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How to Start an Animal Rescue (6 Simple Steps)

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Published May 17, 2023 Reading Time: 6 minutes

Starting an animal rescue is a noble pursuit, and we’re here to help you make your dream a reality.

As the world evolves, technology makes it easier for us to care for our animal friends. Below, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to start an animal rescue (the right way), secure 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and set your nonprofit organization up for success.

How to Start an Animal Rescue

More than administrative tasks, starting an animal rescue organization has plenty of insightful opportunities to learn more about animals in need and the nonprofit sector. Embrace the process and glean vital information to help your beloved animals, volunteers, and community thrive.

Your 6-Step Guide to Starting an Animal Rescue

1. Do Your Research

First, dig into the problem. 

  • Is there an overwhelming need for an animal rescue? 
  • Do you see overpopulation of certain species or displacement due to construction or development?
  • Are there opportunities to collaborate with existing shelters to streamline operations and help more animals in the area?

There aren’t national laws regulating animal charities or foster care homes. However, some states define general rules and requirements for starting and operating an animal rescue. You might find laws on the state, county, or city level. 

These laws could include:

  • Licensing requirements
  • Annual fees
  • Recordkeeping 
  • Inspection frequencies
  • Vaccination and sterilization requirements
  • Animal importation laws
  • Number of animal limits
  • Adoption fees
  • Zoning and nuisance laws
  • Breed-specific rules

2. Create Your Mission Statement

Second, write your nonprofit mission statement, which guides the overall direction of your animal rescue. It’s the North Star for your management, nonprofit board of directors, volunteers, donors, and community.

An animal rescue mission statement should answer the following questions:

  • Why your animal rescue exists
  • What animals or breeds your rescue serves
  • How your rescue serves animals and the community
  • Which communities your rescue supports and serves

Just remember to keep your mission statement short and sweet. It serves as guidance and inspiration—not a full-fledged business plan.

3. Form Your Board of Directors

Next, it’s time to organize the right board to support your mission statement and drive your animal care in the proper direction. Your board of directors helps provide high-level guidance to your nonprofit and is a requirement to obtain tax exemption.

Not every board looks the same, but many follow this typical structure:

  • Chairperson (or president)
  • Vice chairperson (or vice president)
  • Secretary
  • Treasurer

Look for individuals in your community with the same passion for animal care. Ideally, find enthusiasts with an entrepreneurial background—remember, while it’s all about the animals, you’re also starting a local business.

Can’t find enough people in your locale? If necessary, expand your search to broader communities. You might look for qualified board members in neighboring cities or somewhere in your state. Thanks to technology, your board members can meet virtually to collaborate and make decisions if needed.

4. Establish Bylaws

Fourth, have your board of directors come together to establish bylaws. Your nonprofit bylaws explain how your organization operates. It includes rules for the board member election process, meeting guidelines, meeting frequency, compensation disclosures, indemnity clauses, and more.

It’s basically the operating manual for your nonprofit organization.

While the federal government doesn’t have laws dictating specific language in your bylaws, some states do. For example, New York requires auditing rules, procedures for handling conflicts of interest, and board member restrictions.

Not every state requires nonprofits to organize bylaws, but it’s a good practice that goes beyond legal requirements. Your bylaws ensure everyone is on the same page and promote the continuance of your animal rescue, regardless of unforeseen disasters or members leaving your board.

5. Incorporate Your Organization

Next, it’s time to incorporate your organization. You’ll need the following:

  • Name: Work with your state to obtain a legal name for your animal rescue.
  • Filing: File your articles of incorporation with the state. This will include your nonprofit’s name, location, and supporting documentation. Check your state’s requirements and filing information to ensure you provide everything necessary.
  • Employee Identification Number (EIN): Obtain the EIN for your animal rescue—it’s essentially the Social Security number for your organization. This will allow you to open nonprofit banking accounts, submit legal paperwork, and apply for tax-exempt status under your nonprofit’s identity. 

6. File for 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Status

Finally, you can apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status. File Form 1023 with your application fee, then wait for the Internal Revenue Service’s approval.

