Rescue 101: Planning – Your Rescue’s Core Team and Volunteers


Volunteers at an Adoption Event

It’s time to start thinking about the people who will help make your rescue a success.

We’re about halfway through our in-depth look at the planning process laid out in the earlier article Rescue 101: Pre-Opening Planning and Questionnaire and it’s time to talk about the people who are going to put in the work needed to operate your rescue. In the early stages of your rescue, it could only be you as an individual carrying the work load until you become established enough to start getting volunteers helping you. If you are establishing yourself as an official non-profit group right away, you’ll legally have to have at least two people on board who will fill the necessary director seats.

Identify the Roles You Need to Fill

One of the helpful things you can do for planning how your team will operate is to think about the roles that you will need to fill for your organization. It’s possible, and very likely, that one person will take on multiple roles in the organization as their skills line up with your needs. For example, let’s use the scenario that you are opening up a rescue for hamsters. You will need a variety of roles to accomplish this, such as:

  • Someone to manage the care and fostering of the hamsters at your rescue
  • Someone to oversee supplies and equipment
  • Someone to market pets for adoption
  • Someone to fundraise and oversee finances
  • Someone to handle transportation needs

As you are operating early on, you might fill all of these roles yourself, but as you grow you might find that while you are keeping up with fostering and socializing the animals, you just don’t have enough time to effectively work on fundraising. Maybe you are on top of all of the transportation needs, but you just don’t have time to maintain and find new equipment to help you perform your tasks more effectively. As your needs evolve, you might add-on more roles that you need filled for the rescue’s growth. Keeping an idea of the roles that you need filled will help you with your initial and evolving planning process for the rescue.

When Starting Out Solo, Work First on Getting Help

It might just be you starting out for anything and everything your rescue will need. You’ll be cleaning cages, picking up animals at the shelter, taking pictures them to list them online, and fielding all of the e-mails and phone calls. You might be handling all of the paperwork and accounting, designing all of the care materials, as well as juggling all of the visits to the vet. Operating a rescue is a daunting task for a single person and it’s important to be realistic about your personal limitations in time, energy and the scope of what you want to do when you are starting out.

If you know the rescue only has your labor to count on, consider limiting your activities and focus on those activities that will help you become more stable to the point where you can utilize volunteer help, or bring new people on board. Consider what is going to be attractive to potential volunteers or future directors of your organization, a well-defined program with clear goals is going to look more appealing to join than signing on with a rescue that is already struggling to keep up with the daily care of too many animals they started taking in during the early stages.

As a rescuer, you absolutely won’t be able to survive long-term or grow without the support of other people. You’ll need people who can specialize in certain tasks, or have experience in an area that you don’t, to help carry you to the next level.

What to Look for in Your Core Team

Your Core Team will be the people who operate the rescue and do the heavy lifting along side of you. When I talk about your ‘Core Team’, I mean a different subset of people than your regular volunteers. If you are going to be operating a non-profit group, these are likely going to be the people who make up your board of directors. Your Core Team are going to be people who are invested and have some sense of ownership in the rescue, and are going to be working with you in the long-term. You may have very dedicated volunteers, but you’ll know the difference between a good volunteer and a core player in your rescue when it comes time to call on them for help. Your Core person is going to be the person you call to help you sort out financial documents to apply for a grant, a regular volunteer is someone you are going to call to help you staff an adoption event. Your Core Team are going to be the people who primarily fill the roles we talked about earlier.

In the early planning stages you might have already identified people who will be working along side of you as part of your core team. Some rescues start out as a family effort of related people working towards a common cause. You might have a significant other or a close friend who will be working along side of you. You might be starting out on your own without any idea of who you are going to get to help you carry the work load.

One thing I have found is that the people who have worked most closely with me over the years did not come to me looking for a position on the board of directors, or looking for a title to specifically gain status with the rescue or in the animal community. They were people who came in first and foremost because they had something valuable to contribute to the rescue work and were more concerned with what they could give instead of what they can get.

