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How to Start a Pet Rescue Organization

According to the ASPCA, around 6.5 million dogs, cats and other small pets enter the animal shelter system each year. The question should be asked: who is taking all these homeless animals in?


Do Something estimates that the majority of the work is being done by the approximately 13,500 rescue organizations nationwide - many of which are simply loosely organized networks of caring volunteers. Thankfully, about half of the animals that go through shelter intake each year are adopted or reunited with their former owners. But what happens to the others?


Sadly, as many as 1.5 million are euthanized, according to the ASPCA. Heart-breaking statistics such as this may cause you to think, "we can do better - we must do better." Perhaps you are even considering launching your own pet shelter or rescue organization as many others have before you!


Of course, starting a nonprofit is a huge undertaking. In the vast majority of cases it is a true labor of love. But your new charity will need more than just your heart to succeed. This seven step guide for how to start a pet rescue organization can help get you set up for success in your new endeavor.


  1. Do Your Research!

A non-profit organization is still a business, it’s just structured differently. This is why nonprofit organizations are often eligible to receive special tax breaks and incentives that for-profit businesses are not eligible to receive. Luckily, you don't need to have a business degree to start a nonprofit. And while it helps to have a business background, you can learn what you need to know by doing your research.


A great place to start is to call a local pet rescue charity and ask to schedule an informative interview with the executive director. Prepare your questions in advance and plan to spend 30 to 60 minutes interviewing the director, if possible. This will give you a great overview of the daily challenges and responsibilities of running a rescue charity.


If you plan to file as a nonprofit right away, review the Internal Revenue Service guidelines for charities and nonprofits. Different operations are eligible for different tax incentives and benefits. Next, review the requirements for filing as a nonprofit in your state. You will need to pick an operating name, check that it is available and complete the appropriate forms to receive tax exempt status.


Your state may also have special zoning, licensing, permitting and other regulations or restrictions in place for animal rescue operations. You can call your local city or county clerk's office to find out what permits or forms you may need.


While it can help to attend nonprofit conferences, this can be expensive depending on where you are and may be something to invest in after your charity is up and running. A more expedient approach is to look for a reliable book or online course to guide you through the brass tacks of getting your organization registered and your doors open.

 

  1. Prepare a Business Plan and Model

As we mentioned earlier here, a nonprofit is still a business. Just because you are considered a not-for-profit does not mean you don't need to at least break even - and, ideally, make a profit! You will have income in the form of donations, grants and contributions. You will have customers - the people who will benefit from your services, and you will have staff and volunteers to help you keep offering those services. But you will also have expenses in the form of overhead, supplies, permits and materials. 


Your business plan should also include an in-depth look into the competition in your area. How will your pet shelter be different? How are you going to build your brand? Becoming unique and successful in your industry is very heavily dependent on building a name brand that customers can learn to trust. Even though your pet rescue organization will likely be nonprofit, you still need a brand development strategy and find your brand voice if you are going to stand out and achieve the goals you set for yourself. 


There are other questions that need to be answered. What need will your nonprofit meet that would otherwise go unmet? What safeguards have you put in place to ensure your charity will be sustainable during the inevitable ups and downs of animal rescue and the local economy? These are the types of questions potential donors and grant funding organizations will ask before they give their funds to you instead of to another pet charity, so include them in your business plan.


Bookkeeping and accounting are critical yet often overlooked facets of running a successful nonprofit in any field. The IRS only cares about one thing - whether you file your taxes on time. If you don't, you risk having your nonprofit status revoked. You will also need to obtain appropriate insurance for your board of directors, facilities, volunteers and vehicles, if any.


  1. Form a Team You Can Trust

Different states have different regulations about how many people you need to have on your founding board of directors. In most cases you will need at least three people: a board chair, a treasurer and a secretary. A charity's board of directors is like the fundraising and public relations arm of your animal rescue. These influential individuals will make regular financial contributions and provide guidance and advice at the executive level.


The staff will do the daily work of keeping your pet adoption charity going. You will need an executive director and a bookkeeper at minimum when you first open your doors. The rest of the workload will be handled by volunteers, at least until you can afford to hire additional staff. Your volunteer base will not only be vital to help you do what you do, but will be an important component of maintaining your tax-exempt status.


You will need to decide how and where to seek the personnel you need to help your nonprofit succeed. As the New York Times emphasizes, it will be important to allow existing staff or volunteers to participate in hiring newcomers to ensure your team meshes well together. You will need to develop an onboarding process for each new director, staff member and volunteer that covers all training and legal requirements for your field.


