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You're in the lifesaving business

Will you be the rescue group that roared ... or the one that whimpered?

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2015

Rescue groups that try to function without strong leadership and business-savvy practices may find that getting things done is like, well, herding cats. Someone has to lead the pride.A unified effort requires group members who agree on a mission statement and the activities that support it.A group doesn’t necessarily make a team—you have to get people together and commit to team building.Your group may be sitting on a pile of donations, but without responsible accounting practices, how will you know? You can’t trust that a little bird will tell the world about your good works; you have to be proactive about letting people know what you do.

Do you know this rescue group?

Based on a passionate but nonspecific foundation—“We love animals!”—its mission statement describes sweeping plans for animal welfare in its city, and the surrounding area, and seemingly anywhere else it can locate on a map. Its members will go wherever help of any kind is needed. Its leaders say yes to any appeal for help.

Yet if you scratch beneath the surface, the rescue itself is often pleading for help in its online forum. It seems never to have held a general meeting or social event for its volunteers. There is no consistent communication, internally or externally, and its website is a shambles. Neither the local government nor local media know of the group.

Stellar volunteers go unrecognized, and inactive members are kept on the rolls. Meanwhile, in the trenches, tensions develop over organization charts and titles (“senior volunteer!”). Rarely do its members come together for face-to-face interactions.

Just getting animals from foster care to veterinary appointments can be chaotic. When a volunteer transporting two cats from different locations asks about logistics, the query leads to 20-plus emails and phone calls, coming at all hours, involving a second volunteer and all three of the group’s “directors.”

Another volunteer who spearheaded successful fundraising campaigns has been forced out after asking how the proceeds were spent. Not that anyone’s doing anything sketchy with the money, but either the folks in the inner circle keep that info to themselves or no one’s been keeping careful track of the cash—or both. The group has accumulated donations of food, kitty litter, pet furniture and money—all without recording the donations or acknowledging the donors.

The interested adopters who manage to penetrate the labyrinth of the website and send a query about an animal disappear into the email pile and are either never contacted, or are swamped by responses from five volunteers who all convey different information about the adoption process.

Although the group does save and place animals now and then, it does so almost in spite of itself, because no one who interacts with it—from volunteers to adopters to cooperating shelters—has any idea how the group manages to operate.

Happily, this sketch of an animal rescue group in trouble describes an organization that doesn’t exist—at least, not in this full-blown form. It’s a fictional composite of groups I’ve worked with or heard about since joining the world of animal rescue nearly six years ago. I’d already been reporting and blogging about animals and held graduate degrees in public relations and administration and supervision when I offered to help publicize area rescues’ events. That grew into involvement with those events, trap-neuter-return activities, transporting animals and shelter cleaning. I’ve been continually surprised by the great gulf between the basic management principles I studied and practiced and the way many rescues operate.

On one level, I get it: People go into rescue work because they are moved by the plight of homeless animals, because they want to make a difference and help find animals good homes, not because they want to run a business. But to be effective, to last more than a few months or years, a rescue group needs much more than members who love animals. A variety of professional skills is needed, along with hard-nosed realism and meticulous planning. Many of the principles that make for-profit businesses successful apply to nonprofits as well, and while they may seem painful and difficult to institute, they will save time—and lives—in the long run.

A rescue is no different from any business enterprise—except that it focuses on helping living beings rather than selling widgets. That vital mission makes it all the more important for the group to strategize and operate effectively. Rescue groups would do themselves a favor by adopting some operational principles commonly advised and employed in the business world. Such best practices lead inevitably to better results.

Have one leader.

No, not a power-over-all dictator who unilaterally calls all the shots—but one highly competent person with oversight of all group activities and the ultimate responsibility for the organization’s decisions.

This person will not act alone, of course. The leader should be accountable to a board of directors or equivalent body, and should regularly consult with others (board members, team leaders, committee chairs, etc.). A chief responsibility of the leader is knowing how to delegate and how to direct a leadership team whose members have clearly defined roles. Through ongoing interactions with members that help create buy-in, a competent leader will know better than to impose a demanding new activity—like a major fundraiser—without first determining group members’ interest and ability to carry it out.

A single leader also helps head off a common problem: When “one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing,” the results can be maddening to group members and adopters alike. Frustration can set in, for example, when multiple volunteers promise a single animal to different adopters, when volunteer shifts for adoption events aren’t well-coordinated or when no one arranges and tracks transport for animals pulled from a shelter on their way to foster homes.

