Dogs Trust’s Freedom Project: How fostering a dog could help save a life

[Trigger warning: domestic violence]

In March 2008, I rocked up to a large, busy office in Islington for an interview with a dog charity. I’m a self-confessed cat person, but I really wanted to work for a non-profit and the role had loads of potential. I have no notion of how long it takes to get anywhere, plus a paranoid neurosis about being late, so I turned up about 45 minutes early. (This is not a recommended interview technique, and I should have holed up in Starbucks, but that’s by the by). I decided that there’s never such a thing as too much research, so I picked up an annual review from a heap on the table in reception.

That’s where I learned about the Freedom Project.

Dogs Trust, where I went on to spend four and half incredibly happy years, has always been clear on its core activity: rehoming dogs. But it has a number of other projects, and two outreach activities in particular, that reach much further than most people expect of an animal charity. The charity’s single-minded devotion to making life better for dogs extends, quite rightly, to making it better for owners, too.

The Freedom Project is a fostering service with a very specific goal. It takes dogs from families fleeing violence at home and finds them temporary homes (usually for 3-9 months); meanwhile, the family in question are helped by other services such as Refuge to escape to a safe space. Once they’re settled, their pets come home to them. Veterinary and food costs are covered by Dogs Trust – the foster carer just has to provide a little bit of love, security and day-to-day care. Dogs Trust and Refuge, plus a number of other groups from the RSPCA to the NSPCC, are members of the Links Group, which works to understand the relationships between the abuse of vulnerable adults, children and animals in order to inform the work of the many organisations working to prevent this and assist survivors.

The evidence is growing that abuse of animals and abuse of people are closely interlinked. It’s not immediately obvious to most people – me included – that someone might be partially prevented from escaping a violent home through fear of what will happen to a pet. Quite often, pets are an enormous source of solace, and the thought of them being left at the mercy of a violent individual is understandably terrifying. There can be substantial guilt involved, and projects like this can help break down one of the many – complex and varied – barriers holding someone in a cycle of violence and terror.

The project is not UK-wide, though there are other fostering services you can find out more about. Due to the resources available it operates in Greater London, Hertfordshire and Yorkshire at present (with assistance from Cats Protection in London who organise cat fostering). This week, Dogs Trust is committing its social media presence to drawing attention to the scheme and to raising funds. Here’s what you can do:

Anyone who needs further advice on these issues can also call the National Domestic Violence Helpline (24 hours a day) on 0808 2000 247.

Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. While we aim for that essential result which cannot come fast enough, this is just one way of supporting women and children. If you prefer not to give to animal charities, then please note that the annual Refuge John Lewis Christmas List is now live.

Out with the old…*

So, things are changing here at Goldstein Mountain. It’s really hard to believe, but in two weeks I will be hanging up my bright yellow logo for good, and heading off to join the team at TMW as a community manager.

I don’t really want to focus on what I will be doing yet as I haven’t started it and there’s a lot to take in and I will need time to adjust. But a brief look back at a little less than five years at Dogs Trust seems appropriate. Indeed, I could hardly stop myself.

Dogs Trust has been really key to me working out where I want to go. I arrived as a bewildered tech blogger, and am leaving as an experienced digital marketer who’s been allowed to experiment, learn and develop on the job, knowing for sure that I want to specialise more in social and communities. The amazing freedom and respect that the digital team has always been granted here has, I think, been the envy of various discussions held at NFP Tweetup and similar events. I’ve been proud to help contribute in my small way to the reputation for openness and forward thinking that Dogs Trust carries in the digital world.

I’ve been very privileged to work with two excellent digital bods, who will be friends for life. And though I needed to branch out and challenge myself and learn more, it is wonderful to leave with utter fondness and on a totally positive note.

I really think whoever nabs the currently available role in the digital team will be a very lucky person. It is not exactly my job as it is / was – a slightly restructure means it’ll be a bit more admin, and a bit less strategy – but for a junior marketer looking to take the next step, it’ll be a golden opportunity to make that leap in a supportive and fun environment.

A few fabulous memories I’ll be taking with me:

Rehoming our first dog through Twitter

– Finally hearing that Bentley, a Canine Care Card dog whose first owner passed away and who was then returned to us due to his second owner’s illness, had settled into a loving home for good – thanks to a Facebook post.

– Speaking in front of a huge crowd of dedicated animal welfare professionals at ICAWC in Stresa, Italy, after only a few months in the job.

– Attending two Dogs Trust Honours award ceremonies.

Although I only have a couple of weeks left, I’m still leaping on every opportunity to be 100% involved until the last possible moment. I was chuffed that my first go at Vine for the charity got quite a bit of positive attention – feels like as good a parting shot as any! (And I just happened to brainstorm a load of other ideas and email them to people because I’m that kind of colleague.)

At the risk of sounding like Joey Tribbiani and his giving and receiving, the next fourteen days are going to be a lot about endings and beginnings. With all the strangeness, sadness, delight, excitement and confusion that come with them.

I can’t wait.

