How to start a nonprofit animal rescue

Updated February 21, 2017

If you love animals and want to save and protect them, as well as find them forever homes, you might consider starting your own animal rescue. Depending on your resources, you can help 2 pets, 10 pets--or even more. Today's online world lets you get the word out to more animal lovers than ever before. The following steps will help you start and run a successful animal rescue.

Decide what type of animal rescue you would like to operate. There are rescues for just about every type of pet, including dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs and horses. Choose an animal or animals that you have experience caring for. If you want to start a dog rescue, for instance, decide if you would like to open it to all dogs or make it breed-specific and limit it to dogs you know most about.

Figure out your resources, including money, space and manpower in determining how many animals you will keep at once. You can always start out small and then expand as you go along.

Choose whether to run a private rescue or incorporate as a 501c3 (non-profit) organization. Although the start-up fee is considerably larger, there are advantages to incorporating, for instance: You will not be required to file income tax for the organization if your annual donations are below $25,000. You will also be able to collect tax deductible donations, as well as aquire corporate sponsors. Individuals and corporations are far more willing to donate to a 501c3 Rescue than a private rescue, because it's tax-deductible and there's accountability as to how their money is spent. Corporations almost never donate to or sponsor private rescues.

Do your homework. Research and read up on all of the necessary legalities for starting an animal rescue. Find out exactly what paperwork needs to be completed for the application process and what is required once you are approved. If you are a 501c3, for instance, you must designate officers and open a corporate bank account. Legalzoom provides valuable information for starting and operating an animal rescue according to the laws of your state. You can read about the basic requirements and paperwork for free, and for a fee, create the necessary legal documents. Guidestar is a good resource for non-profits. It provides an extensive listing of other 501c3 animal rescues and is a place to list and update your own organization's information, which will be valuable to potential donors (see Resources below).

Decide if you would like to hire an attorney or go at it yourself. An attorney can make the process a lot easier. In lieu of an attorney, try AttorneyAlternative, a website that will assist you in the process of starting a 501c3 rescue from start to finish, including your articles of incorporation, obtaining a Tax ID Number and your corporate bylaws, which is often the most difficult part (see Resources below).

Plan how you will obtain the animals. There are a variety of sources. You can go directly to shelters where euthanasia is imminent, rescue strays, acquire dogs from puppy mills, or take in homeless animals you hear or read about that were abused or abandoned, and may be ill or require rehabilitation. You might need to enlist volunteers or hire people to pick up the animals.

Figure out how the animals will be housed and where they will sleep. Will they require crates or kennels? Will all be located at your home/facility or will some be placed in foster homes? If you use foster homes, you will need to determine what expenses to reimburse for.

Create a screening application to determine who qualifies to adopt from your rescue. Depending on the pet, you may need to consider factors such as small children in the household, other pets, the size of the living quarters and whether or not there is a fenced yard. It is a good idea to arrange visits to the households of potential adopters.

Draw up a legally binding contract stating provisions for adoption, including a spay/neuter agreement if it wasn't already taken care of; a clause to reclaim the pet if not properly cared for; and stipulations for care, including housing, food, medical attention and restrictions such as no guarding, attack work, animal fighting or submitting for research.

Set the adoption fees. There are different factors to consider, such as the pet's age, medical condition and income status of the adopter.

Organize fundraisers. Although you will charge an adoption fee, it's often not enough to cover all of your expenses, especially for senior dogs and those in need of surgery. There are a variety of ways to fundraise, including benefit dinners, comedy shows and concerts, as well as walk or bowl-a-thons, raffles and silent auctions. If you are a 501c3 Rescue, you'd be surprised at how many local businesses and major corporations are happy to donate tax-deductible gifts, monetary donations or sponsor an event. is a great website to register with to raise funds for specific animals in need of emergency care. They will provide you with a widget for your website or MySpace page that people can easily click on to make a donation. Each time a donation is made, it will reflect what percentage of the goal has been met and how much more needs to be collected (see Resources below).

Create a Facebook page, MySpace page and a website to promote the rescue. Facebook and MySpace (see Resources below) are invaluable for networking with other rescues and for soliciting donations (and are absolutely free). Add animal organizations and rescues, as well as individual animal lovers as your Facebook and MySpace friends. You can post pictures of your animals up for adoption, as well as send bulletins requesting donations for specific animals that are in need of medical help. You will, in turn, receive bulletins from "friends" regarding other animals that may need your help and you can return the favor by cross-posting their bulletins.

List your animals up for adoption on the following popular websites:, Adopt a and Pets 911. Petfinder lists animals up for adoption throughout North America; Adopt a Pet lists from all over the United States and Canada and Pets 911 covers the whole U.S. People in your area will find you when they key in their zip code.


Ask those you designate as officers or other volunteers to help defray some of the startup costs. You can write off the incorporation fee on your personal income tax as a donation to your rescue. Find a veterinarian to advise you. Many will offer discounts to rescues, and once you establish a history with them, will devise a billing system and extend credit. Although it may seem like a lot of work, the joys will far outweigh the hardships.


Be prepared to make tough decisions regarding euthanasia for aggression or serious illness. Aggressive dogs, for instance, are a liability, as well as a safety issue. These decisions can affect the future of your rescue. Make sure your policies and procedures are well thought out before taking in your first animal.

Things You'll Need

  • Love and compassion for animals
  • Dedication
  • A selfless nature
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