How to Start a Dog Rescue, According To An Animal-Lover Who's Done It (Exclusive)
If you happen to be a longtime dog lover, then perhaps you’ve thought about starting a dog rescue. Also known as an animal rescue group or organization, dog rescues protect the welfare of animals and re-home those who need it. Unlike an animal shelter, which is usually funded and operated by the local government, a dog rescue is a nonprofit organization, and as such, anyone can open their own.
Green Matters chatted with jme Thomas who opened the Motley Zoo on how she started a dog rescue, and it sounds like a truly life-changing experience.
Thomas started a dog rescue because she didn't like seeing how some were run.
Thomas never intended to start her own rescue, but she and her husband did after they identified certain things they didn't like while working with certain organizations.
“I first started the rescue after I had fostered and volunteered with two other organizations first. I had actually never wanted to start ‘my own’ rescue because I saw the immense amount of work and responsibility,” Thomas says.
“I was perfectly happy doing the work under the umbrella of another but started to see things about the functionality of both that [my husband and I] didn’t like or thought could be improved… Eventually there were some other things we couldn’t agree with and we stopped working with both.”
But the end of volunteering for another organization meant the start of Thomas's own: Motley Zoo.
“It was because we had met some like-minded people through that work that felt the same as we did, that Motley Zoo came to be a thought,” Thomas tells GreenMatters. “We started planning and organizing and in February of 2009. It wasn’t [until] a few months later that we took in our first dog, and until the fall till we got our 501c3, but we were operating by May and saved 85 animals that year!”
Start by doing your research.
Regardless of how serious you are about opening a rescue, the first step is to do some research. Join nonprofit management groups and humane rights groups, read a book or subscribe to platforms and newsletters about starting nonprofits. Also try attending (virtual!) seminars and discussions, and talking to someone in relevant fields — trainers, volunteers, veterinarians, local animal control, or someone in animal care and rescue administration.
“Think hard about why you want to start a rescue,” Thomas advises. “Does your area need another one, or would your effort be better spent doing the work of the rescue but not taking on all of the headache of red tape, management, and so on? Sometimes you can do more when you just work with the animals!”
Also conduct some research on the location in which you might start your dog rescue. The more you know about the local area, the better. What are specific problems in your community? Consider overpopulation, the local homeless dog population, and spay/neuter laws. And of course, make an effort to see what other community members are doing to address it, too. That could be key to finding likeminded people who want to collaborate, work with, or help you during your dog rescue journey.
“I knew enough from the start to ‘know better’ than to think I wanted to be in charge of my own organization, but when I couldn't buy into the other organizations anymore, it was either stop doing this thing I loved, or start one that operated the way I truly envisioned was a good, ‘right’ way,” Thomas adds.
If you think you can really make a different by starting your own rescue, that’s a good enough reason to get started, but Thomas adds that the best way to run a rescue the right way is to see firsthand how other organizations run.
“Go foster and volunteer for at least one other organization before you undertake any effort to start a rescue yourself,” Thomas says. “You have to be able to understand firsthand the experiences your foster families will have, what it’s like to give dogs away when adopted and more. Besides that, you will learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t on someone else’s dime and under their liability.”
Establish some rescue goals.
The most efficient way to map out the goals of your rescue is to address the problems researched in the planning stage, and to write out a mission statement that outlines the goals of your mission.
The mission statement should be succinct – about one to two sentences long – and should use actionable language that puts a significant emphasis on measurable results. It should answer the questions: What is the goal of this rescue? What is the purpose of doing this? Spoiler alert: According to Thomas, the mission statement can’t be just about you.
“If you want to start a rescue to make it yours, stop right there,” Thomas says. “In order to have an organization that is bigger than just you, you need to think of everything as ‘ours’ and ‘we’ and how rarely is it about what YOU want or need... It’s about what everyone else does first. The ‘me’ and ‘mine’ indicates a level of ego that doesn’t work in a charity of any kind.”
Aside from the mission statement — which is often broader in nature and focuses on its core values — you should also think about both the short-term and long-term goals of your rescue. What do you want the rescue to accomplish in the first six months? The first year? The second year? Year 10? Establishing these goals is a first step toward fulfilling them, but it also gives you a strong, actionable starting point.
Finalize the basic rescue details.
Your dog rescue might have a mission statement and goals, but does it have a name? That’s crucial, especially when it comes to the next few steps: how can you generate volunteers or promote your rescue if it’s nameless? During this planning step, consider designing a logo, and maybe even a motto as well. Don’t want to pay for a professional designer to create the logo? Play around on Canva!
