Volunteers are a valuable asset for animal shelters and rescues. Without them, shelters and rescues would be unable to achieve their mission. In 2013, the IRS released a report stating that 85% of nonprofit organizations are run by volunteers and have no paid staff.  Volunteers are responsible for organizing adoption events, raising funds, and caring for the animals in their animal shelters or rescues. Last week we reviewed the importance of creating and maintaining a volunteer program. One of the prime aspects of that program is to implement a volunteer handbook.

Volunteers differ from paid employees. However, managing volunteers requires a similar skill set.  Employee handbooks are common in both small and large businesses.  Nonprofit animal shelters and rescues need to implement a similar handbook for volunteers.  Here are the two main benefits of a volunteer handbook:

  1. Sets Expectations. A handbook is a tool that defines what is expected of the volunteer during their time at the shelter. It also identifies what the volunteer should expect from the organization in return for their donated time.
  2. Protects the Animal Shelter or Rescue. Creating and identifying clear policies and procedures for your volunteer team minimizes liability. The handbook provides guidelines and rules for how negative circumstances will be handled and offers a no-surprise resolution for both parties.

A hurdle many directors face is how to create a concise and informative volunteer handbook. Here are 7 essential sections to include in your handbook:

  1. What is the story behind your animal shelter or rescue? Tell the story of how you formed. Include your goals, mission, and vision for volunteers to gain a better perspective of who they are serving.
  2. Set expectations for acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Behavior expectations include how volunteers treat one another, the animals, and the public.  Define work expectations in this section as well. Work expectations include the number of volunteer hours, responsibilities, and the appropriate way to take a day of absence.
  3. Policies and procedures for responsibilities are a tremendous help in minimizing potential dangers or disasters. Explain these procedures in detail in the handbook. This assures you each volunteer has the information prior to volunteering.  This is the section you address volunteer training requirements including times and methods of training.
  4. One of the biggest responsibilities of a shelter or rescue is to take in dogs, cats, and other animals that need care. This section reviews the policies for incoming animals and addresses the intake process including standards your shelter or rescue follows.
  5. Rescues or shelters that foster animals need a section on foster home policies and procedures. Often times, foster parents are overlooked as volunteers because they are not at the physical shelter.  They are a vital part of your volunteer team.  The risks and requirements of foster homes differ from other policies and procedures.
  6. Animal adoption is a major part of your operation.  This section identifies the standards and timeframes your animal shelter or rescue follows prior to placing an animal with their forever home.  This section also addresses the requirements of adopting families.  It is important that all volunteers are aware of the expectations so they can help properly place animals.
  7. It is common for volunteer handbooks to include a receipt that the volunteers sign. The signature verifies they read the handbook and are aware of the expectations outlined.

Create a strong volunteer program starts by implementing a volunteer handbook.  Work with your legal counsel to create a handbook that best suits your animal shelter or rescue needs.


Too often, I have heard people who claim to love animals say that they could never volunteer at an animal shelter. They say that such work would be too heartbreaking for them. I tell them that what is heartbreaking is not volunteering at an animal shelter. An animal shelters volunteer figures prominently in the working day of an animal shelter. Upon arriving, they sign in and may perform most any task they are qualified for. This usually consists of taking the dogs from their kennels and walking them around the grounds.


Animal shelter employees are busy in the everyday tasks of administration, scheduling shots, maintenance, receiving animals, interviewing potential pet adaptors, and tending to the various needs of each animal. There is not a great deal of time to give each animal the love, attention, and exercise they crave. However, an animal shelters volunteer can take the dog out of its kennel, give it treats, walk it, run it, brush it, or simply sit with it in a quiet area, pet it and talk to it.


Dogs are usually allotted a certain amount of time each day for being outside in the pens where they can run and interact with other dogs. However, it is the human interaction that is most important for a dog. A dog that is left in a kennel for too long without any human interaction can develop psychological quirks. Perhaps the most unsettling of these is when a dog begins to walk his kennel in a circle in an aimless manner. In my time as an animal shelters volunteer I found that some dogs wanted only to be held for the entire duration of my visit. Some loved to roughhouse, and others just yearned to explore and sniff. Of course, each one of them at some point would roll over onto their back and afford me the opportunity to rub their belly for as long as I wanted. What many people fail to recognize is that we have as much a need to give affection, as these dogs have the need to both give it and receive affection. Too often, after a few hours of working with the dogs at the shelter, I would wonder who derived the greater benefit; the dog or me? The only thing heartbreaking about volunteering at an animal shelter is the failure to volunteer.