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Organizational Management

How to Start an Animal Rescue in 16 Simple Steps!

Author: Marlena Moore
December 25, 2023
🕑 11 min read

If you count yourself as an animal lover, chances are you’ve daydreamed about opening an animal rescue before. However, the logistics of getting one up and running can be pretty overwhelming.

That’s why we’ve put together this trusty guide on how to start an animal rescue!

In this blog post, we’ll explore:

  • How to determine if this goal is right for you
  • The costs and legal requirements of starting an animal rescue nonprofit
  • Tips on putting together your structure and policies
  • The logistics of creating a safe physical space for animals
  • And more!

Starting An Animal Rescue vs. Animal Shelter

While animal rescues and shelters both strive to get vulnerable animals adopted into their forever homes, they actually run pretty differently.

Animal rescues (which we’ll be talking about in this post!):

  • Are privately owned and operated, often out of the owners’ homes
  • Set their own fees, hours, policies and more
  • Prioritize animal welfare and, if necessary, rehabilitation
  • Might prioritize specific species or breeds
  • Often have a network of foster families to manage the load
  • Rely heavily on donations

Animal shelters:

  • Are government-run and funded (though they still fundraise!)
  • Are regulated through more outside bureaucracy
  • Prioritize reducing the stray population for public welfare
  • Typically take in mostly dogs and cats regardless of breed
  • Might take in hundreds of animals

Each type of organization does good work, but comes with unique challenges. Animal rescues are expensive to run, with the burden falling on the owners. Shelters, on the other hand, often have more animals than they can get adopted, which results in animals being euthanized. 

Click through to claim your 60-day trial of WildApricot to create effective QR codes that will speed up event check-in.

Is Starting An Animal Rescue Right For You?

With approximately 6.3 million animals arriving at public shelters each year, it makes sense to feel the urgency of starting an animal rescue.

But before you make the jump, there are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How’s your business savvy? Finances, policy-making, volunteer management and more—there’s more to a rescue than just caring for animals! If you choose to start an animal rescue, we recommend taking a business class or two first.
  • Do you have the time? Starting an animal rescue doesn’t follow the typical 9-5 workday structure. Really think about if you can put in the hours animals need for good care.
  • Can you afford it? Many people want to know how to start an animal rescue with no money. The short answer is that you really can’t! Animal rescues rely heavily on donations, and if that money doesn’t come through, you’ll end up shouldering the financial burden.
  • Are you prepared for the emotional elements? A lot of rescued animals are dealing with illness or trauma. It can be rewarding to rehabilitate these animals, but you’ll be seeing a lot of sad stories. It’s okay if your heart isn’t ready for that right now.

If you’re realizing a rescue might not be feasible right now, don’t get discouraged!

There are over 4000 animal shelters and rescues across the United States that desperately need volunteers. Volunteering lets you make a difference while getting experience for the future.

How to Start an Animal Rescue in 16 Steps

If you’ve decided that you’re ready and excited to start an animal rescue, these are the 16 steps you’ll want to follow:

1. Research!

Take a look at the animal rescue and shelter landscape, especially in your local community, and figure out:

  • What animal shelters and rescues already exist near you?
  • How do they operate internally?
  • How many animals do they take in each year?
  • What niches aren’t being filled right now?

Unlike for-profit businesses, animal rescues won’t see you as a “competitor.” After all, the goal is to help animals while reducing volunteer burnout.

Connect with the director of a local rescue and see if they have time to answer questions you have about getting started.

2. Build Your Identity

While the rising tide lifts all ships, it IS important to make sure your animal rescue has its own identity! Not only will this make you recognizable to the public, but it’ll also help you keep your priorities in order.

Get started by determining your:

  • Name. Look for something that’s catchy and immediately tells people what your nonprofit is all about. As a bonus, it’s awesome if you can make a great acronym! Second Chance Animal Rescue Society
  • Mission Statement. This is a single sentence that lays out why your nonprofit exists.
  • Vision Statement. Your vision highlights what you wish to become, and what your animal rescue would look like in its most ideal state.
  • Values. List out the principles that guide your decision making.

Second Chance Animal Rescue Society (SCARS) has excellent examples of each of these elements!

3. Write a Business Plan

A business plan is the key to mapping your organization’s future. Learning how to start an animal rescue is only the first step—your goal is to keep it running.

Even a simple one page business plan can help you:

  • Set essential goals for the next 3-5 years
  • Secure funding like grants to start an animal rescue
  • Attract your board of directors
  • Connect with volunteers

Check out our guide to writing a nonprofit business plan to learn top tips and key components!

