How To Start A Pet Rescue Organization

Some people dream of the day when they can pursue their own passion, work for themselves, and start a business or organization. And for some pet lovers, this dream can be the desire to make a difference in the lives of pets outside their own homes by starting a pet rescue. If you’ve ever wondered what it might take to run a pet-related organization, take a look at the expert tips below on how to get started.

Have Passion and Patience

Before you jump head first into the world of pets it’s important to find what you’re truly passionate about—and recognize that other people will not always be as enthusiastic as you. For San Francisco-based Jeanette Cereske, founder of Sugar Rub! and winner of the GOOD Maker Picturing Pets Challenge, her mission was clear: Raise awareness about feline mammary cancer, after her cat Sugar battled the illness. Despite building a web presence, a following wasn’t instantaneous. “For me, the hardest part was accepting that it was going to take time, and that everybody wasn't going to be as passionate it about it as I am,” says Cereske.

Be Business Savvy

“When you start an organization, be it a nonprofit or not, you are starting a business and you are selling something. If nothing else, you're selling your idea, your passion,” says Cereske. Because of this, it’s important to be business savvy and have a plan.

As part of that plan, remember to think about how you’ll fund your organization. It may be a nonprofit, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need money to provide the best possible care for homeless pets, from medical needs to feeding to helping do marketing outreach to match potential owners. Steve Smith, founder of disabled pet sanctuary Rolling Dog Farm in Lancaster, New Hampshire, says, “A career as a corporate professional doesn’t prepare you for asking other people for money.” He notes that he and his wife, Alayne Marker, had to telecommute for the first few years to fund the sanctuary. It’s important to have a business plan that accounts for the real costs of providing pets with around-the-clock care and attention that won’t break the bank. It may take time to create a steady pipeline to generate donations and grants, so setting a financial roadmap will help sustain a rescue shelter longer term.

Kim Stordahl, founder The Old Dog House, a Jacksonville, Florida-based organization that gives senior dogs a second chance, also advises, “Do lots of research. Research your area; know your animal control laws. Are there ordinances that might prohibit you from doing what you want to do?”

And don’t forget that to keep pets healthy and happy before adoption, you’ll want to research resources that can help you provide care for pets that may have a variety of medical and socialization needs. Jessica Landesman, founder of volunteer run dog rescue What’s Up Dog! LA, agrees, noting that you’re never going to know everything and there are always new things to learn when starting a rescue.

Find Your Niche

When starting out, create a clear goal for your organization and gain a full understanding of the needs in your area. Smith says, “I think the first question [people] should ask is whether there's really a need for another rescue organization.”

Stordahl agrees, “If there's already two golden retriever rescue groups in your immediate area, you don't want to start a third one.” For her own organization, Stordahl was inspired when she saw elderly dogs were rarely put on the adoption floor. Finding few rescues for older dogs in her area, she dove head first into creating The Old Dog House.

Cereske, who found not many people knew about feline mammary cancer, created three goals for Sugar Rub! to focus on: raise awareness about mammary cancer, encourage people to do a monthly check up, and raise money for research.

Become a Social Butterfly

“To me it's the internet and social media at their best when you can connect with people and really help them,” says Cereske. Social media and sites like and Adopt-a-Pet are key to building relationships with supporters, growing a passionate and engaged community, and helping animals find the right owners.

“The shelters really love the support of the rescues and they're going to do whatever they can to encourage [relationships],” says Landesman. When starting her rescue, Landesman sat down with the leader of the organization she volunteered with to get advice.

For Stordahl, she reached out to rescues to get permission to model her paperwork after what an established group had created. She and Landesmen also recommend participating in pet-related events within the rescue community to get your rescue—and your animals—out there. “It’s really all about the relationships,” says Stordahl.

It’s those relationships as well as classes that will help you gain an understanding of the care homeless and special needs pets require. Smith says, “We had attended 'how to start a sanctuary’ workshops and read everything we could.”

Start Small

Starting a rescue or pets-related organization shouldn’t be a race. Smith, Landesmen, Cereske and Stordahl all have relatively small operations with organic growth. “Our goal is not to grow, grow, grow, but to be able to provide a true in-home environment for these dogs,” says Smith. And he and Marker, who started Rolling Dog Farm in 2000, certainly have—the dogs have their own two-story wing in their home.

Likewise, Landesman, who started her rescue with just one dog, says, “Start small. Realize that you as one person cannot save all of them, but you can make a really big impact by just helping one dog at a time and going from there.”

Photo via Flickr (cc) user Kelly Cookson

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