How to Start an Animal Rescue Nonprofit | The Ultimate Guide

Starting an animal rescue can be challenging, yet it’s an incredibly worthwhile and rewarding experience. Animal rescue nonprofits take in endangered, injured, or unwanted creatures and give them a comfortable space to call home. This article will take you through all the steps that go into starting an animal rescue nonprofit.

10 minutes read
How to Start an Animal Rescue Nonprofit | The Ultimate Guide

Some of the most beautiful nonprofit organizations are those creating a space for compassion and support towards living beings other than our human selves: animals. Forming an animal rescue nonprofit can be a challenging yet incredibly worthwhile and powerful experience.

An animal rescue nonprofit takes in endangered, injured, or unwanted creatures and gives them a comfortable and peaceful space to call home. Starting an animal rescue nonprofit may also allow you to save thousands of animals from euthanization each year. It’s estimated that 920,000 animals are euthanized each year, but your nonprofit could have a positive and lasting impact in decreasing this number.

This article will take you through all the steps that go into starting an animal rescue nonprofit.

Step 1: Do In-Depth Research and Planning

Prepare yourself to start your animal rescue nonprofit or animal shelter. Read as many materials and studies about animal welfare as possible to secure a comprehensive understanding of the issue. Trusted organizations like the Humane Society, Best Friends Animal Society, Atlas Animal Rescue, ARE Animal Rescue, etc. are all excellent sources with readily available information on the subject. You can check out our list of the 17 best animal charities for more inspiration.

Reach out to rescue shelter managers and local vets. Check local newspapers for pressing needs. Be upfront and consider collaborating with existing animal rescue organizations in some way. Check your state’s requirements.

Having a detailed plan put together for beginning your nonprofit is crucial. What particular issue will you be addressing at the start? Will you provide hands-on animal care, or is your mission conservation-based? Do you have sufficient space and resources for an animal shelter, treatment center, or rescue? What about your staff requirements? How much will you need to get started?

You may want to check out this detailed strategic plan of an animal rescue nonprofit for inspiration. The link is also highlighted on their website for interested donors and funders.

A strategic plan for an animal rescue nonprofit.

Step 2: Choose a Name for Your Animal Rescue Nonprofit

The right name is a great way to distinguish yourself from other, similar nonprofits and to guide prospective donors and constituents to get a sense of your mission immediately. Choose a name that reflects your mission and cannot be mixed up with other similar nonprofit names. It should also demonstrate the type of animal care you provide. Before you finalize the name, remember to check if your desired social media handles are available.

Finally, it’s crucial to consider Search Engine Optimization properties. Consider using SEO platforms (e.g. Keyword Tool) to help you determine and use the words that will appear first or high-up in online searches.

Pro tip: Do not choose a name that has an undesirable acronym. E.g. “Brilliant Animal Defense” since its acronym is BAD. Try to get creative instead!

Step 3: Formulate a Mission Statement

Mission statements tell prospective donors, funders, and those seeking help what kinds of services you offer. There are many animal rescue nonprofits in the country, and perhaps multiple even in your local community. It’s important to analyze other, similar nonprofits’ mission statements, identify gaps in services, and focus on those gaps when deciding upon your own mission statement and services.

Here are some tips and tricks –

  • The best nonprofit mission statements are a succinct encapsulation of why your nonprofit exists, whom it serves, and how it serves them.
  • Differentiate between mission and vision statements. A vision statement explains the overall goal of your organization looking into the future, while the mission statement outlines the present plan to realize the vision.
  • Make it unambiguous and easy to understand, concise, and informative.
  • After you’ve established your mission statement, make sure you review it frequently so that it always accurately reflects what your nonprofit is doing and stands for.

Pro tip: Use our free Mission and Vision Statement worksheet to get it just right.

For the Love of Alex does an excellent job of highlighting their mission statement on the hero image on their website.

Creating a mission statement for your animal rescue

They embed their Donorbox donation form right on their website so those moved by their mission statement can easily give without leaving their site.

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Step 4: Fix Your Goals

Your nonprofit’s goals are something that prospective funders and those looking for help will want to see and be able to trust. The following provides some great initial steps to take when determining goals:

  • Outline your nonprofit’s overall plan, writing out everything you want to include (e.g. sections like marketing, fundraising, human resources, and budgets). Outlines focus your attention and give you a roadmap.
  • Determine the animal rescue products, programs, and/or services you plan to provide. What products or services do you want to provide to your community? How do they specifically benefit the animals? Where do you want to be in five years? Make sure to include program details, as these are what many prospective sponsors and donors will care to read about most.
  • Establish a marketing plan. This type of plan is essential for any new nonprofit wanting to reach its goals and establish credibility, loyalty, and trust with its new constituents. Outline ideas for marketing – digital campaigns, outreach activities, special projects, events – based on the market research you’ve done.

Step 5: Establish a Corporation and Form Your Board of Directors

You’ve already named your nonprofit. Your next steps will include the following.

