“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

– margaret Mead

Building a successful, long-term rescue effort requires setting in place clearly defined and realistic goals. These goals will define how the rescue will operate. The novice should stick to a manageable task. To be successful will require good organization skills. Remember, burnout is fatal in rescue, for both the rescuer and the dogs and cats being saved. Set limits and stick to them.

Big Picture Questions

In the beginning, rescuers should stick to smaller, manageable tasks. Understanding that all animals can’t be saved is important. One breed, in a small geographic area, would be a good start. As people become familiar with the organization consider revisiting the original goals and expanding them as necessary. It’s important to set limits because becoming overwhelmed can quickly lead to burnout. It’s important for purebred rescuers to know and understand their breed so responsible placements are made, and breed education and understanding are imperative. 

Where Does the Financing Come From?

Animal rescue is expensive. Adoption fees are a small source of income, but in most cases, the rescue will spend more on the animal than the adoption fee will cover. Expenses include advertising, shelter fees, veterinary bills, food, board, collars and leashes, toys, flea/tick and heartworm prevention, microchips, and grooming. This is especially true for senior animals and medically needy animals. Fundraising is an important and necessary source of income. How will funds be raised? Some groups solicit funds through newsletters, while others sell or raffle dog related items. Whatever method is used, be sure to learn about your state’s laws covering fundraising.

Is it Legal?

Does your state require licensing for rescue organizations? If so, contact the local animal welfare agencies and ask how to become licensed. Consider incorporating. This can be an expensive process depending on the state, but a not for profit organization is important for fundraising and tax purposes. Consider insurance to protect your rescue and help it recover damages. 

Will You be Utilizing Volunteers?

Consider recruiting others to help. Volunteers can help with expenses, fundraising, and decision-making. Finding people who share the passion is not always easy but local breed, obedience or breed clubs may be good starting points.

What is Your Animal Intake Process?

Who will be responsible for accepting animals? What criteria will be followed to screen dogs and cats and will the dogs be temperament tested? Will the dogs be evaluated with a standard aggression assessment prior to placement? Will the organization accept owner relinquished animals or only rescue from shelters? Create surrender form which owners must sign, giving the organization ownership of the animal. It is also wise to include a statement for the owners to sign, affirming that the dog or cat has never bitten anyone. How many animals can you responsibly support at one time?

Where Will Your Animals Live?

Where will the dogs and cats stay once in rescue? Will they be boarded at a kennel or fostered in homes? If foster homes are used, which expenses will be reimbursed – veterinarian bills, food, litter? Agreements signed by foster homes releasing the organization from liability, acknowledging understanding of group procedures, and agreeing to abide by all policies are important.

What Care Will Your Animals Need?

What will be the minimum standard of care and health provided by the organization? Animals should be completely vetted including spay/neuter (and at what age) but will dogs be housebroken, crate, or obedience trained? How will you provide for their physical and mental needs prior to adoption?

It’s also advantageous to find a veterinarian who will advise the organization. Many veterinarians will provide reduced prices to rescue groups. It also helps to set up billing procedures before hand and prove the organization has the ability to pays its bills.

What Will Your Adoption Process Look Like?

First, develop a process for helping applicants choose the pet that best matches their lifestyle and personality. Please be aware of any breed specific legislation in your community and the adoption process should be inclusive and designed to rehome animals not screen out prospective adopters. Consider using an open conversation based format to evaluate the needs and expectations of a potential guardian rather than a screening process with rigid guidelines.

One resource you may find helpful is the ASPCA®’s Meet Your Match® program, which evaluates an animal’s behavior and interests and matches them to an adopter’s preferences so they can take home a pet they can really click with.

Next, create a solid transfer of ownership agreement document for animals coming into the rescue organization and adoption contracts for those going into new homes. These contracts need to be executed by adopting families and provisions usually include:

  • Waiver agreeing to not hold the organization responsible for the animal.
  • Return contract, transferring responsibility.
  • Spay/neuter agreement if this is not done by the organization.

It is helpful to have an attorney look at all documents to assure the liability is reduced as much as possible for the organization.

Once the animal is placed in a new home will there be a follow-up call or visit? Will the organization be available to help the new owners with issues and problems which may arise during the adjustment period?

There may come a time when an owner is no longer be able or willing to care for the dog adopted from the organization. How will the return be handled, be it for people issues or behavioral reasons? Consider the toughest questions rescues have to face – when and why to euthanize. If a dog shows aggression, how comfortable is the organization with euthanasia and what are the parameters for euthanasia – aggression or biting, for serious health problems or if the animal is suffering? These emotional choices can be made less difficult if a policy is already in place before being faced with the issue. Remember, aggressive dogs are a safety and a liability issue. Keep in mind, the organization’s ability to help animals in the future may depend on the decisions of today.

Nonprofit Questions

Before applying for nonprofit status, outline all business planning aspects of the organization. Carefully consider the organization’s purpose or mission, programs or activities, budget, funding sources, evaluation and board leadership before beginning the application process. Without adequate planning, there might be unanswered questions in the incorporation process.