  1. Make Sure You Have the Proper Equipment

Whenever you are working with live animals, there will be hygiene, sanitation and safety factors to consider. You may need to administer medication, perform medical procedures, provide a special diet and use special materials and restraints, especially if the animal is a stray and its past medical records are unknown. This may then trigger the need to apply for special licenses or permits or arrange to work with a local veterinarian who has already obtained those and is willing to donate their time to your charity.


Not only will you need an appropriate, secure site to store your supplies, but you will need safe and sanitary housing for each animal you intake. You will also need site security and monitoring to keep the animals safe during the off hours. What kind of cages will you put unsupervised pets in - are they big enough? Do you have the proper leashes needed for each animal? The best approach is to refer back to your business plan and model and work from the estimate of how many animals your facility can house and care for at one time. This will help you reach out to local vendors and suppliers for accurate quotes so you can set up those business relationships in advance of your first animal intake.

 

  1. Visit Local Shelters

For pure planning and forecasting purposes, your business plan and model will ask you to position yourself in the local animal charity marketplaces as a competitor. However, the reality is more likely to be that your fellow animal rescue charities will be happy to welcome you to the community! In many areas, there are more animals in need of help than there are rescue facilities to house and care for them. So when you are starting a nonprofit to help animals, it is important to view your fellow charities as potential allies rather than mainly competitors.


The leadership of other local animal rescue organizations can also become invaluable mentors and friends. You can learn best practices from them and sidestep common first-timer mistakes. Don't be afraid to reach out to more experienced animal rescue advocates in your area to ask for guidance and help when you get stuck. Your methods may be different but your goal is the same - to help abandoned, neglected, homeless or relinquished animals find a second chance and a new forever home.


  1. Start Raising Funds

If saving and helping animals is your primary mission, fundraising will be your primary source of support to do so. Raising funds is one of the biggest challenges most nonprofit organizations will ever face. One key reason is because many nonprofits are too busy working on their mission to notice when funds are getting low. You don't want an overdrawn bank balance to be your first sign that your charity is in trouble.


Your business plan and model is the place to outline how you plan to generate start-up and ongoing funds to keep your doors open. The key incentive for private donors to give you money will be the tax benefits they get in return and the satisfaction of helping animals in need. For grant-making organizations and foundations, giving you money is a way to meet the requirements of their charters.


There are many different ways to go about raising funds and you will probably need to pursue several of them to generate adequate operating income. Your own board of directors should be the backbone of your pet shelter fundraising. They will donate money and also recruit others from their networks to donate to support your mission. Your board and key volunteers can also help you with seeking sponsorships, grant funding and corporate giving.


Your staff can help with organizing fundraiser events, designing products to sell to raise additional funds, coordinating with local businesses to receive supplies like food and medications and seeking sponsorships

 

  1. Take Safety Precautions

Once you have laid the business groundwork for starting a nonprofit pet adoption charity, it is time to turn your attention to operational safety.


One outbreak of zoonotic disease, animal bite, slip and fall, or even a break-in could literally break the back of a small start-up charity. The fall-out could include loss of public trust, bad press, withdrawal of funds, inability to recruit volunteers, board resignations and worse. So you really want to give your full attention to building a safe, sanitary workspace for your animals, staff and volunteers.


Local building codes will dictate how each area of your pet charity should operate. For instance, you will likely need to designate separate handling and storage areas for pet supplies versus people supplies, including biohazard materials. You will also need to provide comprehensive training for everyone who will be working directly with the animals, especially when it comes to handling different species.


This is where touring other established animal rescue organizations will really open your eyes to needs you might not have otherwise thought about. For example, what happens if you intake a dog or cat who turns out to be pregnant? What about if you admit a dog who is heartworm positive or a cat that has feline leukemia?


You will need to quarantine these animals away from the general animal population and designate volunteers who work only with those animals. You will also need special disinfection protocols when volunteers, staff or potential adopters move between different areas inside your facility. This can all start to feel intensely overwhelming very quickly, especially if this is your first time founding a charity. You won't do everything perfectly - far from it. But some things you need to get right the first time, like licenses, permits, insurance, accounting and tax-exempt status filings.


Get yourself set up with a small inner circle of mentors who can guide you through the process. Consider reaching out to a local college or university small business association organization who may be able to help with filing the non-profit forms. Establish a reasonable timeline for when you can expect to open your doors to the public and plan an exciting event to announce your services. In this way, you set yourself up for success.