4. Hire Your Board of Directors

If you’re learning how to start an animal rescue at home, it might surprise you to learn that you should hire a board of directors. Don’t get intimidated—a board is actually an incredible resource!

Your board’s responsibilities include:

  • Supporting your organizational planning
  • Providing financial oversight and direction
  • Growing your network and resources
  • Improving your public standing
  • Amplifying your fundraising efforts

The number of directors you’ll need will depend on which state you’re located in. For example, California nonprofits technically only need one director.

Some great board members to recruit might be staff from larger shelters, veterinarians, trainers or notable animal welfare advocates.

5. Draft Your Nonprofit Bylaws

Where your business plan is your roadmap, your nonprofit bylaws are the operating manual for starting your animal rescue.

Remember how we talked about thinking about your rescue as a business? This document lays out how your internal operations are meant to run.

This includes details like:

  • Duties and roles of directors and officers
  • Elections procedures
  • Setting up meetings
  • Quorum requirements
  • Membership structure
  • Conflict of interest policies and procedures

6. File Your Articles of Incorporation

Your Articles of Incorporation are a legal document that must be filed with your Secretary of State, and serve as your nonprofit’s birth certificate.

This key document:

  • Registers your organization’s name
  • Limits your personal liability
  • Builds your credibility
  • Let you apply for 501(c) federal tax exemption

The way you file, and the specific information you need to incorporate, will vary a bit depending on the state you’re in.

However, the basic things you can expect to include are your:

  • Name
  • Address
  • Purpose
  • Board of directors
  • Bylaws

7. Apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN)

Once your Articles of Incorporation have been received, it’s time to apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN). It’s also sometimes called a Federal Tax Identification Number or Federal Employment Identification Number.

If your Articles of Incorporation are your rescue’s birth certificate, your EIN is like your social security number! This will allow you to open a business bank account and hire employees.

To apply for an EIN, you need to file IRS Form SS-4, which can either be submitted and obtained immediately online, or by fax or mail.

8. Apply for 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Status (And Any State Tax Exemptions!)

A 501c3 organization is a type of nonprofit that the IRS exempts from paying federal income tax. If you’re an organization whose purpose is to reduce cruelty to animals, then this designation is for you.

Your animal rescue can apply for 501c3 status by filing one of these two forms:

  • Form 1023. This is a long and detailed form that requires a lot of information about the workings of your organization. It has a $600 fee associated.
  • Form 1023-EZ. This is a simplified, streamlined version for smaller nonprofits with annual gross receipts of less than $50,000 and total assets of less than $250,000. It has a $275 fee associated and can be filled out online.

If your application is approved, your nonprofit will receive a 501c3 determination letter within six months.

You’ll also want to apply for state tax exemptions, which will be different depending on your location. 

9. Work Out the Costs

How much does it cost to start an animal rescue? It really depends on what you’re aiming for—but the short answer is that it isn’t free.

As you build out your nonprofit’s budget, consider operations costs like:

  • Facilities
  • Equipment
  • Food
  • Medical Expenses
  • Certifications
  • Insurance
  • Salaries for paid roles
  • Marketing and promotion
  • Anything else relevant to your niche rescue

While there’s a lot to cover, there are more income sources available than you might think:

  • Grants for starting an animal rescue. There are many organizations that offer grants for animal rescues, and we can’t recommend them enough! Many grants are project-based, so if you’ve got renovation or expansion goals, this is a great avenue.
  • Fundraising events. Putting on a fantastic event can drive donations and build your visibility in your community. For example, in 2019 The Word on the Street partnered with the Toronto Humane Society for “Books and Puppies”, an event where children could practice their reading skills with shelter animals. 
  • Building a membership program. The best donations are regular and reliable, and nothing gets you those quite like a membership program. A thoughtful membership model can grow a dedicated base of supporters.
  • Physical or ecommerce store. Got some merch to sell? People will jump at cute animal calendars or branded dog bandanas, especially around the holidays.
  • In-kind donations. Animal rescues HUGELY benefit from in-kind donations! Food donations, blankets, supplies and labor like photographing animals up for adoption is invaluable. Instead of only pushing for financial donations, consider what products and services you can request from your community.

10. Recruit Volunteers

The passion and generosity of volunteers is what keeps most nonprofits running—and that couldn’t be more true for animal rescues! 

Luckily, there are a lot of animal lovers out there. With the help of great volunteer training, you can build a reliable team with a variety of skills.

As you think about bringing on volunteers, consider:

  • What different types of volunteer work would be helpful
  • What roles should ultimately be paid for
  • Jobs that are appropriate for young volunteers (they would love to help!)
  • Where you can recruit volunteers from
  • What your onboarding process will be

Since fostering is such an essential part of how to start an animal rescue, we’d suggest connecting with potential foster parents early in the process. Check out this fostering guide from Ladybird Animal Sanctuary to get some ideas going.

