Why start an organization? Many people working individually to help cats are filling a gap in their community, providing an important and unique service. However, if you are one of these people, you may begin to want to improve the lives of more cats and increase your influence in the community. Starting your own organization to help outdoor cats is a demanding, but rewarding way to effect change at the local level on a greater scale.
Creating a safe place where individuals can come together under the umbrella of an organization will help you gain credibility in your community, reach out to and involve more people, and raise money to support your efforts—all with the goal of having a significant impact in helping more cats. The steps you take when starting an organization also help you create a clear plan to changing your community for the better.*
- Status. The formation of a local group enhances the status of the cats and your work.
- Support. Donations, community support, and media attention are more readily given to an organized group than to an individual.
- Hometown Pride. Many businesses and community newspapers like to support local causes, because that is where their customer base is.
- Government Responsiveness. Local government officials are more responsive to local residents and local organizations.
- Crisis Prevention and Response. In times of trouble, your organization’s supporters can band together to put pressure on local government bodies or others who threaten the well-being of the cats. It’s a lot easier and quicker to mobilize an existing network in a crisis than to try to create one.
- Moral Support. Solitary caregivers and the cats for which they care need a safety-net to be successful. Caregivers can enjoy the benefits of being able to call on others when they are in need of help.
- Success Breeds Success. Your program will help build a successful foundation that can be expanded to help even more people and cats and gain even more supporters.
- Acting Locally. It’s easier to motivate people to address a situation in their own community that they can see and experience. Time and money invested locally empowers people to get involved. It’s the principle “think globally, act locally” put into practice.
Some Things to Keep in Mind when Starting Your Own Organization
Begin by creating a clear understanding of what you seek to accomplish by starting an organization. Write a mission statement that will define every goal and action of your organization. Create goals for both the long-term and the short-term.
The next step is to ensure that any partners you have on board also understand your goals and agree with them. Beginning with a strong base and having clearly-defined goals will help you garner more supporters and help you raise funds later.
- Small Business Mentality
While this may be something you are trying to accomplish in your free time, treat your new organization as a small business. Planning, management, and fundraising are essential to the success or failure of your new group. It is important to plan on spending an equal amount of time on administrative aspects of your organization as you will on direct animal care, campaigns, and any of the other goals of your group.
No one person must, or even can, do everything. Most successful organizations are the product of teamwork, requiring the cooperation of people with varied skills and talents who share a dedication to the group’s purpose. One person’s interests and talents may lead him or her to spend time on direct animal care, while someone else will need to spend time on administrative tasks. Think about your various needs and the strengths of your partners as you plan.
* This part of the website, Starting Your Own Organization to Help Cats, is adapted from the original “Starting a Nonprofit Organization to Help Animals” by Bonney Brown
In the excitement of starting something new, it’s tempting to rush through this first step. But energy invested in research and planning early on saves the time in mistakes later.
- Know the basics. If you don’t have a business background, reading a single book on nonprofit management can make a world of difference. (Most local libraries have books on the subject.) Talking with knowledgeable people, visiting other successful organizations, and attending workshops or seminars can help to give you a rounded perspective. As you meet and talk with others in the humane movement, you’ll also be developing a valuable support network of colleagues.
- Be informed about the issues. Keep up with recent developments by talking with other humane organizations, attending conferences, and subscribing to animal-related periodicals and publications for animal welfare professionals. It’s uplifting and energizing to learn about new ideas and meet other like-minded individuals. Learn as much as you can about the newest animal care standards. Your organization sets an example for the public. It’s also important to know your limits. Be prepared to refer people to experts—veterinarians, behaviorists, and Alley Cat Allies – for issues that are beyond your abilities or understanding.
- What are the feral cat concerns in your community?
- How can you best address them?
- How do local shelters address feral cat needs?
- What is the greatest need or resource most lacking?
- Are there other local organizations working on feral cat concerns? Are they potential friends or foes?
- What are others in the feral cat movement doing across the country? Are there ways to network or share information?
- Define your purpose. Much of your organization’s success lies in articulating a clear and motivational mission statement for your work. Writing your mission statement also lays the groundwork for filing your corporate papers, which customarily require a statement of purpose.
Ask yourself, “Exactly what are we trying to do here?” Defining your purpose precisely in words is tremendously powerful. Your mission statement will guide all of your work; it will help you with future decision-making and help get your message across to the public.
