Animal Sanctuary Organizational Record Keeping Basics

A shelf filled with many organized binders.
Operating a sanctuary makes a lot of paper!

Updated August 30, 2021

Because an animal sanctuary is first and foremost typically a non-profit organization, it’s critical that you create and maintain organization-wide record keeping policies. Not only will this ensure that your organization remains in compliance with various governmental departments and stays out of legal peril, but it can also help your sanctuary allocate its limited resources more wisely and create sustainable growth in the future!

Why Is Record Keeping Important?

If your organization is a registered non-profit in the United States, the Internal Revenue Service requires extensive documentation of your assets, expenses, and all income streams to ensure that you remain in compliance with federal non-profit guidelines. Individual states will also have their own requirements for non-profit reporting that may require specific documentation. Failure to maintain these records may imperil your organization’s tax exempt status or subject you to extensive audits, penalties, or worse! If your organization is outside of the United States, it is highly likely that there are unique regulations that you must follow to maintain good legal standing.

On an organizational level, keeping a well-organized register of your finances gives you the opportunity to see where your money is being spent, watch for any trends or worrisome depletions in donor contributions, and help determine a projected revenue need for future projects, programs, and expansions. These records can also help you evaluate your existing programs to ensure that you’re allocating your resources as effectively as possible.

Having an easy to read annual financial report on hand is an important tool for demonstrating your financial responsibility and transparency to longtime and potential donors as well as grant-giving organizations. These records are also indispensable in the event that you need to work with banks or creditors.

Bring A Calculator!

If you lack experience in accounting, it may be valuable to hire an accountant, either on an ongoing basis or to help set up your financial record keeping system while your sanctuary is newer and has fewer financial variables to integrate.

As an animal sanctuary, you have the added requirement of keeping detailed records of each of your residents throughout all stages of their life at your sanctuary to remain in local, state, and federal compliance!

What Records Should A Sanctuary Keep?

There is no one extensive list of what a sanctuary should or shouldn’t hold onto, as each organization will have its own structure, needs, and localized laws to follow. However, the following provides a good starting point:

Organization Documents

These documents include anything to do with the creation and management of your organization, including but not limited to:

  • Articles of incorporation and any documentation sent from or to the government
  • Minutes from board and annual members’ meetings
  • Board policies and bylaws
  • Insurance policies
  • Any copyright or trademark registrations
  • Contracts including real estate and equipment lease agreements
  • Construction documents for any new builds on your property
  • General communication or correspondence
Financial Documents

These documents demonstrate your organization’s finances and tax compliance, including but not limited to:

  • Up-to-date documentation of your organization’s assets and liabilities
  • Annual audits and year-end financial reports
  • Real estate deeds, mortgage and loan documents, and bills of sale
  • Depreciation schedules of assets
  • IRS and state tax returns for organizations in the United States
  • Organized ledgers of all income and expenses
  • Employment tax, W2 statements, and payroll records for any employees you may have (if in the United States)
Interstate Headaches

If you receive donations or sales from people outside of your state in the United States, depending on the donation amount, you may need to file state tax documents for each applicable donor’s state. Make sure to review all applicable state laws!

Supporting Documents

These are all the documents that prove the numbers in your income and expense registers, including but not limited to:

  • Donor correspondence, pledges, slips, and receipts (including date, amount given, and the name and address of the donor)
  • Grant applications and awards
  • Merchandise sales receipts
  • Purchase receipts, bills, and invoices paid
  • Payroll receipts for employees if you have them
  • Deposit slips and check registers
  • Bank statements and electronic fund transfer receipts
Human Resources Documents

These documents consist of any or all agreements and management interactions you have with employees, volunteers, visitors, or contractors for your sanctuary, including but not limited to:

  • Employment and termination agreements for all employees
  • Any documentation related to promotions, demotions, or termination of employees
  • Background checks for employees or volunteers
  • Timesheets
  • I-9 tax forms (for organizations in the United States)
  • Volunteer agreements
  • Visitor accident waivers
Animal Resident Documents

These documents should include anything a state, federal, or other government agency would need to know about your residents, where they came from, and their health. See our article on Resident Record Keeping for a good starting list.

How Long Do I Need To Hold Onto Records?

While there’s no legal penalty for holding onto all of your documents and records, it might at some point become unwieldy to hold onto all documentation indefinitely. Depending on the type of record, there are different retention requirements.

Some Documents Should Be Kept Forever

As a rule, the following documents should likely never be discarded, including but not limited to:

  • Documents related to the creation of your organization, policies, and property
  • Documents for filing and approval for non-profit status
  • Organization articles of incorporation and bylaws
  • Any correspondence from government entities
  • Board meeting minutes
  • Payroll, tax withholding, and unemployment tax records
  • Human Resources-related documents
  • Accident waivers
  • All animal resident records
Some Documents Can Be Discarded Eventually (If In The United States)

Supporting documents related to tax filing, such as anything that supports income, expenses, or deduction, can be discarded after seven years. However, these documents might have a longer retention requirement by non-federal organizations such as insurance companies, state or local agencies, and creditors, so it’s very important to be cautious and consult a qualified advisor when considering discarding any records. Here is a good resource for when you’re starting to think about when you can discard certain documents.

Creating A Document Retention Policy

Because each state in the United States has its own guidelines on what documentation must be kept and for how long, it’s important to understand what responsible document retention compliance looks like for your organization. Once you’ve done some research on what specific needs your organization must meet, creating a document retention policy can help prevent compliance disasters down the line. This policy should be reviewed and followed by all members of your organization. A well-formed document retention policy should include:

  • A set of general guidelines of what needs to be kept and for how long
  • An exception for documents relevant to litigation (as all relevant documents must be kept in the event of a legal challenge arising)
  • A set of rules for how to manage and backup all relevant digital documentation and records

Looking To Get Started With A Template? We Have One!
You can download our editable sanctuary record retention policy template here!

Record Storage

Paper records should be safely kept in cool, dry and secure locations, ideally organized in boxes and cabinets in a manner that is accessible and easily comprehensible to all sanctuary organizers and staff who may need them. Consider the proximity of things like windows, water pipes, gas pipes, to records storage, as well as keeping storage off the floor in order to prevent damage from flood, or even insect infestation. Records storage should be regularly monitored in order to check for any kind of damage or risk of damage.

Sanctuaries should consider maintaining original copies of documents such as deeds or anything pertaining to real property transactions in a secure off site location, also in a manner protected from damage or loss. A safe deposit box is an option, and so are off site fire and flood proof safes. Keeping additional copies of such documents in yet another location so that both originals and copies are not destroyed in a single calamity is also recommended. Ensuring that multiple responsible parties have access not only to originals but off site copies is wise in case of any emergency.

Cloud Cover?

Digital documents are equally important to safely retain for posterity! If you have any critical documents solely in digital storage, you must have some sort of backup system in place! Even an affordable hard drive that gets updated with all digital documents on a regular basis is substantially safer than a single location save point.

Although it might seem like extra headache and an overabundance of caution, practicing good record keeping and retention will help your sanctuary immensely as your organization grows and matures. It is much less stressful to develop good habits early rather than scrambling to assemble past documentation the day an audit notice finds its way into your mailbox!


How To Start A Farm Animal Sanctuary | Farm Sanctuary

Record Keeping The Right Way | Center For Nonprofit Excellence

Document Retention Policies For Nonprofits | National Council Of Nonprofits

Document Retention For US Nonprofits | Missionbox

Compliance Guide For 501(c)(3) Public Charities | The Internal Revenue Service

Document Retention Policies- What Every Nonprofit Should Know | DC Bar

Updated on August 30, 2021

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