal as highly transactional; which is to say, we’ve introduced all sorts of formal “checks” (landlord, vet, every member of the family, etc.) and we’ve relied on tools that are transactional by nature (applications, contracts, packets bursting with information, long “consults,” etc.). What’s a touch ironic is how counter that approach seems to the often-charged reaction many staff still have when someone else suggests that the animals in our shelters are essentially our “product,” and that our role as adoption counselors or shelter staff is to “make the sale”—in other words, complete a transaction. Many shelter staff bristle at that notion; yet so many of us still rely on the tools of business when it comes to how we treat those who visit our shelters.
The beauty of the conversation-based approach is that all of the trappings of a transaction fall away, and the necessity of relationship becomes essential. Open adoptions rely on an approach rooted in human-to-human interaction (as opposed to human-to-paper or human-to-policy). Applications and contracts are replaced by conversations. “Checks” are replaced by dialogue. A lot of our talking/consulting is replaced by listening. And policies are shaped by an understanding that people on both sides of the counter (though please, get out from behind the counter!) need to feel safe and respected in order to engage in an honest process toward making a good match. It doesn’t mean we don’t have policies, or that we never say no. It just means that we start from a different place—namely, a commitment to getting to “yes.”
Transactions are often black and white—with little room for interpretation or nuance. They’re dictated by rules and often regulated to the nth degree. Think of a major purchase. There's a process, one that can even be antagonistic at moments, by which both parties are governed (and often constrained). Transactions routinely fall through, fall apart or end in “no.” Relational interactions on the other hand allow breathing room for the quirks and complexities that we humans bring to the equation. They don’t always go “right” or even well, but they almost always feel different. Proof? Have you ever become a repeat customer simply because you like the way you’ve been treated (even if, say, the product is a little more expensive)? I’d be willing to bet you have—and that you go back because of the relationship—because it feels good to shop there. It’s not the result of the transaction itself (i.e. the purchase)—it’s the connection with the people that instigates you to go out of your way, even though other options might be around the corner.
When we start with the idea that our interaction with a potential adopter is best served as a relationship, we make room for possibility. When we attempt to suspend our limiting value judgments, we’re more inclined to presume that the outcome will be yes. Our primary goal then, is shared—to make a good match. Perhaps just as important, we’ve also positioned ourselves to nurture and establish a lasting relationship with the adopter—someone who will serve as an ambassador, perhaps a donor, a future volunteer or, if we’re really lucky, a repeat adopter!
B.J. Rogers, CAWA, ASPCA Vice President, ProLearning, is a former shelter chief executive whose experiences working in politics, higher education, LGBTQ youth advocacy and animal welfare have convinced him that people are the solution, not the problem.