- Make it work. A successful mission statement will: be brief (one or two sentences); be clear and positive in tone; be action- and results-oriented; and will motivate people to support your work.
- Understand the goal-setting process. Don’t confuse goal-setting with your mission statement. Goals are specific statements about what you need to achieve to fulfill your mission. To make them more concrete, put your goals in writing. Focus on results and the actions needed to achieve them. Your goals should be inspiring and motivational! Whenever possible, make them measurable.
- Start with your long-range goals and work back to the present. Where do you want to be in 10 years? (The answer to this question will give you your long-range goals.) What interim steps will you need to take to get there? (These are your intermediate goals.) Finally, decide which of these goals you’ll work on in the first and second years. (These are your short-range goals; you’ll want to focus on these right away.)
- Plan how you will accomplish your goals. Specifically, what programs will you develop? What will be required in terms of financial resources and people? As you do your planning, keep in mind that it’s important to demonstrate success early on. Because of this, you may not want to tackle your most challenging project first; instead, hone your skills and develop the team with a more manageable project.
Identify your resources, your needs, the challenges ahead, and the steps you can take in the short- and long-term to reach your goals. These steps should fall into a strategy you believe will get you to your goals—a business plan of tactics, programs, and activities.
- Connect tactics to goals. Work backwards when determining your strategy. It’s important to trace your steps and ensure that any tactic you choose will fulfill the goals you have already outlined. Carefully choosing tactics will help ensure your organization is productive and successful.
- Plan tactics based on the different arms of your organization. One thing to keep in mind is that many outdoor cat-related organizations have several prongs:
- Hands-on work – Trapping, transporting, and working with caregivers to ensure each cat is cared for humanely. Read more in our How to Conduct Trap-Neuter-Return Guide and our Colony Care Guide.
- Clinic – Organizing frequent spay and neuter clinics for feral cats where caregivers and trappers can bring cats for services. Some organizations make this the focus of their work, putting a lot of resources into creating a formal low-cost or subsidized, high-volume, high-quality clinic that the whole community can use. Other organizations offer once a month or special occasion clinics through partnerships with veterinarians or shelters. Read more about feral cat clinics.
- Campaigns – Working on the front lines for the cats. Organizations pay attention to what is happening in the local city hall and municipal shelter—where decisions are made that can impact the success of your organization. Organizations also help individual caregivers with issues that arise with neighbors or government officials, acting as a mediator in these situations.
- Publicity – Helping your organization get the word out to the community about all of the great work you are doing. This area helps generate and mobilize advocates in the community through the use of the media. Learn more about working with the media.
Before moving forward on your projects, it is important to set the rules of your organization.
- Bylaws – Bylaws address the framework and governance of the organization. These are the rules for how you expect your supporters, volunteers, board members, and other associates to handle situations that may come up. Bylaws also provide direction for your board, explaining how meetings should run, how votes are counted, how members can be removed, and how finances and budgets are handled. Bylaws can even specify job descriptions for staff, such as what you expect from your volunteer or adoption coordinator.
- Policies and Procedures – Policies and procedures address your organization’s daily operations. Policies are more detailed, but they are also easier to change than bylaws. Here you can include steps your organization will follow in completing an adoption or your policy stating that all animals must be spayed or neutered and vaccinated before being placed into a home. Your policies will need to include things like the services you will routinely provide for the public, veterinary care protocol, and a listing of individuals empowered to authorize veterinary care. Such guidelines help to create stability within the organization by keeping everyone on the same track. They also give the organization credibility by helping to ensure that consistent, quality services are provided. If you need a starting place, examine other organizations’ policies and procedures.
- Systems – It’s important that you are able to show success for all of the work you do. Creating effective filing systems and keeping track of all of your statistics will help show your success to funders and those interested in joining your organization. Identify baselines now, so that in a year or two, you can compare statistics and ensure that your work is helping you reach your goals and accomplish your mission.
- How many animals did your group handle this year? Tracking the number of animals and how you dealt with them will help show the progress you are making in protecting the lives of outdoor cats.
- How many did you trap?
- How many were spayed or neutered?
- How many were returned versus adopted?
- How much per animal did your organization spend?
- How many were euthanized for health reasons?
- How many people were you able to help?
- How many testimonies were you able to obtain?
- How many calls did your organization receive asking for help?
