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Guide to Starting a Nonprofit Animal Rescue

Starting a Nonprofit Animal Rescue in 7 Steps
Lauren Ward
Lauren WardUpdated March 14, 2023
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Starting a nonprofit animal rescue is a noble cause. Currently, pet adoption rates across the U.S. are down and shelters are at capacity. Clearly our furry friends could use some help.Opening a rescue can also be a way to earn a salary while doing work that you feel passionate about. Just keep in mind that starting a nonprofit animal shelter is like starting any type of small business — it takes a fair amount of planning, patience, and paperwork.If you’re up for the challenge, read on. Here’s a look at what it takes to start and run a nonprofit animal rescue.

What Is a Nonprofit?

A nonprofit is an organization that has been formed to serve the public good rather than to generate a profit. Because of this, nonprofits are granted tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).  Any income a nonprofit generates cannot be distributed to its members, officers, shareholders, or directors. However, that doesn’t mean that its employees and founders can’t be fairly compensated for their work.There are several types of nonprofits but animal rescue organizations are typically defined as 501(c)(3)s under the U.S. tax code.Recommended: 11 Steps to Starting a Nonprofit Organization 

How a Nonprofit Operates 

Nonprofits raise money that they then spend to further their mission, not to benefit the donors or founders. Because a nonprofit must benefit the public in some way, they are required to make their financial data public. This allows potential donors to know exactly how contributions are being spent. While a small business has a variety of ways to generate revenue, nonprofits are limited in what they can do. Typically, a nonprofit relies on fundraising events, grants, and donations to generate revenue. It can sell services and merchandise, but the service or merchandise must relate to its cause in some way. If it doesn’t, the IRS may revoke its tax exempt status.To ensure the nonprofit is acting in accordance with its mission, each nonprofit must have a board of directors. For federal tax exemption, the minimum number of people required is three people, but state requirements may differ. Recommended: Nonprofits vs Foundations: Similarities & Differences 

Pros and Cons of Nonprofits

Pros of NonprofitsCons of Nonprofits
Tax exemptMust always act in accordance with both state and federal regulations to maintain its tax-exempt status
Can effect positive change in the world Control of the nonprofit must be shared among the board of directors
Can receive funding through grants and donationsFunding can be difficult to obtain

7 Steps to Starting a Nonprofit Animal Rescue

Starting an animal rescue nonprofit from scratch can feel like an overwhelming task. Below, we break it down into seven manageable steps.

1. Do Some Research and Planning

You may want to start by learning as much as possible about animal welfare, including what the most pressing issues in your local community are right now. You can get information through organizations like the Humane Society, Best Friends Animal Society, and Atlas Animal Rescue. Also consider reaching out to shelters in the area. You might even consider collaborating with existing shelters in some way. As you gather information, start putting together a plan: What particular issue will you be addressing at the start? What type of space, equipment, and staff will you need? How much money will you need to get started? 

2. Choose a Name

The right name can help you stand out from other, similar nonprofits and quickly communicate your mission to prospective donors and the community. Here are some things to consider when picking out the name of your animal rescue.
  • What are people searching for in your area? What title might coincide with Google search results? 
  • Is the name available as a website URL (domain name) and for social media handles?
  • What will your organization’s acronym be? Ideally, your acronym shouldn’t spell something unappealing, and it shouldn’t be used by other nonprofits, companies, or agencies. 

3. Create a Mission Statement

To become a nonprofit animal rescue, you’ll need to write a mission statement. A nonprofit mission statement is a one- or two-sentence statement describing why your organization exists and what you do. Generally, you want it to be easy to understand, informative, and concise.Here are some examples of mission statements:
  • Doctors Without Borders: “To provide impartial medical relief to the victims of war, disease, and natural or man-made disaster, without regard to race, religion, or political affiliation.” 
  • ASPCA: “To provide effective means for the prevention of cruelty to animals throughout the United States.”
  • American Diabetes Association: “To prevent and cure diabetes and to improve the lives of all people affected by diabetes.” 

4. Recruit Your Board

Your board will be responsible for regulatory compliance, strategic decision-making, and supporting the everyday operations of your shelter. Consider bringing in directors who have both business management experience as well as a passion for animal welfare. Once you have a short list of good candidates, reach out to each one to discuss potential involvement with your animal rescue. Keep in mind that board members typically aren’t paid.

5. Write a Business Plan

Like a for-profit business, you’ll need to create a well-thought-out business plan for your animal shelter. You’ll want your business plan to clearly lay out your animal rescue’s objectives and provide details about how you will go about achieving them. It should clearly outline the change you hope to make, the services you will provide, how you will get the word out about your shelter, and where your funding will come from.

