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Starting a Rescue Organization

Forming a Non-Profit Organization



How to Start a Rescue

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.

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 burn out. It’s important for purebred rescuers to know and understand their breed so responsible placements are made, and breed education and understanding are imperative. Irresponsible placements hurt everyone, especially the dogs.

Issues to Consider When Setting Goals for the Rescue Organization

Financing: 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, learn about the state laws covering fundraising.

Legal issues and Licensing: Does the 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.

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.

Intake: 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?

Housing: 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.

Veterinarian Care: 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.

Care Guidelines: 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?

Advertising: How will the organization advertise its services? There are many places online to advertise, including and

Open Adoptions: 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 adoptors. 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

The ASPCA®’s Meet Your Match® program, evaluates an animal’s behavior and interests and matches them to an adopter’s preferences so that adoptors can take home a pet they can really click with.

Contracts: 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, stating the animal must be returned to the organization if the new owners can’t keep the animal.
  • 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.

Follow-Up: 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?

Returns: An animal rescue organization is responsible for the lives of the dogs it places into new homes. 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.


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