For Christmas last month my oldest daughter asked for a complete copy of all of my columns since I started writing it in 1997. It ended up being a very long project as I had over six hundred columns! It brought home to me how many lives I have touched in the past twelve years and how many animals have been saved since the beginning of Helping Paws. It also brought to mind how hard it was to get to where I am today.
I have had many emails in the last few months from people who want to start up a rescue organization asking how they get to be a 501c3 tax exempt charity and what it all entails. People seem to think that you merely decide that’s what you want to do and you can just do it. Not so – it is very hard to get there and even harder to stay there. Too many people run their organizations with their hearts.
While we never forget why we are doing this, we also know that we need business people in the background to insure that we can pay our bills and give the best possible care to the animals we rescue. So this column is about how Helping Paws came to be. Hopefully it will let people know what they are letting themselves into if they really want to do what I do.
We started in 1995 by becoming a non profit corporation in the State of Connecticut and getting together a constitution and articles of incorporation, as well as a varied board of directors. When dealing with other people’s money, you must be especially careful in where that money goes. And so we found a group of volunteers that included an attorney, a veterinarian, a computer expert (who has donated and still maintains our Helping Paws website), an accountant and most important, someone who had the time to run Helping Paws as a successful business and keep perfect records.
We didn’t do a lot of fundraising because until you are designated a charitable organization by the IRS, anyone who donates to you does not get to claim it as a deduction on their taxes. And you don’t just become a 501c3 without a lot of paperwork and documentation of who and what you are. Our Constitution and Articles were simple –rescue abandoned and abused animals, get them their necessary vet work, re-socialize them in foster homes and find them new forever homes. Educate the public about animal care and welfare, help the feral cats, the elderly and the low income families of New London County.
At first we only took animals from some kills shelters in which their time was up. We did this because if we took the animals, the vet work was already done. As these animals got their homes, the adoption fees went to taking in abandoned cats and getting their vetwork done. When we ran out of money we did not take any animals in because our primary concern had to be the welfare of the animals we already had in our care. If we could not take care of them properly, we said no. This is the hardest and most important rule for any rescue organization. It is the only way to protect you from taking in too many animals.
It took over a year to get all the documents together for our 501c3 and to get a preliminary five year ruling. During that time we decided to concentrate primarily on cats and ended up doing many large rescues all over Connecticut. My husband and I had a weekly television show on public access television called Pet Talk; I started writing for the newspaper, and Connecticut began to take us very seriously.
We did several scientific laboratory rescues, some large rescues that involved a particular breed, and we successfully placed all of our cats with the help of the media. We felt pretty successful. I was asked to facilitate a very large adoption day at Madison Square Garden in conjunction with the Incats yearly cat show. I organized a large number of New York rescues and that day we found homes for over 300 cats. It was one of the most successful adoption days ever. It was also one of the most stressful.
About that time we were blessed to find our Administrative Director who is with us to this day. A retired office manager, she took over all aspects of the business workings of the organization. Nothing was done without going through our board of directors – no money was spent without their okay. It’s a matter of checks and balances and its very important to have this in order to maintain your reputation and to make sure you don’t do anything that is not supported by your being a charitable organization. Thank goodness for our wonderful pro bono attorneys who were always there when one of our members had an idea.
We always meant to be small – we never looked at becoming a big force in the rescue world. I received some awards from various groups and we worked hard. But then it all changed with September 11th. After the World Trade Center tragedy, my husband and I went to New York and took 100 cats and 20 dogs that had lost their homes due to the deaths of their owners.
Two days later there were newspapers and televisions crews all over my vets office doing stories on us. We were totally caught off guard because we were simply doing something we felt was right. But with the help of the media, we found homes for all of these animals in record time. I received “Who’s Who” recognition for Helping Paws and we received our official ruling on our 501c3 status.
We did major fundraisers with local celebrities like Scott Haney and also had special guests at our functions, like Joanne Sandano from Animal Planet’s New York Animal Cops, and Ginny – the dog who rescued cats, with her owner Philip Gonzalez. In ten years we placed well over 3,000 cats and about 600 dogs (we became exclusively a cat organization during that time) and we had 43 acres donated to us to build an animal sanctuary in Connecticut.
We found a wonderful group of young people that formed a coalition and we turned the land over to them. “Our Companions” is well on its way to begin foundation on a much needed, long awaited animal sanctuary. If only my husband and I were younger, we might have taken on the project ourselves, but it was better left to this dedicated group of people. I love watching it evolve, knowing I took the first step for them.
About two years ago, we became primarily a spay and neuter organization; helping feral cats and low income families. We were accepted by the State as one of their organizations to receive yearly vouchers for feral cats. With the decline of the economy, this became the need because more and more cats were being abandoned outside.
We have come a long way, but it is not easy. You must always file your tax documents, maintain an accurate treasurer’s report, use your donations for what they are intended for and never, never, take in more animals than you can properly care for. Educating the public, whether by television, newspaper or simply traveling to schools and going to other functions with one of your rescues, is also important.
And having the support of your state and the general public also helps. A thick skin is also important because no matter how much good you do, there will always be people who will say it was never enough. There will always be people who will question your motives and spread rumor. So you need to be better than they are. If you want to be a successful, respected, rescue organization, you need to follow these rules. Good luck to all of you who have it in your hearts to rescue.
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