Mobilize some volunteers.
No animal rescue can function without the tireless help and efforts of passionate volunteers. Surely, you will have personal connections — friends and family – who may want to help out to start. But your volunteer network needs to grow beyond that at some point.
“I wish someone told me that managing volunteers is a lot like having 100 kids!” Thomas says. “While I love our volunteers and they are by far amazing, collectively managing them can be a pretty thankless job, and full of constant chaos!
"Every one of them is the only one (in their mind), but then you have 100 people all needing different things, right now, not realizing they are one of many. People are also emotional, irrational and sometimes don’t follow directions. Pair this with animals who are unpredictable sometimes and it’s just a constant circus. You have to have so much patience to work with volunteers – just like being a mom. But also like being a mom, it’s worth it.”
Rescues require a village, so consider promoting the rescue (and asking for volunteers) through posters, posting on social media, or in likeminded online communities for animal lovers. Veterinary offices, grooming locations, and pet stores are great places to promote.
Name a board of directors.
All organizations require a board of directors, to oversee the organization finally, morally, legally, but different organizations institute different roles. Establish first which roles you think would be most beneficial, noting that most states require a minimum of three board members. (You’ll have to do your own research on this, based on where you live.) Then, take into consideration who you would appoint and what set of skills each person would bring to each role.
Apply for nonprofit status
This is important for any animal rescue for several reasons. Gaining 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) can help establish the credibility of your rescue, protects you against liability, and qualifies donations gifted to your organization as tax-deductible. All in all, this nonprofit status really ensures that all the necessary means for providing the animals the best care are in place.
“Oh, the dreaded 501c3! My advice is start as early as possible and expect it to take forever,” Thomas explains. “It is about 60 pages long and requires a lot of thought, math, and writing. You will be able to operate as a charity before you get the 501c3, but the donations are not tax deductible until you have that certification. It is retroactive, however, for that year. So, for example, we applied in May of 2009 and were accepted in October (which is near record time)," Thomas explains.
“Any donations we collected from the very first day we were incorporated (since it was the same year) we were able to retroactively issue a receipt. But had we not gotten the 501c3 certification until January of 2010, we’d not have been able to issue receipts like that,” Thomas explains. “The Small Business Association might be a good place to start if you need help getting going and make sure you have someone data- and detail-oriented doing it so it is sure to eventually get done.”
To kick off the process of applying for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, you can call the IRS (800-TAX-FORM), State House, or Secretary of State and Attorney General’s office. If you prefer to begin the process online, visit the IRS' website. Make sure you have information like the corporate name and bylaws ready to go.
Here’s where to get all the necessary paperwork:
· Name registration and incorporation paperwork can be found through Secretary of State or Corporate Commission
· 501(c)(3) nonprofit status application forms can be found through IRS
· Certificates to solicit donations and sales tax exemption should be available through the Attorney General office
Focus on fundraising.
While there is a lot more to the day-to-day tasks of managing, owning, and running a dog rescue, your next focus should really be fundraising. To create realistic expectations and goals for rescue fundraising, you will first need to create a budget. What are the bare minimum numbers you need weekly, monthly, and yearly to run this nonprofit? Enlist the professional insight of an accountant if you’re not sure how to temper expectations for future expenses.
Once you have a budget, you will have a more realistic idea about how much money it takes to start a dog rescue, but then continue operating it as well. The budget should also contain a chunk of change to allocate toward fundraising. After all, fundraisers generally require resources, food, raffles, tables, chairs, tents, and more. If you want to start off small, consider fundraising with a GoFundMe page or asking for donations on social media.
Because you’re a nonprofit, your rescue likely qualifies for a grant of some kind. Look into what grant resources are available to you and make sure to apply to several. Applying for the nonprofit status is also crucial when it comes to this step in the process; after all, the nonprofit status means fundraising is tax-free – not to mention, the fact that donations are tax-deductible encourages more people to donate. Why? Because they can write off the donation on their taxes.
“My favorite part is seeing the animals that we have turned around from near death, to the happy, loving ones we adopt out, and how that makes others feel. Fostering is like giving the best gift to someone, even if it’s something you wanted for yourself, the reward of seeing how much they enjoy it makes it worth the sacrifice," Thomas adds. "It is not for the faint of heart, but it’s rewarding in the end!”
This article, originally published on March 5, 2021, has been updated.