- What is happening to cats in your community now? Being able to see trends in the number of animals not helped by municipal agencies helps define your organization’s programs and goals as well as the failure of the government, tax-funded system. You may want to obtain the following through FOIA statistics if animal control keeps them:
- How many cats are entering each shelter?
- How many are killed?
- How many are adopted?
- How many are euthanized for health reasons?
- How many people called the shelter about outdoor cats?
- How did cats enter the shelter (owner relinquishment, trap, animal control responding to a call, etc.)?
5) Establish a Board of Directors
- The board of directors governs the organization. The board is responsible for establishing the direction of the organization and for its financial, ethical, and legal well-being. The board is also responsible for hiring the executive director and for ongoing oversight. If board members also fulfill other roles within the organization, as they often do in humane organizations, they should have a clear understanding that this work is separate and apart from their role as board members. They must respect the authority of the appointed executive director and staff with regards to daily operations.
- Create a winning team. Board members should be expected to do more for your organization than attend meetings and help govern its direction. Nonprofit board members can bring needed skills to help implement your business plan and connections to help move forward on your goals. Identify the skills and talents you need as well as the personalities necessary to make your organization work. Legal, accounting, veterinary, public relations, fundraising and business skills can all be valuable to your organization. Once you identify the types of skills needed, list potential individuals to contact. If you do not know them well, you will want to check them out – meet and talk with them. Also, talk with others who have worked with them in the past. Their ability to work well with others and their commitment to the core values of your organization are as important as their talents.
- Factors to consider when selecting Board members:
- Will they work well with your group? A single individual can impede progress and make the group ineffective.
- Do they understand and agree with the organization’s mission and goals?
- Will they have time to devote to be effective?
- What resources do they bring to the board?
- Will they commit to donating funds?
- Will they commit to help with fundraising?
- Do they have other useful connections?
- Prevent drama before it begins. Horror stories of troubled boards abound: the overly aggressive individual who scares everyone else off; the nice but uninvolved person who can never make it to the meetings; the contrary person who disagrees with everything. To avoid these potential pitfalls, take the time to get to know people before inviting them onto the board. Your bylaws can help with solving problems when they occur; they should allow for removal of a board member and should establish “terms of office” for them, which can provide a non-confrontational way to end an unproductive relationship.
- Create the right size board. Generally, a smaller board (seven individuals or less) is easier to work with and is often more efficient than a larger one. The size of the board of directors must be set down in your bylaws. Most states require a minimum of three board members.
6) Incorporate your Organization
- Get legal. Incorporation has several important benefits. It limits personal liability, lends credibility to your work, and enhances the status of the animals under your care. Once your group obtains 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), donations to your work will be tax-deductible, which encourages larger gifts. Additionally, incorporating and obtaining your tax-exempt status becomes essential as your group grows. Failure to comply with IRS tax codes and state laws relating to charitable donations can have serious legal ramifications for your organization.
- What to do first. Start by registering the corporate name of your organization and gathering the necessary paperwork you will need. Name registration and incorporation paperwork is usually available from your state’s Secretary of State Office or Corporation Commission. Forms for filing your 501(c)(3) application are available from the IRS. You may also need to file with your state for a certificate to solicit donations and for local and state sales tax exemption. This is often done through the state’s Attorney General’s office.
- Where to call. You can call the IRS at 1-800-TAX FORM. It’s not uncommon for emerging organizations to meet with an attorney for help through the process of applying for incorporation and tax exemption, but it is not a requirement. If you need help hire a trusted legal expert. You can also call your State House of Representatives to get the phone number for your Secretary of State and Attorney General’s office. Ask for information on:
- Registering the corporate name
- Incorporating a nonprofit
- Any other regulations that apply to charitable nonprofit organizations
- Ensure that your bylaws meet requirements. Your organization’s bylaws must be in compliance with both your state and federal government requirements. For this reason, it’s important to do some research. “Boilerplate” bylaws are available at your local law library. Looking at other local organizations’ bylaws can also be helpful. Consider the wording carefully and keep the bylaws simple.
What’s in a Name?
Consider your organization’s name carefully. It’s possible to change a corporate name, but it’s much better to get it right the first time! Name changes are expensive, time-consuming, and confusing to donors.
When thinking about the name, consider how the name will sound and what it will imply to an individual learning about your group for the first time?
