Brown and white dog

Funding a rescue organization requires some basic business skills in marketing, fundraising, grant writing and cost containment. Plan to set aside $5,000 to $10,000 for start-up costs for your rescue group. This should cover start-up items such as food, bowls, toys, blankets, cages, carriers, collars, leashes, litter boxes, litter and veterinary funds for your first few charges. Even if you run a fosterbased organization and ask foster providers to cover the daily cost of food, it is a good idea to have back-up items on hand.

Once your organization is established, it is important to have a reliable and constant source of income. Without a solid plan in place, your rescue group will not be sustainable.

Types of funds to have

Good accounting practices require that you keep track of how donated funds are spent. It is helpful to have several funds to which people can donate to help you care for the animals.

General fund

The majority of your donations will fall into this category and any funds that are not otherwise earmarked will go here. You can use this money for anything needed to run your rescue, such as veterinarian bills, pet food, utility costs, animal transport and staff salaries. Having a “donate here” button on your webpage will help with fundraising for general funds.

Spay/neuter and general veterinary expenses

You will always need more funding for spay/neuter as well as veterinary care. Make it easy for people to donate for those causes by letting them know that you are trying to build funds in these areas.

Specific medical cases

Promoting specific animals with special needs is a great way to pay for unusually expensive cases. Be careful to ensure that all funds designated for a particular animal are used for that animal only. All extra funds must be returned to donors and not used for other animals. Make sure you are upfront and clear to potential donors about where and how the funds will be spent so they do not feel misled.

Creating a development plan

Do not rely on adoption fees as your sole source of income. Between spay/neuter, vaccinations and veterinary fees, many times the adoption fee will not even cover the amount of money you have to put into an animal before it can be adopted. While adoption fees are a way to defray some of these costs, you will need to develop a plan that brings money into your organization on an ongoing basis.

A rescue group based in Arlington, Va., exemplifies how an organization can diversify its funding base. While some of its revenue comes from adoption fees, the bulk of revenue comes from donations, fundraising events and partnerships with its forprofit subsidiary businesses—two pet boutiques and a full-service pet care company. Another organization in Chicago, Ill., uses the proceeds of their boarding and training center to fund their nonprofit rescue group. While these specific models may not be feasible for your organization, the lesson is clear: Diversify your funding base and do not count on adoption fees to cover all your costs.

Creating a development plan will provide a path for your organization to grow and focus on long-term goals. It will also enable you to determine which fundraising efforts work and where you should concentrate your energy. Importantly, it will help ensure your organization is there for the long haul. Sample development plans may be helpful.

Marketing and branding

Marketing and branding are essential for highlighting your organization and attracting more donors, volunteers and adopters. Do not be intimidated; marketing is simply using strategies and tactics that help you build relationships with supporters and fulfill your mission. Creating a marketing plan on an annual basis is an effective tool to help you achieve your goals as it creates a unified vision for everyone in the organization and guides decisions about resource allocation.

There are numerous ways to market your organization. Start a newsletter or fundraising appeal letter (either printed or electronic) highlighting all the wonderful animals your organization has rescued. People are more likely to give when they are proactively asked to donate. There are simple and inexpensive programs available to help you create a newsletter without the help of a graphic designer. And remember, people want to hear about the great work your group does for animals. You are the voice for the animals in your care, so tell their stories.

Another way to advertise your rescue group is to start a branding campaign—create a logo and put it on t-shirts, bags and other items to sell. There are numerous companies that will do this for your organization at little or no cost. Once you do create a logo and finalize your organization’s name, protect your brand by purchasing all website domains with that name (including both .org and .com suffixes), apply for a copyright for your name and apply for a trademark for your logo. You can find information on how to apply on the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s website. It is possible to fill out the applications yourself, but you may want to hire an attorney to ensure it is done properly.


Fundraising efforts need to be given the same, if not more, attention as your efforts to save animals’ lives. In general, if your organization is unable to raise sufficient funds to pay for its work, it is unlikely that you will be able to raise those funds at a later time. More importantly, attempting to raise funds after you have obligated your rescue group to specific projects is not a sustainable way to run your organization and makes it unlikely that the group will last for too long.

Fundraising activities are regulated by state law. The majority of states require nonprofits that solicit donations from within that state to register with its governing body. Each state has different registration requirements, so make sure you have submitted the correct paperwork and registered in every state you are soliciting donations. You may want to consult an attorney familiar with fundraising regulations to ensure full compliance.

Fundraising should not be the responsibility of just one person. Create a committee charged with developing creative ways to bring in more funds to your organization, as well as planning and running fundraising events.

There are a whole host of ways you can fundraise for your organization: cultivate donors, establish membership tiers, offer animal sponsorships, create “in honor of” and “in memoriam” funds, sell plaques for adoption event cages, post a wish list, develop a planned giving program, encourage in-kind donations, pursue corporate sponsorships, send direct mailings plan fun and creative events—the list is endless.

When planning an event, consider how many volunteers you will need, how much time it will take to plan, how you can advertise the event, how much money you have to spend on the event, how much money you plan to raise from the event and how you can measure success. Note that it is not always about how much money you raise—sometimes the exposure you gain is even more valuable.

Many times, all you need to do to secure a donation is ask—so do not be shy! A rescue group in New York, N.Y., once reached out to a cat litter company requesting a donation for their nonprofit organization. The company’s response? They sent 180 eight-pound bags of litter at no cost.

This brings up another important point: Do not forget about in-kind donations, which are contributions of goods or services. Many organizations prefer to contribute in-kind donations, which can be just as valuable as cash donations.

Send thank you emails for every donation, whether cash or in-kind, and reserve thank you letters in the mail for larger donations. It is crucial to include specific information in thank you notes so that donors can receive tax deductions for their contributions.

Grant writing

This is another area where you should build a dedicated team. Recruit people who are highly organized, know the organization well and are good writers. The grant writing process is not as overwhelming as people often fear, and once your writers have a couple of proposals under their belt, they will feel more confident and comfortable with the process. The HSUS has a comprehensive list of grants and The Foundation Center is another great resource to look for more traditional sources of grant funding. Grant writing is about building relationships, knowing your organization and simply following directions.

Cost Containment

To be a good steward of your donor’s funds, you need to get the most bang for the buck. There are some well-known strategies such as buying in bulk, but there are also lesser known ways to save funds for your rescue group. For example, ask rescue-friendly stores for discounts, contact local grocery stores for ripped bags of food or dented cans they can no longer use, set up an wish list for supplies, check your city and county for surplus equipment sales, and talk to your local hospital about donating infant eye medication and used medical equipment for use pursuant to your veterinarian’s instructions.