Is Your Project is Really Needed?

After planning, determine if the community needs the program. Are there other organizations already performing this work? Are there resources available to support this project?

Is there an Existing Organization who can Adopt Your Project?

Look for an existing organization that will accept the project as one of their own programs. There are over 130,000 registered nonprofits in California alone, placing charitable contributions and other assets at a premium. It’s advantageous to partner with an organization already in place. First seek inclusion with an organization performing similar work or with an organization that has expressed interest in the project. If the project cannot be re-homed, then seek separate corporate status.

Is the Your Project is Really a Nonprofit?

Does the project need to be set up as a nonprofit organization? Realize there is no advantage to becoming a nonprofit organization except for secure tax-exempt status. Tax-exempt organizations do not pay income taxes and, if they are a 501(c)(3), donors can also receive a charitable deduction for contributions if they complete the appropriate tax form. Competition for charitable contributions and foundation and corporate grants is greater now than ever before, making it difficult to sustain organizations through traditional funding streams. Consider incorporating as a for-profit before applying for nonprofit status.

When an organization becomes a nonprofit, it belongs to the people of the State of California, not to the founder or even to the board. The direction and purpose of the project is determined by a board of directors acting on behalf of the community. If a founder desires to retain control of the project, it is recommended that a for-profit company be formed.

What type of 501(c)(3) Should the Organization Be?

Determine the type of nonprofit organization. The group can be incorporated as a charitable or public benefit corporation, a mutual benefit corporation, or a religious corporation. A public benefit organization is formed for scientific, cultural, or educational purposes to benefit the public. A mutual benefit corporation is a trade association or social group which benefits its members. A religious organization is formed for broad general religious purposes.

Will the Organization be a Membership Organization?

The degree of members’ involvement with the organization may determine whether or not members have legal rights. Some memberships are opportunities to support an organization financially and do not include the right to vote for the board or determine program direction. Other organizations have members who play a major role in determining the program direction and the makeup of the board. Again, the planning process should clarify this question before the start of the incorporation process.

How Do You Make it Official?

The next steps are to write articles of incorporation and bylaws and file them with the Secretary of State. The planning steps should help with this process. The mission statement will need to be included in the Articles. Use language acceptable to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and to the Franchise Tax Board. The Articles must meet certain standards and include the name of the organization, how the organization is organized according to state law, a statement of purpose (mission), a statement that the organization will not engage in activities forbidden by law, dedication of assists, providing for distribution of assets upon dissolution, and name and addresses of agents. There are various filing fees required so be sure to check fee schedules.

Bylaws outline the governance procedures of the organization and must be consistent with nonprofit laws. This is the area in which a nonprofit attorney might be beneficial.

Conduct the first meeting to appoint directors, accept the Articles of Incorporation, adopt the bylaws, authorize submission of tax-exempt applications and authorize financial transactions such as opening bank accounts. The new board of directors must take this step. With this meeting, the board of directors assumes legal and fiduciary responsibility for the new organization. After submitting the Articles, a Domestic Nonprofit Corporation Statement from the Secretary of State will be provided which must be completed and returned within 90 days of filing the Articles.

What is the Federal Application Process?

To apply for federal tax exemption, complete and submit the proper forms to the IRS. It is usually difficult to complete, so this is another area in which an attorney might be helpful. A budget and fundraising plan must be submitted with the form. The federal application determines whether the organization meets the “public support test.” (To receive and maintain 501(c)(3) status, an organization must receive most of its money from broad public sources or from government.)

There are a number of companies that can assist in the process of incorporating the nonprofit and offer other services, such as preparation of initial tax forms and bylaws, to help establish the new organization.

What is the State Application Process?

After receiving exempt status from the IRS request state exemption by submitting a copy of the federal determination letter from the IRS. Once federal exemption is received, the state exemption is routine. After incorporating with the state, a Notice to Register and a Registration Form will be provided to register with the state Registry of Charitable Trusts. The trust oversees the activities of public benefit nonprofits.

What Yearly Forms Must You File?

Once incorporated, there are three annual reports which must be submitted – RRF-1 with the Attorney General’s office, Form 990 with the IRS (Office of Exempt Organizations), Form 199 with the Franchise Tax Board – and one which must be submitted biennially: the Statement of Domestic Nonprofit Corporation with the Secretary of State.

The IRS’s Exempt Organization Division’s “Life Cycle of a Public Charity” section has all the filing information for the federal forms and another good resource from the Attorney General’s office is the “Guide to Charities.”

Where Can You Get Help?

Forming the nonprofit organization is just the beginning. Make sure the organization is well managed, well governed and meets a valuable and needed purpose. Consultants and/or management support organizations (MSOs) can help manage the new organization. Be sure to also check the local MSO for a wide array of training programs and technical assistance that is particularly helpful to new organizations.

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