6. Incorporate Your Nonprofit

To make things official, you’ll need to determine your nonprofit’s legal structure and file articles of incorporation with your state. The process varies depending on the state, so check with your state’s National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO). You’ll also need to get an Employer Identification Number (EIN). An EIN functions like a Social Security Number for your nonprofit. You will need it to perform a number of different tasks, including hiring staff, opening a business bank account, applying for permits, and filing tax forms. You can apply for an EIN online by visiting the IRS website.

7. File for Nonprofit Status

To apply for tax-exempt status, you will have to fill out IRS Form 1023. This form is complex and can be time-consuming to complete. It includes 10 parts and eight schedules, and will require in-depth written responses about exactly what your nonprofit plans to do with its time on a daily basis. If you think that your nonprofit will earn less than $50,000 annually, however, you may be able to fill out a shorter version of the form called Form 1023-EZ.Recommended: How Much Does It Cost to Start a Nonprofit? 

5 Fundraising Ideas for Nonprofit Animal Rescues

There are numerous ways to raise funds for your animal rescue, including adoption fees, donations from individuals and businesses, and nonprofit startup grants. Below are just a few ideas to help you get funds flowing into your new nonprofit, along with their pros and cons.

1. Youtube 

Pet videos are popular on Youtube, so you might consider starting a Youtube channel that focuses on your shelter’s residents. At the end of each video, you can ask your viewers to “like,” “subscribe,” and “give thanks” if they liked your content. Create some evergreen content, and one video may even become a source of reliable income.  Pros:
  • Inexpensive to launch
  • May engage new donors who have never donated before
  • To be successful, you need to consistently create content
  • Filming and editing videos requires a lot of time and effort

2. Pet Sponsorships

Encourage donors to sponsor a particular animal via a monthly or yearly donation. Rather than simply have their money go to a "cause," some people may be more apt to provide funding if they actually see the face of the animal their funds are supporting. Pros: 
  • Makes your nonprofit’s cause seem more real
  • May persuade donors who are more reluctant to give
  • Can be paired with social media and Youtube 
  • Can take time to create and develop

3. Pet Photo Shoot

If you or someone on your team has photography skills, you might host a special event where you take photos of people’s pets (or pet owners with their pets). If you need to hire a photographer, see if you can find one willing to do it for free or for a reduced price. You can charge owners a set price for five unique digital photographs of their pet, or create a few different packages and prices. If the event is successful, you might run it several times a year.Pros:
  • Engages the community
  • Inexpensive
  • Can offer multiple pricing tiers
  • May have to split profits with the photographer
  • Excludes people who don’t own pets who might support your nonprofit

4. Dog Washing Days

A dog washing day can be a great fundraiser for a shelter. See if you can get local pet stores to donate shampoos, brushes, and other cleaning supplies. Also try to secure a location with your town or city that has a lot of foot traffic. On the day of the event, offer dog baths to people walking their pets for a small fee. Publicize the fundraiser in advance with flyers and through social media.Pros:
  • Inexpensive
  • Promotes your nonprofit
  • Fun community event
  • May have to spend money on advertising
  • Will need volunteers and staff 
  • Weather may force a reschedule

5. A Small Business Loan

While you might associate loans strictly with for-profit businesses, nonprofits can sometimes qualify for different small business loans. If you have strong personal credit and your startup nonprofit is already generating revenue, it may be worth applying for a loan through your local bank or credit union (if they lend to nonprofits).You might also want to look into online business loans. Online (also known as alternative) lenders tend to have more relaxed requirements and are typically faster to fund. However, these loans often come with higher interest rates.Pros:
  • Can help with expansion
  • Can help cover operating expenses
  • Can bridge any seasonal gaps in fundraising
  • Money must be repaid
  • Debt may require collateral
  • Debt will come with fees and interest
Recommended: What to Know About Nonprofit Business Loans 

Checking Business Loan Rates

Lenders will often see nonprofits as higher risk, since, unlike for-profit businesses, they may not have steady money coming in to repay the loan. To find a loan at a cost your nonprofit can afford, consider using an online loan search tool. With Lantern by Sofi’s online lending platform, for example, you can quickly get access to multiple loan options matched to your organization’s needs and qualifications with just one application.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you make money rescuing animals?
Do animal sanctuaries make money?
How do you start an animal orphanage?
Photo credit: iStock/mladenbalinovac

About the Author

Lauren Ward

Lauren Ward

Lauren Ward is a personal finance expert with nearly a decade of experience writing online content. Her work has appeared on websites such as MSN, Time, and Bankrate. Lauren writes on a variety of personal finance topics for SoFi, including credit and banking.
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