Want to Start an Animal Shelter?

Dog Running

1. What are you waiting for? The ASPCA’s National Shelter Outreach offers Ten Crucial Tips for Getting Started.

By: Mary Kirby and Lisa Saavedra, Director, ASPCA National Shelter Outreach

Every week, The ASPCA’s National Shelter Outreach (NSO) department receives dozens of requests for help from people looking for ways to improve the lives of animals in their communities. And every year the NSO staff visits more than 150 shelters throughout the country, talking with directors, volunteers and employees, discussing their problems and assisting them with suggestions and resources.

The overwhelming conclusion? It takes a lot more than good intentions to run a shelter; it takes management experience, accounting skills, good contacts and the ability to get things done in the community. Excellent marketing skills are a big plus, too.

These 10 essential tips—gleaned from the pages of our newly released, three-ring binder book, Keys to a Great Shelter: The ASPCA National Shelter Outreach Guide to Starting and Improving a Humane Organization—just might help change your dream into a reality.

women with pets

2. Assess Community Needs

This could be the most important research you do, and it’s important to do it before you incorporate. Determine the problems of your local animal welfare organization. Does an existing shelter fail to meet the humane needs of your community? How is animal control handled locally? Visiting other shelters and networking with existing humane organizations will help you come up with ideas. Would another shelter drain the resources of your community and reduce the effectiveness of both? Do you have sufficient resources—not just in funds, but also in expertise—to properly maintain a shelter? Can you develop community support for your goals? These are the types of questions you’re going to have to answer before taking the next step.

women thinking

3. Think Twice

The idea of building and running a sheltering facility is extremely enticing. But consider if a supportive or outreach program might not be of more immediate assistance. Many municipal shelters are greatly helped by Friends of the Shelter groups, or by other humane programs in foster care, low-cost spay/neuter, fundraising, education or legislative action that may be more fitting to their community’s needs.

pet care

4. Get Experience

If you and the members of your group don’t have experience in sheltering or a related field—become a volunteer! Look for other opportunities to learn, too, including attending conferences and getting online. For example, the shelters and rescue groups that join www.petfinder.org have access to an online feature where lots of networking is done and information exchanged. Register your humane organization under “Shelter Sign-up.”

office discussion

5. Form a Team of Go-Getters

Make the effort to assemble a winning team with the requisite expertise in management, fundraising, and accounting for your board of directors. A veterinarian, a lawyer and a teacher are also great allies, as are professionals in media, advertising and public relations. Everyone who is on the board should have and/or be willing to cultivate important contacts within the community. Look for people who can give or get others to give significant funding, and you’ll be well on your way.

pet adoption

6. Visit at Other Shelters

Every member of your team should visit several shelters, and those on the shelter construction committee should visit many more. Take your architect and/or contractor along, too. Don’t look only at those in neighboring counties, but visit shelters in other states and other parts of the country as much as possible to garner a wealth of ideas. Visit shelters large and small, both retro-fitted buildings and custom-designed facilities. Make arrangements to have the executive directors give you a tour. Ask lots of questions. Find out what their goals were in designing the shelter, what they feel has worked well for them and what they would do differently. Take photos, videos and notes to share with the board.

dogs waiting

7. Decide What Type of Shelter You Want

Most shelters incorporate one or more of the following functions. Municipal animal shelters are funded by taxes and user fees and often employ animal control officers. Privately funded non-profit shelters (generally called the humane society, the society for prevention of cruelty to animals or the animal rescue league) usually accept all animals and, as a result, are often forced to euthanize animals based on space, species, age and adoptability. They usually offer a variety of programs such as animal rescue, cruelty investigation, and community education. “No-kill” shelters are generally privately funded and do not accept all animals brought to them. However, once accepted, animals are never euthanized unless they are incurably sick, disabled or display extreme behavior that makes them unadoptable. Sanctuaries specialize in offering lifetime care to animals, limit their admissions and generally promote adoptions.


8. Come Up with a Mission Statement and a Plan

Presumably, your group has already discussed its goals at length, but now it’s time to put your thoughts on paper for others to see. Write a mission statement that explains the purpose of your organization. This will help guide your development and is required for incorporation as a non-profit. (Incidentally, the decision to incorporate or not, as well as what type of an organization you will be, are ones you will need guidance to reach.)

To incorporate, you’ll need to include the organization’s bylaws and articles of incorporation, as well as a list of those on the board of directors. Refer to the bylaws of other organizations for ideas; samples are included in the NSO guidebook. There are a number of documents that must be filed in order to qualify for the IRS’s 501 (c) 3 tax-exempt status. Mistakes in filing can mean lengthy delays in getting the shelter off the ground. That’s why it’s important to have an attorney help you navigate this legal process.

Once you’ve filed for incorporation, the next step is to develop policies and protocols—about adoption, euthanasia and volunteering, to name just a few. You’ll also to need to determine the future of your shelter. Where do you want the shelter to be in five years? In 10 years? What part will your community play in supporting the shelter? How will you develop supportive relationships with local and national vendors? Do you have people in your organization who can find and develop potential resources?

Dog sitting near dollar bills

9. Raise Funds

The one inescapable fact of all non-profit humane organizations is the constant need for funds. Good intentions and hard work alone won’t cut it. Remember, running a shelter is a business, and developing sound and professional fundraising strategies not only has its obvious rewards, but is an indispensable tool.

Personal contact is the tried-and-true means to gain major donations. Many animal welfare organizations have also developed wonderfully imaginative and amusing ways to raise money and goodwill with special events. From dog walks and bake sales to corporate sponsorships, possible sources of revenue are readily available. Regardless of the size of your community, you’ll need to come up with your own sources of funding.

pet birthday

10. Toot Your Horn

When it’s finally time for the shelter’s grand opening, make it a major event—send press releases, advertise, have an open house party. It’s more than a celebration; it’s a promotion of all you will offer to the community. Develop sympathetic contacts with the press, send a regular newsletter to supporters, adopters and visitors, and be sure to include a donation envelope.

shelter animals

11. Don't Forget the Animals

Buddy, Sweetie, Dudley, Flower….Whoever the animals are who have touched your heart, always keep in mind that they’re the reason that you’re doing this.

Starting a shelter is an exciting and complicated process, but it’s not for everyone. For those who embark on this course, we wish you every success. Fortunately, for the rest of us, there are other opportunities to help. Suggestions on how to improve your local shelter are just around the bend in the next issue of Animal Watch.

dog with family

12. Tell us!

Have you thought about forming a group to help animals?