1. Obtain a name reservation for your animal rescue nonprofit

Check to see if your state requires that you register your nonprofit’s name with them. Once your name is reserved, most states will issue a name reservation certification. Hold onto this, as it will be used later on. You may need to provide evidence of licensing if your name includes a professional designation (e.g. specialist).

2. Recruit and hire an incorporator(s)

Your nonprofit’s Incorporator will sign the Articles of Incorporation (more on this below) for your new animal rescue nonprofit. You will need at least one incorporator but can have more than one.

3. Recruit a board of directors.

Your Board of Directors (BOD) provides financial oversight, governs, fundraises, represents and makes important decisions for your nonprofit. Recruit a diverse BOD that accurately represents the community you are planning to serve. Make sure to check your state’s requirements for board member demographics.

The right board members are everything to brand new organizations. Take your time to find the best crew for your inaugural board.

4. Recruit and hire officers.

Some states require that your nonprofit’s registered agent to be located in the state in which your animal rescue nonprofit resides. Your registered agent will be responsible for receiving legal notices for your organization.

Board members can also serve as officers of your organization, if necessary. You’ll need to identify a board member who can sign paperwork and serve as a representative, especially if you don’t yet have an Executive Director or Chief Executive Officer.

5. File articles of incorporation.

This document contains basic information about your nonprofit, including but not limited to your nonprofit’s name and location. The steps for filing articles of incorporation are different in every state, so be sure to check your state’s requirements.

6. File an initial report.

Filing an initial report – or publishing the news of your nonprofit in a local media outlet – can get the word out about your new organization’s purpose, services, and needs for funding. Many states will provide a comprehensive list of newspaper outlets which you can then use to reach as many sources as possible.

Your board members should also share the news with their networks to both get the word out and identify potential funders.

7. Get an EIN.

Your Employee Identification Number (EIN) will allow you to open a bank account, apply for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and submit 990 tax returns to the IRS. Your EIN is a unique, nine-digit number assigned by the IRS to legally identify your nonprofit. To register for an EIN, you’ll need to fill out IRS Form SS-4.

Step 6: Set up Bylaws for Your Animal Rescue Nonprofit

Your bylaws will include an outline of your organization’s mission, meeting and officer requirements, and key stakeholder regulations. Be sure to include:

  • Your nonprofit’s name.
  • Your nonprofit’s mission.
  • Geographic area served by your nonprofit.
  • Membership requirements (Responsibilities, Duties, Quorum, Voting Process).
  • Board of directors (duties, officers, meetings).
  • A list of board committees and a description of each.
  • Conflict of interest policy.
  • Whistleblower policy.
  • The fiscal year of the organization.
  • Processes for amending bylaws.

Check out our guide to improving nonprofit transparency for more guidance on setting your bylaws. Bylaws are an important aspect for any organization with nonprofit status as they outline a clear protocol for operating.

Step 7: Secure 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Status

Section 501(c)(3), under Title 26, is a key part of the US Internal Revenue Code. It permits a federal tax exemption for nonprofit organizations. You must file IRS Form 1023 to be recognized. Aim to file it within 27 months of the date you file your nonprofit’s articles of incorporation. The user fee for filing for exempt status will be $275 or $600 – depending on your application method. It can take 3-12 months for the IRS to return a decision to you.

Make sure to also check and see if you can use a shorter application form (Form 1023-EZ).

Once you’ve obtained your tax-exempt status, there’s no expiration date on it. However, a tax-exempt organization must file Form 990 with the IRS on an annual basis. Be sure to keep adequate and extremely accurate accounting records of your liabilities, assets, expenses, and income. Keep records of payroll and payment of withheld taxes, workers’ compensation unemployment taxes, and beyond.

Step 8: Establish an Accounting and Budget System

A nonprofit operating budget is a financial document providing an overview of how your nonprofit is planning to spend its money. It breaks down your operating expenses and overall costs and is effectively a reflection of what your nonprofit expects to achieve over a one-year period. A great budget establishes trust and credibility with donors and constituents.

Here are some tips to create an excellent nonprofit budget.

  • Start work on your budget at least three to four months in advance. Involve your board, staff, and volunteers in creating this budget, uniting a variety of diverse perspectives, and securing a mutual understanding of the financial health of your organization.
  • Organize your charitable gift income by source: individuals, foundations, corporations, special events, and any other relevant income source.
  • List your expenses in categories. Separate your staff expenses out as these usually comprise 60% to 90% of any nonprofit’s budget. Separate program and other expenses, as this is a key data point donors are usually interested in knowing.

Read our comprehensive guide to fund accounting to learn more about a common nonprofit accounting approach.

Step 9: Determine Policies and Standards for Your Animal Rescue

A “policy” is a type of service your animal rescue nonprofit provides, a set of rules for animal care, or who is allowed to care for the many animals that come into your nonprofit. “Standards,” on the other hand, are the expectations for the way in which your policies should be carried out. Policies and standards must outline all expectations for members, animal rescue volunteers, staff, and your board.

