How to Start a 501(c)(3) Nonprofit Rescue

by Stephanie Dube Dwilson
You'll need tax-exempt status from the IRS to run your rescue as a nonprofit.

You'll need tax-exempt status from the IRS to run your rescue as a nonprofit.

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Starting a 501(c)(3) rescue is a great opportunity to help animals in need, saving them from kill shelters and getting them connected with people who want to adopt them into forever homes. After you've checked with other animal shelters in your area to make sure you're not duplicating efforts, you'll be ready to begin a series of state and federal filings that will keep your animal shelter tax-free.

Step 1

Organize a group of people who are interested in running the rescue. These people will end up serving as officers or on your board of directors. Each person needs to bring something that is specifically useful to running a nonprofit animal shelter. You'll need someone with nonprofit expertise, someone with fundraising and marketing prowess, and someone who's worked with animals before and is familiar with local laws and regulations. A veterinarian or veterinarian's assistant is also helpful.

Step 2

Write your mission statement and pick a name for your rescue. The statement should include how your rescue will help the community, the types of animals it will work with, where it will be located and future goals. Decide where you want to be 10 years from now and write down those as long-term goals, working back to immediate goals. Include how you plan to market the business and what types of people will be interested in donating to help animals. Write down the steps you need to take to accomplish each goal.

Step 3

Write your articles of incorporation and file them with your secretary of state's business office. The articles of incorporation must include your rescue's name, the names of the officers and the board of directors, a statement that the group is incorporating as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the name of the director, and the rescue's address. You'll also need to include the rescue's purpose, which will likely include your goal of finding safe and loving homes for animals, how you will pick qualified people to adopt your animals, whether you'll offer extra services such as spaying and neutering, and whether you'll offer foster services in addition to adoption services. Ask to see other rescues' articles of incorporation for additional ideas.

Step 4

Write and file bylaws for your nonprofit. Not all states require this, but it's good practice to have bylaws. The bylaws state how the organization will be run and how decisions will be made. For example, it will discuss how to add and remove members of the board and what qualifications are needed to be on the board, such as previous experience with animals or some type of animal care degree. Your bylaws should explain how funds will be raised for your shelter, such as whether you'll be applying for grants from the government.

Step 5

Decide where your shelter will be located and what types of animals you'll keep. Purchasing the land or building is preferred so you won't have to move a large number of animals later. Make sure your desired location adheres to city and state zoning laws. Zoning regulates whether you can run a business in the area, how many animals can be housed there and the types of animals you can have. Contact your local secretary of state's office or the city's chamber of commerce for region-specific information.

Step 6

Apply for your business license and get a kennel license if required by your state or region. Your secretary of state's office or website should list exactly what type of licenses you'll need to start a nonprofit rescue. For example, in Pennsylvania any business that keeps or transfers 26 dogs or more within a year needs a kennel license. Kennels must renew their licenses every year and pay a fee. In Miami-Dade County, Florida, kennel licenses costs $100 each year and require proof of business licenses, federal identification number, business tax receipt and certificate of occupancy.

Step 7

File all the relevant paperwork with the IRS to obtain tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status. You'll want this status because many organizations that give grants to animal shelters require proof that you have 501(c)(3) status. In addition, if you want some of your animals to be adopted through pet stores, most stores require that your shelter has 501(c)(3) status first. To get this status, you must obtain an Employer Identification Number and fill out an IRS Form 1023. All the relevant forms are available on the IRS website. You may want to consult an attorney when filling out these forms to make sure you do everything correctly.

Step 8

Register as a charitable organization with your state department's business office and obtain tax exempt status with your state, if applicable, after the IRS approves your tax exempt request. This will give your pet shelter extra credibility with potential donors and it may open additional doors for you to receive grants from state-specific organizations that are interested in helping animals. You may need to fill out a state application for exempt status or a business registration form.

Step 9

Get insurance for your animal shelter, including liability insurance. If a dog bites one of your volunteers, if a cat chews through electrical wiring and causes a fire or if a newly adopted kitten turns out to be sick, your shelter might face a lawsuit. You'll also want insurance on the building itself, to cover losses in case your business faces a costly accident like a flooding or if it's ever robbed.

Step 10

Hire additional people as needed. If you weren't able to find a veterinarian to serve on your board, you'll need to hire a veterinarian who can visit the shelter periodically and check on the health of the animals staying there, along with providing spaying and neutering services. Work with a veterinarian to offer reduced-cost spay, neutering and shots for anyone who adopts an animal from your shelter. You may also need to hire someone who'll work as an assistant and answer phones and email contacts.