11. Form Partnerships With Local Vets

Your animals are going to need medical care, and it’s best to connect with an established and trusted veterinarian. Reach out with some emails or letters introducing your new animal rescue, and see if you can set up a partnership program.

In exchange for referring all adoptions to your vet’s clinic, they could offer:

  • Pro bono or low-cost medical services to your animals
  • Consultation on unique medical cases
  • Support in your spay/neuter goals

12. Map Out Your Adoption Policies & Processes

Imagine you receive a litter of feral kittens at your rescue. You take care of their medical needs, get them spayed and neutered, socialize them and get to know their personalities… now what?

Well, now it’s time for the adoption process! Before you start bringing in potential adoption candidates, it’s important to get some structure in place.

Take some time to write a manual on your:

  • Foster and adoption criteria (age, home standards, other pets, etc.)
  • What information should be included in your application
  • Your policy on home visits for foster and adoptive pet parents
  • Meet and greet structure
  • Reference and background check
  • Adoption fees
  • Final contract
  • Follow up calls and visits

Uncertain about where to start? Connect with other shelters and rescues for guidelines!

13. Get Physical Space All Set Up!

Depending on the types of animals you’re rescuing, your shelter’s needs will look a bit different. For example, Whispering Hearts Horse Rescue needs a lot of outdoor space, where Snake Discovery benefits from indoor space that can accommodate lots of vivariums.

But no matter what type of rescue you’re running, consider:

  • The amount of land you’ll need
  • How you can adapt your owned home into a shelter
  • Leasing versus buying (buying is the safest bet!)
  • Zoning laws
  • Quarantine areas for new animals
  • Insurance for your equipment and property
  • The cost of utilities
  • How many animals you can feasibly house

14. Build Your Online Presence

People will drive all over the country to pick up an animal whose online profile they fall in love with. The trick to getting peoples’ attention? Standing out and looking professional!

As you build your online presence, think about:

  • Branding. Build a brand kit with consistent colors, fonts and logos. Beyond that, think about what your voice will be like. Earnest? Playful? A great voice goes a long way!
  • Website. A clunky or unprofessional looking website might end up turning away potential adoptive pet parents. Choose a website builder that reflects the quality of your nonprofit.
  • Social media. With fantastic pet pictures, it’s easy to get traction on social media. Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary took the internet by storm with its charming pictures of dogs in their twilight years.
  • Pet profiles. Even the spiciest cat can find a home with a well-written, honest (and occasionally hilarious!) caption. These work great on social media, and can speed up adoptions like you wouldn’t believe.

15. Promote, Promote, Promote!

The cycle of rescuing and adopting all depends on your powers of promotion!

Become a rising star in your community with the help of

  • Web promotion (like we described above!)
  • A spectacular launch event
  • Partnerships with other local organizations
  • Media placements
  • SEO-optimized websites
  • And more!

As more people work with your organization, you can build trust and credibility. Inevitably, this will get you the word of mouth recommendations you need to keep growing!

16. Run Ongoing Fundraisers

We haven’t minced words about the costs and labor that comes with starting an animal rescue. That doesn’t mean you should give up before you start—simply that you want to be prepared!

In order to keep thriving for years to come, brainstorm profitable fundraisers like:

  • Pet food donation drives
  • Craft-a-thons for blankets and animal beds
  • Educational events for kids
  • Giving Tuesday campaigns
  • Adopt-a-thons
  • And more!

The secret to success is ultimately community. Your rescue connects people to their beloved pets—a positive experience will make it so they don’t forget you.

How the Right Software Can Help You Start an Animal Rescue

Wishing you had a shortcut to all the behind-the-scenes admin work? Great news!

WildApricot’s award-winning nonprofit software has solutions to help you:

  • Build a beautiful, branded animal rescue website
  • Make customizable forms for adoption and foster inquiries 
  • Create a contact database of prospective and past adoptive pet parents
  • Automate your newsletters
  • Make a public directory of animals up for adoption
  • Securely process payments
  • Run an online store
  • And more!

Plus, should you choose to run a membership program, we have all the tools you need to make special, members-only areas of your website.

Sign up for your 60-day free trial to see why over 25,000 nonprofits love what we do! 

Click through to claim your 60-day trial of WildApricot to create effective QR codes that will speed up event check-in.

Starting an Animal Rescue and Finding Your Passion!

We hope this guide has helped you feel confident in how to start an animal rescue! Whether you’re buying a new large space or planning on using your home as a home-base, there are tools and supports to help your rescue thrive.

Keep up the amazing work!

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