Meeting the foster carer shortage head on
Local authorities have the power to raise their game when it comes to recruiting foster carers – starting with better comms.
Fostering Recruitment Hub: our supportive community for council teams
Hundreds of fostering professionals in council recruitment and communications teams meet regularly for informative – and free – webinars. Issues covered range from creating the optimal landing page for maximum enquiries to streamlining assessments.
There is currently a major crisis within fostering. Put simply, there aren’t enough foster carers to meet the needs of the growing number of children and young people coming into care.
COVID-19 exacerbated an already precarious situation, and the forecasts indicate that a significant number of new foster carers need to be recruited to meet projected demand over the next few years.
Many people are oblivious to the foster carer ‘marketplace’, in which councils – and council-owned services like children’s trusts and not-for-profit organisations – compete to recruit new carers with Independent Fostering Agencies (IFAs). IFAs recruit, train and assess foster carers just as councils do. This allows IFAs to propose carers for children when councils do not have any of their own foster carers available.
The majority of IFAs are businesses, and there is a lot of concern about the high-profit margins many of them make. In some cases, 20% of what IFAs charge a council for placing a child with their carer is profit. Through these arrangements, hundreds of millions of pounds are lost from children’s services budgets each year.
How councils can take back control of fostering
However, all is not lost! Councils have the potential to redress this balance. There are many advantages to fostering for local authorities instead of an IFA, but you need to communicate this better.
The main reason councils have ground to make up is that fostering is one of the few services that faces such strong commercial competition. Fostering services need to be marketed and sold to potential foster carers, whereas many councils are still simply just providing information about fostering.
IFAs have strong branding, simple and straightforward messaging, and a high-quality online presence. Sadly, a lot of councils consistently fall short in one or more of these areas. There is potential for them to do far better. A few tweaks are often all that is required to improve your position and place more children with your own carers.
Here are a few pointers:
Content needs to be engaging, persuasive and sell the service/benefits of fostering, colourful, reflect the diversity of an area, and make it easy for potential carers to contact the service. IFA websites do all of this very well.
Effective search and remarketing
Every day, hundreds of potential carers are researching fostering online. Google Search ads play an increasing role in driving traffic to fostering websites, particularly IFAs. Remarketing is key to nudging those who have visited a council website to enquire with them instead of IFAs.
Efficient prospector marketing
When it comes to cost per enquiry, or more crucially, cost per approved carer, many councils still spend/waste vast amounts on traditional and unproven methods such as bus stops, billboards, and newspaper advertising. What is guaranteed to work is well-executed digital campaigns.
Robust service levels
When someone is thinking of fostering, they must be able to speak to someone who can answer their questions and guide them through the process. Staff need to be easily accessible by phone and reply to messages and emails promptly.
A good customer journey
It is crucial the journey through assessment and training is positive. There are many hurdles to getting approved, and some councils have a lot of room for improvement in how this process is managed.
Put yourself in their shoes
All these links need to be joined together from the point of view of potential carers. You need to put yourself in their shoes at every step of the process to ensure that you don’t give them any reason to stop proceeding. IFA success is down to them looking outwards like this, whereas many councils lose out because they are internally focussed.
There has never been a better time for councils to look around them, make the most of collaborative approaches, determine what will work, and implement it. If you are serious about better outcomes for children and significantly reducing spending, you should take action now.
Our fostering expert, John Cooper, has wide-ranging experience in recruiting foster carers for local authorities, including Leicestershire County Council, Nottingham City Council, and Birmingham Children’s Trust.
Whilst working at Nottingham, from 2017 to 2021, the percentage of fostered children placed with council carers at the council increased from 39% to 60% – saving millions of pounds in placement fees.