Once you’ve received approval, you are officially tax-exempt. You’ll need to file a 990 Form annually to maintain 501(c)(3) identification but won’t have to reapply again.

Here’s what you can do as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit:

Tips to Help Your Animal Rescue Succeed

Starting a legal animal rescue is the first (and biggest) step. However, your job isn’t over yet. Now, it’s time to set your rescue up for success by following a few tips and best practices:

Double-Check Your Intent

Operating an animal shelter can be a thankless job at times. The animals are grateful, but that doesn’t always mean feeling understood or appreciated.

Before you open an animal shelter, make sure it’s your passion. A deep love for animals is a must. That passion will help keep your excitement levels high despite long days or potentially stressful situations that may arise.

Find Volunteers

You can’t do this alone, which is why it’s so important to understand how to source and retain consistent volunteers. Your animal shelter will need a handful of people to help with dozens of to-dos:

  • Paperwork
  • Feeding animals
  • Cleaning animals
  • Playing with animals
  • Maintaining facilities
  • Promoting the animal rescue
  • Rescuing animals
  • Veterinary care

Look for potential volunteers online and at local events. You may find interested individuals at everything from the dog park to the weekend farmers market. Also, consider running ads in the newspaper or on local TV stations.

Fundraise to Fuel Your Goals

Donations and grant funding are great sources of financial support for your animal rescue. Within those two areas, there are countless opportunities to pursue.

Here are some of our favorite ideas to raise money:

Not every idea will be the right fit for your organization, and that’s OK. In the end, you might only need one or two successful fundraising efforts to create a strong enough foundation to get your animal rescue moving in the right direction.

Scale Down When Appropriate

As an animal lover, you may not want to hear this, but you might not be able to save all animals. Some species may have a greater need than others, or you might want to specialize in specific breeds or types of animals to provide more personalized care. 

Don’t be afraid to scale down when needed to offer the highest quality care. While it might seem like turning some animals away, this approach will likely allow you to provide better service to the animals you house to support their overall well-being. 

Consider partnering with another local animal shelter or rescue to see how you can work together. You might exchange animals to streamline efficiencies and provide better care.

Hire Extra Help

Volunteers are the lifeblood of nonprofits, but part-time or full-time help is extremely beneficial. Hire employees to help manage the load of operating your animal rescue if your budget allows. 

Hired employees can dive deeper into your programs and initiatives to ensure effectiveness and efficiency. You’ll have extra support to ensure the animals receive the attention they need and be able to balance schedules and bounce ideas around to take your programs to the next level.

Promote Your Animal Rescue

Volunteers, donors, and adopting families likely won’t discover your animal rescue organization without intentional marketing. You’ll have to do your part to reach your target audiences. That’ll probably include a handful of the following outreach tactics:

  • Local search engine optimization (SEO)
  • Pay-per-click (PPC) advertisements
  • Social media profiles
  • Email newsletters
  • Advertisements in local newspapers and publications
  • TV and radio advertisements
  • Billboards and local signage
  • Flyers and brochures at local events
  • Sponsorship of local events or organizations
  • Floats or vehicles in parades

Do everything you can to get your animal rescue out in the public. The more people are aware of your organization, the better. This will help with everything from recruiting volunteers to finding new homes for your furry (or not-so-furry) friends.

Grow Your Animal Rescue With Classy

We won’t say money makes the world go around, but we will say it can significantly help your animal rescue. More money means more rescued animals, which is ultimately the goal of any shelter.

You’ll need the right tools and technology to streamline your fundraising and empower donors to give to your nonprofit.

We can help.

Classy provides comprehensive solutions to help with unified fundraising:

  • Classy Live: Host virtual, in-person, and hybrid event experiences to fundraise for your animals.
  • Donation websites: Collect donations with ease.
  • Classy Pay: Invite supporters to donate via credit card, Venmo, PayPal, ACH payment, and more.
  • Recurring giving: Allow donors to amplify their impact with recurring donations.
  • Peer-to-peer giving: Empower your volunteers and supporters to fundraise on your animal rescue’s behalf.

Want to learn more about how Classy’s fundraising platform can help your animal rescue? Schedule time to talk with an expert.


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