Agree on a mission statement with core activities identified and prioritized.

Like any cause-based group, animal rescues can err and flame out, trying to be all things to all those in need. They can take on too many activities without sufficient resources (human, financial, etc.) and then have to beg volunteers for help, or bail and fail.

A rescue shouldn’t promise more than it can deliver—which is why a carefully formulated mission statement is so important. Core activities and the scope of those efforts must be spelled out and prioritized. For example, does your group focus on assisting shelters nearby, or work directly with owners who want to surrender? What if a call comes in from a distant organization that has animals who need help? How do you prioritize the needs? Do shelter animals needing pickup get priority over those needing transport for spay/neuter or adoptable pets boarded for display at retail sites?

Start small and refine, expanding gradually, as various elements are mastered and resources permit. (Performing a community assessment can help you figure out how to focus your efforts; see “Taking a Closer Look at Your Community” in our Mar-Apr 2015 issue for more information.)

Jim Goettler’s invaluable Everything Guide to Starting and Running a Nonprofit includes a chapter on the mission statement, or “guiding document,” for nonprofits, suggesting ways to develop it. Managing for Dummies by Bob Nelson and Peter Economy offers tips for communicating that vision, stressing the importance of prioritizing related goals.

Commit to the continuous practice of team building.

To carry out its tasks, an animal rescue group needs committed, like-minded people—but just because a bunch of people all love animals doesn’t mean they’ll immediately form a team. They’ll work better and more willingly when they feel welcome, have info and input, and know they’re appreciated.

Team building is a never-ending effort that pays off hugely in can-do attitudes and group morale. A spirited, coherent team attracts still more participants because people want to be part of a going concern; they want to be on the winning team. And of course a smart rescue group will actively recruit new volunteers and offer ongoing orientations.

With much rescue work these days being conducted online and by phone, don’t underestimate the value of face-time. Beyond keeping group members informed and motivated, regular meetings, social events and celebrations ensure that group members know one another. And when people know each other, it’s easier for them to develop trust and collaborate.

In short, it’s crucial for managers to balance the organization’s mission with the needs of the people working to achieve it. In Building Successful Teams, Bill Butterworth identifies the three individual needs of team members as “a sense of belonging, a sense of worth and a sense of competence.”

In Managing the Non-Profit Organization, Peter Drucker argues that team building starts with finding the right people and treating them not as volunteers but as unpaid members of the organization. “Recognition is an important part of that volunteer workforce,” he writes.

And remember, little stuff matters. Providing T-shirts with group logos and other such gear helps grow pride and spread group identity. Featuring current information and recent achievements—never too many “attagirls!”—in the organization’s various forms of communication to its members and supporters facilitates awareness and cohesion. The top 10 ways to motivate employees in Managing for Dummies are worth daily review and regular practice.

Evaluate performance, and make personnel adjustments when needed.

Setting performance expectations and evaluating team members’ progress are also critical to team building—as is the leader’s responsibility to help volunteers be all they can be. The guy who designs event fliers, for instance, needs to do so within a given time frame, or those fliers are useless. Whoever sets up for an adoption day must have enough cages on hand for all eligible cats to be shown, and the event administrator needs to keep track of data collected and file it promptly.

Like salaried employees, volunteers must deliver on expectations for their performance. When that doesn’t happen, jeopardizing the group’s mission and reputation, remedial action is called for. If the poor performer has already been coached toward success to no avail, it may be time to add an additional volunteer to the mix, energizing efforts. Worst case, the nonperforming volunteer may need to be eased out of that job—or may by then sense that need herself.

Face-saving is always desirable, of course. Rescue group members typically have full-time jobs besides, and it may take no more than repositioning a volunteer to get rescue tasks done and keep a friend.

Communicate regularly, both internally and externally.

Communication improves relationships, morale and productivity and costs nothing but time and commitment. And yet volunteers sometimes feel that they’re the last to know about a group project, a way of doing things, even a leadership change. (One of three leaders resigns, then six weeks later, without a meeting, a selection process or an election, five self-appointed “leaders” announce themselves as such in an email to members—without even an indication of who will do what.)

Group members doing the work of the organization and representing it should always be first to know what’s going on with the organization’s work and mission. “Knowledge is power” and “the pride starts inside” are clichés for a reason—they’re true. Internal communication must be two-way and ongoing. Up-down communication is facilitated by an overall attitude of openness, frequent meetings, an online forum and regular “rumor-busting.”

