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Implementing Best Practices for Rescue Groups

According to Petfinder.com, there are an estimated 13,857 animal “adoption groups” in the United States and Canada. Assuming that approximately 3,500 of these groups are shelters, that leaves about 10,000 private rescue groups that are run by individuals. These groups do not have a set definition, are not non-profit ventures (unless they have specifically filed for such tax-exempt status with the IRS) and, unlike a public shelter, are not accountable to any entity or organization. This has caused much mistrust within the shelter community and public-at-large. How many times have we heard in the news that a super-star rescue group one year is found to be a hoarder the next?

To combat this mistrust, we at Rescue Central have put together the following non-exclusive list of best practices for rescue groups. There are so many wonderful rescue groups who do essential work; but because there are no set standards it’s up to each organization to show the world that it is a professional, reputable and trustworthy rescue group.

The Basics
At minimum, any legitimate rescue group will incorporate pursuant to the laws in its home state and it’s a good idea to apply for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status with the IRS. Further, it’s essential to be thoughtful in building your board of directors. Although these are costly endeavors, incorporating is a basic way to show an organization’s legitimacy. And importantly, many sources of funding are only available to 501(c)(3) organizations and the tax-exempt status encourages people to make donations. The more you run your rescue group like a business, the greater chance your rescue group will be successful in the long-run.

Traits of a Good Rescue Group
While there is no one definition of a good rescue group, there are traits of successful rescue groups that will help shelters and the public feel comfortable working with these organizations.

  • Transparency/good customer service
    A trustworthy rescue group readily shares information about their operations, experience and the animals in their care. To the extent possible, they allow people to visit their facilities (obviously, not possible in a foster-based rescue group). These rescue groups are concerned with customer service for potential adopters, fosters and volunteers and are responsive to inquiries by returning phone calls and answering emails within a reasonable amount of time (even if just to acknowledge receipt of email and that they’re working on the request). Additionally, transparent rescue groups make their contact information (email address at minimum) easily accessible on their website.
  • Source of animals
    Taking in animals from the streets, the public and local shelters are traditionally acceptable sources of animal intake, based on your organization’s mission, etc. Acquiring pets directly from breeders, dealers, or auctions, however, should be done more cautiously. By purchasing pets from an auction, for example, you may be inadvertently creating demand for dogs for sale, thus perpetuating the problem of puppy mills. If your rescue group acquires pets from bulk sources of pets, make sure you’re considering all of the ramifications, and avoid creating a situation where unscrupulous breeders are making a profit off your kindness. .
  • Vet care
    A conscientious rescue organization ensures that all of the animals in their care receive proper and timely veterinary care, which includes vaccines, spay/neuter, parasite testing and treatment and dental care, among others. Additionally, partnering with a veterinarian (or several), will have the added bonus of offering a reference who can vouch for the care and treatment the rescue group provides for its animals.
  • Humane care
    In addition to adhering to the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters, (which apply to animals in every type of setting, not just traditional shelters), rescue groups must ensure that their charges are receiving proper care – which includes all 5 Freedoms.
  • Honesty
    At a well-run organization, individuals will inform volunteers as well as potential adopters and fosters about each animal’s problem, previous or ongoing treatment, and expectations about the level of care that may be required for a particular animal. At the same time, it’s important to keep a positive spin on the animal’s description. Instead of advertising a cat as “doesn’t get along with others”, another way to phrase it would be “prefers to have you all to herself.”
  • Follow up and return
    A good rescue group will be readily available and responsive when the adopters and fosters come back with questions about their new pet and will offer help for behavior problems. As the goal is to keep pets in their home, it’s a good idea to have behavior program in place to prevent problems before they arise. But if necessary, a reputable rescue group will always take back the animal without question if the adopter wants to return it.

Essential Programs
Any rescue group that has its eye on longevity and long-term success should aim to implemental the following programs.

  • Innovative, aggressive adoption program
    In many communities, rescue groups unfortunately have a reputation for making it impossible for people to adopt a pet. Not only is this self-defeating in that it takes longer to get a pet into its new home, but it turns off potential adopters and creates more work for rescue groups. Rescue groups should work on creating an adoption process that uses an application to jump start non-judgmental conversations with potential adopters, rather than an application where the “wrong” answer is an automatic deal-breaker. The application process should be an opportunity to build relationships and share information. Also, rescue groups should create initiatives to help animals in the difficult-to-adopt categories (e.g., black cats, pit bull type dogs, seniors, special needs) get into homes.
  • A robust foster network
    The larger the foster network, the more animals a rescue group can take in. Rescue groups should create a manual so that fosters know what they are getting into as well as provide protocols for common situations (medical issues, how to return an animal). Additionally, rescue groups should provide fosters with options and suggestions on how to get their charges adopted. If a foster feels like they have been abandoned, it will do a lot of damage to your rescue group’s reputation.
  • Volunteer recruitment program
    As rescue groups operate almost entirely on a volunteer basis, there is going to be a constant influx and outflow of volunteers. Organizations should have a firm plan in place on which areas are most in need of volunteers (e.g., adoption events, operating a facility, transportation), how to train them and how to retain them.
  • Know your capacity
    It’s easy to get overwhelmed – there are so many animals in need of our help. But we have to remember that we can’t save them all and need to do right by the ones we can save. Knowing when your organization is at or nearing full-capacity and being responsible about not taking in more animals is crucial to your rescue group’s longevity and reputation. Learning how to say no also helps prevent your organization from overextending itself financially and emotionally.
  • Community partnerships
    Relationships within the community are going to be some of the most important resources for your rescue group. Talk to local pet stores and grocery stores for food donations, find your local clinic for low-cost spay/neuter, look for places where you can hold an adoption event every weekend and where can you advertise your organization and animals.
  • Funding
    Every rescue group is always in need of additional funds. Create an event-planning committee for fundraisers, ask some of your staff to research and apply for grants, develop a public relations and advertising plan and think about ways to stretch each dollar as far as possible.

Extra Credit
Once your rescue group is well established in the community, think about building a coalition with other local shelters and rescue groups to address the pressing animal welfare issues in your community. Keep our common goals in mind as a way to build bridges with other organizations.

Rescue groups can help local shelters by reaching out to them and working with them on specific goals. Moreover, rescue groups can help each other just by setting a good example. It only takes one bad interaction to turn someone off to working with all rescue groups. By remaining professional, your organization can elevate the entire community. Finally, it’s important not to attack other rescue groups or shelters publicly. If all of us in the animal welfare community joined forces, just think what we could accomplish!

For more tips and ideas on running your rescue group, view our other resources.

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