*I was going to call this “Winds of change…” but then I thought of The Scorpions and that song that was EVERYWHERE for one apparently endless Summer and whose opening lines (allegedly “I follow the Moskva down to Gorky Park”) actually sounded for all the world like “I follow demosquat, and down to Bonkly Ponk”. So… yeah.

The Artist: Yes, it’s that good

Last week, Dogs Trust was chosen as the recipient charity for a special screening of The Artist, in Leicester Square. Uggie the dog, the film’s main canine actor, came along to be charming in front of the cameras (something he found effortless) and hang out with Freddie, our CEO Clarissa’s ‘granddog’.

When you have a toddler it is, in any case, always a treat to get to go to the cinema, but it also means you can feel you need to justify the night out by seeing something good. (This is silly of course; spending the night out is justified by the fact that you have a toddler.)

In any case, I found The Artist to be exactly as good as the gushing suggests. It’s better if you know less, rather than more, going in, but the general premise (a silent movie about silent movies) is pretty widely known. It’s wonderfully deft; a clever idea made lovingly with an excellent cast and beautiful attention to detail. Oh, and the dog is in it a lot more than you expect.

If I had to drag out a criticism… oh, you know what? No. Of course there are flaws but since the successes are far more a) numerous and b) memorable, why ruin it by dwelling on them? I’m not reviewing this for a national, I’m chatting with my friends about it.

If you really want to know, ask.

But better still, go and see it.

Fundraising on Facebook, the ad hoc way

This week, we broke our own rules. We asked for money on a social network, and we did it without a particular goal in mind, because it seemed like a good idea.

The full story is on the Dogs Trust blog, but essentially it came down to trying to give our Facebook supporters a common goal, and a reason to engage with the page beyond getting answers to their questions and reading the odd blog post. Obviously, long term we have to offer more than that, and we plan to, but being just after Christmas – January is our busiest time of year – it seemed serendipity was on our side.

There are a few things I would do differently in hindsight (we had plans for a special Facebook thank you certificate that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons, which I think is a shame; wondering if there’s still time to do it), but for an unplanned ask, it really showed how very generous people can be if they feel they’re being appreciated.

“It’s more personal than an standing order from your bank”, commented on supporter, and she’s right. It is. Several people wanted us to remind them to give every month! But we are aware that just under 1% of the page ‘fans’ took part – that’s 99% who want to be engaged differently. Another suggested doing this every January, in the spirit of our slogan, “a dog is for life, not just for Christmas”. I thought that was a lovely idea.

I found myself very personally touched by each and every person who took part, and by the way they egged each other on and kept the message going. In the end, it was not about the total or the ask, but about watching the force of the community in action; something that does even the most jaded community manager’s heart good.

People will tell you how they would like to be approached, be it for fundraising, volunteering or just to spread the message. Sometimes you’ll be able to use their ideas and sometimes you won’t; either way it’s nice to have them, and easy to show appreciation for the time they’ve taken to share. The beauty of the social web – and this is no way unique to the tools we happened to use this time, Facebook and PayPal – is that it allows for quick assessment of ideas and, if they work, a quick turnaround. It took ten minutes from my musing on the community to Jacqui’s idea to the first fundraising message. If it had failed, it would have cost us nothing but an hour of our time, and given us untold valuable information about how our community likes to be spoken with (not to. Never to).

We’re not suddenly going to become fundraisers. We are still, primarily, a community-building digital marketing team. But digital is at its best when it can integrate itself across different areas, and it doesn’t hurt to have another metric by which to assess your objectives.

Our community placed their trust in us, and we have to make sure we keep earning it.

Dogs Trust Waggy Walks launched with help of Prettier Pixels

Waggy WalksJust over a month ago, a web designer called Alex sent us a message through his @prettierpixels company account on Twitter, offering to volunteer some time and help us build a WordPress blog. Somehow, five or six weeks later, we have a beautiful new website, Waggy Walks, promoting a big sponsored dog walk for Dogs Trust. I’ll be there, and am negotiating to have my husband on a collar and lead, so do go and visit the site to find out more / sign up to take part…

WaggyWalks was built on MicroSimple in the end – a new CMS being developed by Jamie Knight which is ridiculously easy to edit. This was helpful as there would be multiple non-web savvy users needing to add updates and the more straightforward the better.

Alex spent quite a few hours reconstructing the design from flyers another designer had produced, putting the site together, redirecting URLs, sorting out registration forms, setting up and testing emails, making last-minute changes to the original brief and getting it all working beautifully for us. He also found time to advise and help Jacqui and me as we re-built the website for the International Companion Animal Welfare Conference (ICAWC).

We’re so grateful for Alex’s hard work and expertise, and would recommend Prettier Pixels for any design and development work (particularly using WordPress) that you need. He’s incredibly helpful and fitted all this into the day job. Although he volunteered his help this time, his rates are really reasonable considering the amount of effort and perfectionism he puts in.