Just as a group’s volunteers need to know what’s happening with the organization’s work, countless external people need to know—even if they don’t realize they do. Donors, potential and past adopters, shelters that the rescue works with, local officials, legislators and the media all have potential interest in the work your group does. You need to invest in keeping them accurately informed.

Among the ways to do this: single-page monthly “FYI fliers” about what’s new; an annual report, widely distributed; and volunteers who keep in touch with key “externals.” Such regular communication can build their awareness and support.

These days, a website is probably the primary way a group can establish itself and be found by the people who need to find it. But it must be done well, or it may create more frustration than communication. Clearly written, carefully proofread and always up to date, the website should communicate in a way that keeps user needs at the forefront. For instance, would-be adopters want to know what pets are available and how the process works, so prominently target them with those specifics.

In The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence, management guru Tom Peters refers to the “insanely important value of keeping people informed/over-informed 100 percent of the time.” What else is there to say? Maybe that “the inability to communicate effectively is one of the most common struggles all teams face,” according to Butterworth. Drucker advises building the organization “around information and communication,” describing information that flows up and down.

Establish an accounting and reporting system to keep current, accurate records.

It should include key activities (such as adoption numbers, spays/neuters—whatever activity you’ve established as the core of your mission); donations and income; a list of donors, adopters and foster caregivers; and other achievements.

A rescue group that keeps revenue and spending secret, that stores donated pet supplies without policies or procedures for their use, that maintains no records of adoption fees and donations—this is a rescue group that won’t last very long, and that may risk its nonprofit status.

“Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion,” the saying goes. The same goes for groups claiming a higher purpose. They’re not above the law—in fact, they often count on the law to uphold their right to rescue animals and carry out related actions. What’s more, as nonprofits, rescue groups benefit from tax-exempt status—but if they aren’t tracking their donations and adoptions income correctly, poof! Goodbye tax benefits; hello IRS visitor.

Keeping meticulous, trustworthy records helps you see what you’ve achieved and where you could be stronger. The former is a great way to solicit community support, donations and grant approvals; the latter helps you hone future efforts. An internal reporting system should require anyone dealing with income or donations and anyone performing quantifiable tasks (such as placing animals) to report these moneys or activities. Even if not required to do so, savvy rescue groups might elect to have an annual audit for a clean bill of ethical and financial health.

Goettler’s Everything Guide stresses the need for supporting documentation in applying for nonprofit status. That includes financial data with income statements, projected budget, schedule of events and attendance figures, publication samples and clippings and grant awards paperwork.

Require professional practices even if your group is all-volunteer.

A group’s volunteers are just as responsible as paid employees for quality results. Independent of paychecks, all members should exhibit the maturity and professionalism that preclude personality clashes and help their cause.

Finding good homes for animals is a cause that takes people: supporters, foster caregivers, adopters—aka customers. To attract and keep those people, rescues need to focus on customer service, building it into every facet of their activity loop—the positive, professional manner of all volunteers; a welcoming website; a simple, to-the-point adoption application form; and follow-ups to measure customer satisfaction and solicit suggestions.


  • Building Successful Teams by Bill Butterworth
  • The Everything Guide to Starting and Running a Nonprofit by Jim Goettler
  • The Little Big Things: 163 Ways to Pursue Excellence by Tom Peters
  • Managing for Dummies by Bob Nelson and Peter Economy
  • Managing the Non-Profit Organization: Principles and Practices by Peter F. Drucker

Rescues might establish an annual time to review and revise all forms and publications. They could also try random customer checks and even occasional focus groups to find out what people think about their operations.

Ongoing self-evaluation is key: Are your phone and email queries being answered promptly, with warmth and accuracy? Was that adoption event held during convenient hours at an accessible place for adopters? Are your adoption fees reasonable, given your area and number of homeless pets?

Much more than just a collection of people who love animals, a rescue group is a business, one aiming to match animals in need with the right people (customers). Successfully performing that lifesaving job on a regular basis takes all the professionalism and excellent customer service the group can command.

About the Author

Pat Summers is a New Jersey-based writer focusing on animals and the arts. An animal rescue volunteer, she has also blogged extensively about animals, most recently for three years on the Newark Star-Ledger online pets page.