Use your group’s name to make a clear statement about what you do to help animals. For example, the name Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals implies that the group performs cruelty investigations. The term “rescue” suggests that rescue services are provided for animals. A geographic name indicates that only a restricted area is served.
Try to select a name that is:
- Clearly denotes what your group is about
Avoid names that are:
- Common (such as adopt-a pet, save-a-pet, p.a.w.s.)
- Similar to another organization
- Very long and complicated
7) Manage Your Dollars with Sense
An effective accounting system that documents income and expenses in understandable categories is necessary to managing your organization’s money. If you do not have an accountant or bookkeeper, consider recruiting one to help you with this task. This is a great opportunity to identify and work with members of your board or other supporters with special skills such as bookkeeping.
- Create a budget. Organizations can usually base their budgets on their track record of spending and bringing in resources and on their plans for the next year. However, if you’re just starting out, you will have to use your goals as a starting point for estimating expenses. Your accountant, if you have one, can be of help here. The budget is a guideline. You don’t have to get it penny-perfect; just do the best you can. You’ll get better at projections over time. When doing your budget, do not neglect to allocate resources to fundraising expenses, like buying envelopes, paper, and postage for solicitation letters or newsletters. It takes money to make money. The IRS requires that you put together a budget and have a sound accounting program in place for tracking your work. Major donors, particularly foundations and businesses, will want to see your budget before they consider funding you. When your budget is done, you can clearly see what you need to raise in terms of financial resources and begin planning your tactics for garnering that money.
- Taking donations is a responsibility to take seriously. The board and executive director need to have a clear understanding of the funds required to make your organization’s plans a reality. It’s a sobering experience to realize that you and your other leaders have the responsibility to raise these funds.
8) Create a Following
Once the groundwork is laid, you need to cultivate the support of the community, reach out, and involve more people. In order to succeed, your organization is going to need the support of many people.
- Start an organizational mailing list. Compile the addresses of your animal-loving friends and ask all your board members and volunteers for names and addresses of people they know who may be interested in being a part of your organization. You’ll need a simple, computerized mailing-list database or even spreadsheet. Your mailing list forms the foundation of all your future fundraising efforts. While it may seem obvious, organize your mailing list so that each part of the contact information is in a separate column of the spreadsheet. This will make the information much easier to work with later.
- Hold a public meeting. One way to garner support from a broad spectrum of the community within a short timeframe is to hold a public meeting, where you can explain what your group is going to accomplish.
- Publicize the meeting. Send a meeting notice to all the names on your newly created mailing list to announce your meeting. The U.S. Postal Service www.usps.gov offers services on their website which can help you make eye-catching postcard notices or other sorts of invitations and mailings. Put up flyers and posters, make announcements in local list serves and newsletters, or write up a press release to help get the word out. Make sure that ALL of the following pertinent information is included: organization’s name, mailing address, phone number, e-mail address; subject of the meeting; when (date and time); where (give the address and directions).
- Set a goal for the first meeting. State in one or two sentences exactly what you would like your meeting to accomplish. At this first meeting, it’s important to establish your credibility and to explain your organization’s program clearly and positively. While you want to convince people of the seriousness of your issues, be sure to speak in a positive tone. It is important that you convince attendees that this is a do-able project and that they can make a difference. An unproductive meeting can be the kiss of death to a young group, since the busy, productive people you need to connect with do not have time to waste.
- Provide written materials. Provide take-home handouts and encourage attendees to share the information with others. Materials you’ll want to have available at the meeting include:
- Information about the program/organization
- Donation request form or flyer and donation coin canister
- Sign-in sheet with fields for name and contact information
- Volunteer form for attendees to indicate their area of volunteer interest and to inform you about any feral colonies they are aware of in town
- Posters announcing the next meeting date
- A printed agenda with time limits for each item
- Organizing a Successful Meeting. Set ground rules and appoint a strong, but fair, chairperson. The chairperson’s job is to maintain focus and order and prevent the meeting from degenerating into a series of “cute animal stories” or “war stories.” The appropriate time for people to chat is after the meeting ends. (As one of the organization’s leaders, don’t underestimate the value of your personal time spent getting to know people. Many valuable connections are made informally, after the meeting is over.) Arrange follow-up items for attendees. Note action items and take action!
- Make it fun. People come to meetings because it is a cause they believe in and want to help; but they also want their time spent devoted to causes to be social and fun. Consider offering refreshments and allow time for people to mingle and get to know one another. Invite people to bring a friend or even offer door prizes to supporters who bring the most friends. Word of mouth is your greatest ally in generating your own local movement.