Many thanks must go to Alex and also to Jamie for the use of MicroSimple. Now we’re just looking forward to seeing more and more people sign up for the Waggy Walks event. You don’t need to have a dog (if you check out my blog header you’ll notice I don’t!) and if you can’t come to any of the 10 nationwide events you can still take part by sponsoring the Mascot Dog, whose name, chosen by our online communities, will be announced shortly.

A Year @ Dogs Trust: What I’ve Learned

Yesterday marked my first anniversary at Dogs Trust. Among the lovely, supportive comments about this that I received was one that really made me proud, from Howard Lake of UK Fundraising writing on the Dogs Trust Facebook page:

In that case, congratulations on all you’ve achieved in that time. I have to say I’d assumed you’d been there for much longer, given what you’ve done for the charity.

I practically did a Ribenaberry jump when I read that. It’s totally testament to the welcoming, supportive, creative atmosphere here. We do have an exceptionally open-minded Marketing Director who will sell the idea of social media to the rooftops if you give him good reason to, and the Digital Marketing Manager practically created the web department on her own some time ago so keen was she to go into this area. We’re a passionate bunch, and I like to think that seeming like I’ve been around forever is a side effect of that.

Anyway, enough about what I’ve done, what I’m more interested in is what I’ve learned about social media since I joined the team. Some of it was not new to me, but allowed me to form stronger opinions about what social media are and aren’t, and strip the jargon away to get to the communications heart of it all.

I could go on about this until the virtual cows have given up and tipped themselves, but I’ve picked my top three social media soapbox subjects.

1. Social media are the perfect platform for personalised customer service

I’m not just talking about the personalised email, but about the comments, responses, conversations and Q&As that take place on social sites all the time. I’ve often said I’m better at the Q&A than the presentation, despite being a passionate talker, because I’m at my best in a situation where real two-way communication is taking place. The presentation is the website: glossy, informative, nice looking, easy to understand and approachable. The Q&A is the meat on the bones, the questions, the criticisms, the real people behind the organisational front. That is what using social platforms is all about. If as a business or charity you don’t get that, you should stay away. The penalty is not failure to be noticed, but being noticed doing the wrong thing.

2. Naming names is powerful

Every time I’ve replied to someone, I’ve tried to use their name: “Hi Jane” “Hey John” “Thanks Chris”. The vast majority of the time I’ve done this, people have said “wow, you used my name.” That’s them up there – it’s them the ‘voice’ of the organisation is talking to. It’s so vitally important to respect someone’s offline reality. They have names, families, pets, jobs, interests – lives. Mentioning their name is a small, easy and never-forgotten way of showing that.

3. Moderation needs a balance between disclosure and distance

Being a community moderator is a bit like being a teacher (and here I speak from experience). You want to be friendly, approachable, informal and, hell, even liked. No harm with wanting people to think well of you. But you also need to be the respected voice of the website gods, who can enforce rules. When you get the balance right – and everyone slips at times – you need only deliver a quick reminder to get people into line. Then again, you need to be confident in pulling out the big guns quickly and efficiently if you genuinely need to, and this can mean a no explanation approach. Allow me to explain before you think I’m breaking Social 101 commandments.

Suppose you ban someone. No-one else on the site has the right to know why  – that’s between you and the banned person – and you shouldn’t have to justify yourself all the time. This is not the same as saying you’re not accountable to your community – you are, without them the site fails – or that their feedback should not be seriously considered. But if you’ve got good, transparent, sensible and reasonable rules, you shouldn’t have to justify them again every time. Just direct people to the right place.

That’s not even slightly a summary of 12 months in a handful of paragraphs, but this is what’s at the forefront of my mind going into year two. Well, that and Disney World.

It’s a small world, after all

I suspect I might not even be the 14,000th blogger to use that as a post title, but it was appropriate, so I ain’t going to sweat it.

I’m not sure whether last night proves that charity is a small world, that online meedja is a teeny cluster or that both together make it completely certain that you’ll know someone who knows someone. Then again, maybe it’s just coincidence, but it felt quite weird.

After Helen Aspell of the Equalities & Human Rights Commission (which has said some very sensible things about reducing maternity leave for women and increasing paternity leave this week) told me she knew my sister – off the back of both being in that Female Social Media Guru thang – that provoked a small giggle.

Turns out she is in fact involved in all aspects of my life.*

When I was at Shiny Media, I made lots of video reviews, including their most viewed ever. I made them mostly with a cameraman and editor called Ray O’Neill, who’s a very sweet bloke. Last night he pootled along to join a group of my friends and me (no, it’s not and I; comment if you’d like to know why) at La Perla in Charlotte Street where it transpires that he too knows Helen. And he’d been doing work for eConsultancy one of the bloggers for whom, as you know because you’ve been glued to the My Online Life page, has interviewed me about Dogs Trust on Twitter.

Teeny planet indeed.

On another note, I made blueberry muffins and Snaffle destroyed most of them. He did try to eat them which made me worry they tasted of cat food, but eating the remainder that he didn’t maul put paid to that concern.

What? Blueberries are good for you.

  • Yes, I exaggerate. Of course; have you not come to expect it?