How to Open an Animal Shelter


Many people can start a small rescue group or organize rescues on a small scale. Running an animal shelter, however, takes skill, business knowledge, leadership, dedication and often a lot of money. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, having good management, marketing and accounting skills also goes a long way to opening and running an animal shelter.

Analyze the Situation

This means not only looking at the needs of the community -- how many shelters are currently operating, whether they're no-kill shelters, how effective they are in placing animals -- but also at your own situation and your ability to run the shelter properly.

For example, make sure you truly understand the operating costs, including property rent or mortgage, utility bills, feeding the animals, cleaning and medical care. The Humane Society International recommends having funding enough for two years of operations before opening a shelter.

You will need expert support to maintain a shelter. This includes people well-versed in animal care, but also somebody who can help you deal with promotion and the administrative side of things. You should hire a lawyer, an accountant and a board of directors to help you get things started. If you plan to take volunteers, assess how much support the community might be able to offer in terms of fundraising and volunteering.

If you don't have experience in the ins and outs of operating a shelter, consider volunteering at a local shelter or sanctuary to get experience, make contacts and gain an understanding of day-to-day operations.

Get Ready to File

To be a proper animal shelter, you'll need to file to become a 501(c)3 tax-exempt nonprofit charity. This requires filling out specific forms and sending them to the IRS. The help of an attorney is invaluable at this point, as he'll be able to examine any local regulation requirements that might affect how you file. For example, depending on where you live, you might need a kennel license, insurance and more.

You also will need to develop protocols and policies, as well as the organization's bylaws and mission statement. This will ensure that your shelter gets a proper start and will improve your chances of developing community support and good relationships with other local organizations and companies who eventually might become sponsors.

Finally, you'll also need to understand local zoning laws. This will determine what kind of buildings you can set up to house the animals and how many and what types of animals you can house. Whether you're renting or buying a property, you also will need to ensure the cages and common areas are properly set up to comply with requirements and to ensure the animals' safety and comfort.

Raise Funds

Part of your initial plan should include details on how to raise funds to sustain the shelter. A well-developed financial plan should cover capital expenses -- large expenses such as housing -- and operating expenses.

Basic ways to get funds include membership programs, selling products such as T-shirts and calendars through the mail or booths -- and setting up special benefit dinners and events. You also should establish a team in charge of phoning or writing local organizations and individuals to ask for donations.

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