Some animal rescue nonprofits even list down their data use, privacy, advertising, financial data, and other related policies on their websites.

Pro tip: Share a finalized copy of your policies and standards with your staff and volunteers. Put it on your website, allowing prospective donors and funders to see your plans for operations will hold you accountable for your actions.

Step 10: Promote Your Animal Rescue and Gather Support

Here, you’ll begin to make a name for yourself, get attention from prospective donors, and most importantly, realize how many opportunities really do exist for your nonprofit to make a big difference in your community with rescued animals. Here are some tips to help you promote your animal rescue nonprofit –

  • Write and distribute a press release to local newspapers about your new nonprofit.
  • Create a gorgeous, concise website with details about your nonprofit, programs, campaigns, animals rescued, rehomed animals, donation page, etc.
  • Develop a social media presence. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram are three critical platforms for developing an online presence.
  • Create an email mailing list and campaign. Store your email addresses and contacts in a donor management database and integrate with an email campaign platform such as MailChimp. Now, implement an email campaign where you send regular updates and sneak peeks of your work to your new mailing list(s).

We love how the website for Lady Freethinker has a simple but highly effective design. All you need to know about them is just a click away! And their donate button is easy to find and stands out.

A website for an animal rescue nonprofit

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Step 11: Recruit and Hire Volunteer Staff

Volunteers are the backbone of any great nonprofit, and can also be key for saving your nonprofit time and money. This is why spending time upfront recruiting, engaging, and securing hardworking volunteers for your animal shelter or rescue is so crucial.

Animal rescue volunteers can help with animal care, administrative work, outreach, and more.

Collaborate with your team to identify gaps in your operations. Developing a solid onboarding process is a step that many nonprofits overlook. Visit universities and young professionals groups if you want to recruit a younger population of volunteers. Reach out to experts in your community if you need help with specific skills or expertise.

Pro tip #1: Look for volunteers that are willing to sign petitions or spread the word about a policy or a campaign. They can become advocates of your cause. These people will help you raise additional funds and acquire new donors in the future.

Thank every single volunteer who comes to a shift. Make special efforts to recognize your most active volunteers.

Pro tip #2: Consider hiring paid staff for some of the important work. Volunteers cannot be expected to work for your projects or programs whenever needed. So if your budget permits, do pitch the board about hiring some paid employees to have the best work done.

Step 12: Raise Funds for Your Animal Rescue Mission

Small, mid-level, and major gifts are all key for reaching fundraising goals in any new nonprofit – but they’re especially important for your animal rescue organization to help more animals.

You need to have a donation page on your website and a simple donation form to collect donations. Add a recurring gifts program to your regular donation page. Add intervals like weekly, monthly, quarterly, and yearly to help your community make recurring donations to your animal rescue organization.


But your animal rescue will often need additional funds for urgent needs like treatments, surgeries, more vehicles, staff, etc. You can leverage a crowdfunding campaign for situations like this. As we mentioned earlier, your volunteer advocates can also help you raise more funds for certain campaigns and needs. Use peer-to-peer fundraising campaigns to encourage this and more participation within the community.

Pro tip: Choose an online fundraising tool that lets you manage donors and track donations along with the fundraising features mentioned above. That will help you build and strengthen relationships in your community. Additionally, look for advanced solutions like membership campaigns, online event-ticketing forms, etc. to increase donor loyalty and revenue for your nonprofit.

Donorbox for Animal Rescue Nonprofits

If you want to start an animal rescue, having the right fundraising platform by your side is they key to helping you do more good. Donorbox is your one-stop-shop to grow your animal rescue nonprofit. Our tools and features are designed to help nonprofits of all sizes scale up their missions.

  • Sleek, customizable donation forms that youcan embed right on your website or host on Donorbox.
  • Features like Peer-to-Peer and Crowdfunding to help you harness the power of your supporters and raise more money.
  • Built in recurring donations to turn one-time donors into longterm supporters.
  • Event ticketing solution to boost revenue through fundraising events.
  • In-person, contactless online giving with the Donorbox Live™ Kiosk app, Text-to-Give, and free QR codes for every campaign.
  • UltraSwift™ Pay so donors can cut their checkout time in half with their preferred digital wallet.

And more. Over 50,000 nonprofit organizations trust Donorbox. Sign up for free today to see why!

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Final Thoughts

Starting your own animal rescue nonprofit organization or animal shelter may take time, but it’ll be time that’s beyond worth it. Each step of the way, you and your staff will build momentum and begin to see the long list of opportunities to make a difference for animals and adopters through this work.

Start by starting! Just imagine the number of adorable furry, slimy, and feathery creatures just waiting for your determination and passion to thrive, and to make their lives so much better.

Whenever you’re ready, Donorbox can help you scale your fundraising and grow your important work. Check out our fundraising features as well as the Nonprofit Blog which gives you insightful information and tips on nonprofit management.

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Raviraj heads the sales and marketing team at Donorbox. His growth-hacking abilities have helped Donorbox boost fundraising efforts for thousands of nonprofit organizations.

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