Gathering up Volunteers

Besides your core team, you will also need volunteers to support the effort of your rescue work. Competent, reliable volunteers are vital to your rescue’s continued operations, but unreliable or unqualified volunteers can end up being more work for you than what they contribute. Managing volunteers and keeping them effective in your program is a deeper consideration, and I plan to talk more about the intricacies of managing a volunteer program outside of the planning portion of this series, but there are basic things you can start to think about for your volunteer program still in the planning stages.

Think about where you might be able to recruit and connect with volunteers in your community. Many times you’ll be able to find sources of volunteers through colleges, community programs, or other adult education companies. There are websites like VolunteerMatch.org which help you put up listings online to connect with volunteers in your area, and advertise your specific needs to try to find the right people. You may want to include a section on your website early on that gives more information about volunteering opportunities and how people can help in a hands on way. Connecting with local community boards, or online forums that are specific to the types of animals you will be working with, can be another opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals.

You may also be working with volunteers who aren’t adults, although it’s important to consider the viability of having children volunteering with you. Many parents want to have their kids volunteer with animals since it seems like a fun activity for their kids to get to play with animals while contributing to helping a good cause. It’s important to make sure that if you are going to allow volunteers under the age of 18 to help that you have safe, valuable ways for them to contribute. For example, at North Star Rescue we allow ‘Junior Volunteers’ to help at the rescue but we require their parents to be on site and volunteering along side of them. This helps us make sure there is an adult the child is familiar with supervising them at all times to make sure their activities stay safe. The age of each volunteer will dictate what they can help with. We might have younger children perform only very basic tasks, like passing out lettuce to the guinea pigs or helping fill water bottles, where older children might be able to help clean cages. It’s also important to make sure if the kids are getting hands on time with the animals that you are able to supervise things to make sure they are interacting with animals that are safe for them to work with, and that the interactions are positive for the humans and animals involved.

Volunteers don’t always need to be hands on at your rescue’s location(s) to be helpful. Having remote volunteers means you can take advantage of help from all over the world. If you need help maintaining and updating your website, advertising online, preparing graphics or a myriad of other tasks, you can advertise them as volunteer opportunities that can be done from home as well.

Identifying Your Needs for Volunteer Help

One of the most difficult parts of using volunteer help is making sure that you have identified good ways for them to help so that their time is used constructively. Don’t be afraid to put your needs out there, a lot of people might want to volunteer to snuggle guinea pigs but if what you really need is cage cleaning help, make it clear and don’t feel obligated to include time for tasks that you don’t need done. While it might seem like it can’t hurt to have someone doing extra work in an area that you already have covered, making extra time for a volunteer to socialize animals who are already friendly with humans might mean that you need to commit to being home for them to come over and socialize when you could be out running errands or making vet trips instead. If you’ve already got someone handling cage cleaning, it’s not going to be helpful to double book people who only want to help with that aspect.

Giving your volunteers a look at what you need help with will also give them opportunities to showcase skills that you might not be aware that they had. Think about having regular group conversations with your volunteer team to let them know what you have going on, and what you are planning to do in the near future with the rescue. You might need to run a fundraising campaign and find you have someone who can help you prepare artwork to have printed on T-Shirts to sell, or that one of your volunteers has a connection with another business that might help contribute to your program.

A Changing and Evolving Rescue Team

Your rescue team is going to change over time, it’s inevitable that some of the people who are part of your core team or regular volunteers who have helped you for years may not always be able to be there. People’s lives change and their availability can change, at some point you’ll have volunteers or core people who have helped support you for years who have to move away, or need to take their free time and apply it towards other things happening in their lives. Just like any company, you’ll experience brain drain when trained, established people have to leave your organization. Having a good idea of the roles they fill, and leave open, will help you figure out what you need to do to fill in the gaps when you lose an individual out of your group.

Your needs will change over time as well as your group grows and evolves. You’ll need to not just look at your current needs, but see how your support needs are changing in the future, to make effective plans about maintaining a good support team around you.


About Lauren Paul

Lauren is the founder of North Star Rescue, a non-profit organization in California's San Francisco Bay Area dedicated to the rescue and welfare of companion pet rodents. Lauren operates Alma Rodentia, a website featuring an online store for pet rodents and their humans and a blog about rescue and life with pet rodents.

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