How to Start Your Own Animal Welfare Nonprofit
by Bill Hamilton
I receive frequent calls and e-mails from animal-loving citizens across the country asking me how I got FSFACC off the ground. They know their local shelter, whether public or private, needs help: improved animal control and care services, lower kill rates, longer adoption hours, capital improvements, operating costs, volunteer programs, advertising and publicity, fundraising programs, etc., but the world of nonprofits is not something most kids learn about in school.
Actually, it's not much different from starting a company. In fact, you will probably be creating a full-fledged corporation.
With a Little Help from Your Friends
Your first step is to form a groundwork committee of likeminded members of the public. They can be friends and referrals, but they must have energy, vision, a commitment to animal welfare, a sense of personal responsibility and time to devote to the enterprise. It would help if each one had some expertise in fields related to your nonprofit's probable goals, like law, event planning, fundraising or estate planning. Two to five members, in addition to yourself, is a manageable number for a small nonprofit just starting out. Be prepared, however, to do most of the groundwork yourself, since starting a "Friends of" nonprofit is difficult to delegate, though you should try to do so as much as possible.
The initial committee members could become your first board if they were willing to accept that responsibility after incorporation. Board candidates who don't want to get involved but just want to donate money are certainly no less welcome. Eventually, you will want as large a board as you can manage. There really is no limit. (I highly recommend reading a book by board consultants Robert Zimmerman and Ann Lehman: Boards That Love Fundraising : A How-to Guide for Your Board.)
By the Book...Buy the Book
My next step when I started my organization in 2000 was purchasing what was then called "The California Nonprofit Handbook" by attorney Anthony Mancuso from Nolo Press and following its guidelines to the letter. There is a version for all states as well. It looks forbidding, and friends of mine founding their own nonprofits have given up and hired a lawyer, which to me is spending money that could be going to help animals. It really isn't that difficult. Just read it line by line, page by page, until you understand each step before proceeding to the next step. It's not rocket science.
The national version, also by Mr. Mancuso, How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation, explains many of the concepts common to nonprofit formation in every state. The paper version runs $42.49 (plus $5 ground shipping and local sales tax if ordering in California), and the binder format comes with a CD-ROM that includes all the forms you'll need to submit. You can also download and print out the online version for $5 less ($37.49) and also save the $5 shipping cost and California sales tax.
Likewise, if you plan to form your nonprofit in California you can purchase the current edition of How to Form a Nonprofit Corporation in California for the same prices, also in binder form or online.
Two State Agencies and One Federal Agency
Basically, the two main formal steps are getting state acceptance, i.e., incorporation and nonprofit tax status from, in California, the Secretary of State's office and the Franchise Tax Board, respectively, and then federal government acceptance, i.e., 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, from the IRS.
What Every Potential Nonprofit Must Do
* Try to formulate a mission statement. It may go through many changes, but this should stand as your nonprofit's overriding goal.
* Then come up with five or six ongoing concrete "subgoals" or "purposes" you hope to work at to achieve your mission. They should be ongoing actions that will justify your existence to the public and explain how you will achieve your primary mission. Both your mission statement and your mission "subgoals" are required on your Articles of Incorporation, your primary founding document, which will be submitted, for instance, to the California Secretary of State and the California Franchise Tax Board (and to the comparable agencies in your own state), so formulating them now will save you a lot of time later. Believe it or not, writing these down may be the most difficult part of forming a nonprofit. They will probably take a lot of thought and discussion, as well they should.
* The application the IRS requires for 501(c)(3) status is the 1023. One attorney who specializes in helping nonprofits complete this and other required paperwork is Sandy Deja, whose site includes other helpful articles, forms and information.
* In California reserve the name of your organization with the Secretary of State's office. As with all these steps, I imagine it's a similar requirement in every state.
* Open a checking account for the group with as much money as you, your committee and any other interested parties can collect. This will pay for such expenses as photocopying and application fees.
* Once you receive nonprofit status, which takes five to six months after submitting paperwork and a fee to the IRS, open a free Paypal account so you can accept tax-deductible credit card and ATM card donations. The filing fee for organizations expecting to raise $10,000 a year or more is $750. If you don't expect to average that much each year the fee is $300.
* Start forming and adding to postal and e-mail mailing lists. Use your own contacts as well as those of the other members of your committee. Scour the yellow pages for animal-related businesses, boarding kennels and vets in your area. See if the city will let you use their animal shelter client list, particularly of past adopters. You can also rent such lists for your area for one-time use, a minimum of 5,000 names.
* Send out news releases to the broadcast and print media in your area, announcing your organization, any events planned, and your need for help and funds, if appropriate.
* Try to partner with animal rescue groups in your area. Establish common goals and develop symbiotic relationships.
* Determine if your shelter aspires to be "no-kill." Although this term is usually misunderstood and frequently misused, you'll get more support if your shelter is at least trying to be no-kill. If it isn't, determine what your group can do to aim toward that goal. I would contact the shelter manager of the Tomkins County SPCA in Ithaca, NY, which has the lowest kill rate in the country as measured by animal deaths per thousand people. Her name is Sandy Snyder: email@example.com and (607) 257-1822. (An alternate measure of success in some communities is the "live release rate" .) Another good source on the no-kill philosophy is Nathan Winograd, president of No Kill Solutions, a Web site, magazine and consultancy. In fact, Nathan was the shelter manager of the Tomkins County SPCA when it became a no-kill leader and now helps shelters all over the country achieve that noble goal.
* Research other relevant advice online.
* Finally, are there any other public relations hurdles at your shelter to smooth over? For instance, if there has been a scandal at your shelter or negative stories in the news you must be prepared to respond to that when potential donors inquire about it. Try to patch all the leaks in your boat before upgrading to a bigger yacht.
If these steps are still not enough to get you started or don't adequately address your specific circumstances feel free to contact me.