- Create eye-catching publicity materials.
- Appearance matters! If it’s too busy, hard to read, sloppy, or dull, it will not have the desired result. Use professional-looking graphics or photographs to make your materials more eye-catching. Place your logo and Organizational name prominently in each piece. Design your materials to have the same look and feel to help people recognize your organization visually.
- Accuracy counts. Have at least two people proofread and edit all materials before they go out – letters, posters, flyers, literature about the group—everything. They should be checking for errors in spelling, grammar, content, and comprehension.
- Style and tone. Avoid using guilt or a “doom-and-gloom” approach. You can present substantive information in a positive manner. Your events should sound appealing and upbeat and your organization should be presented as a winning, successful program. Always phrase things in a positive light.
- Share materials all around town. Select locations and assign volunteers to post the notices. Vet clinics, groomers, public libraries, town halls, supermarket bulletin boards, pet supply stores, and local businesses should all be covered. To maintain good relations in the community, always ask permission before posting notices.
- Build relationships with the media. Send news releases to the local newspapers and a public service announcement to local radio stations about events and organizational activities. Read more about publicity materials.
- Visibility. Recruitment campaigns create visibility for the organization and build supporter numbers. Visibility and supporters translate into grassroots power, which are instrumental in making change in your community’s animal control system.
- Achieve goals. To accomplish the organization’s programmatic goals, whether they are to educate the public about feral cats or promote a change in a local ordinance, your organization needs people power.
- Education. Recruitment drives are intrinsically valuable as they get people thinking about your issues. This is one opportunity to articulate your organization’s vision and issues to a larger audience, in an interactive way.
- Vitality of the Organization. New people bring with them innovative ideas and fresh perspectives—valuable commodities for nonprofit organizations, which must maintain credibility both within their movements and externally.
Tips on How to Recruit
- Reach out to a broad constituency. Don’t rely on those who are predisposed to getting involved. Think outside of the box and reach out to a wide range of people.
- Use multiple recruiting methods. To reach a broad constituency, you need to reach out in numerous ways. Hang posters, table at your local pet or grocery store, make announcements on community message boards and newsletters, leave flyers at vet offices, and place an ad in the classified section of the local newspaper.
- Have a simple message. Establish a simple message and stick to it. The message should reflect your group, its issues, and goals.
- Use other networks. Seek out organizations in your community that might be interested in partnering with your organization. Consider service organizations, youth groups, students and senior centers.
- Start recruiting early and don’t stop. Recruitment must be a top priority during the first few months of your organization, but it must be an ongoing process. Integrate recruiting into every event, outreach material, and publicity piece you do.
Carefully select key volunteers and have a structure in place to deal with them.
Volunteers should buy in to your organization’s mission and goals. Actively select the right volunteer for you want to do each job. Appoint a good volunteer coordinator to work with the volunteers on an ongoing basis: to ensure that important tasks are completed on time; to get feedback; and to supply training. Anyone in your group who provides hands-on animal care (including trapping, foster care, transport) must receive general animal health-care information, complete training in the care and handling of the animals, and instruction in the proper use of equipment. Training should be a top priority, since you must ensure the safety and well-being of the volunteers and all animals that come under your care. Everyone also needs to have an understanding of the organization’s policies and procedures.
10) Provide Quality Services and Continually Assess Your Progress
Devising a reliable authorization system for vet care, keeping careful track of your expenses, and paying the veterinarians promptly are critical parts of maintaining a good reputation in the community for providing quality services. Your programs and their successes are the best way to maintain an organization. When you are well-known and respected, you will have no problem recruiting volunteers, raising money, or having influence in local political matters pertaining to cats.
- Do what you do well. Quantity without quality is destructive. Don’t do more than you can do well; the cats deserve quality care. Providing good care for the animals and accurate information for the public must be top priorities in developing your programs and in selecting and training your volunteers. Take care not to expand services more quickly than your resources can support them.
- Assess your progress and make changes. The leaders of the organization are responsible for fulfilling the organization’s mission and meeting the organization’s goals. This requires periodic assessment of your progress and making necessary changes to get the job done. Are you truly fulfilling your mission? Are you meeting your goals? Are the programs working? Remember, success is an ongoing process of making adjustments.