When April Minech and her colleagues started their organization to benefit needy animals, she said the first thing that caught her off guard was the last thing they had been worried about: money.
"I naively thought that because we were doing good deeds and we were a nonprofit that people would just throw money at us," Ms. Minech said. "No one wants to go around with their hand out, but if you're going to start a business, that's what you have to do."
She and four other women started the Coalition to Adopt, Rehome and Match Abandoned Animals (CARMAA) because each of them had worked for at least one of the three major animal shelters in the Pittsburgh area, and realized there wasn't a lot of overlap in the services being offered. They worried that the needs of a lot of animals were falling through the cracks.
"The shelters have enough on their plates caring for animals," Ms. Minech said. "We formed our group to act as support to all three shelters, so we could do some of the things they were unable to do."
CARMAA is intended as an umbrella organization, she explained, with the goal of supporting the adoption services and other programs the shelters provide, as well as hosting educational events.They don't have a physical office, and all five founders work on a volunteer basis.
"We saw a need, and thought we could educate the public and the shelter community," said staff member Lilian Aiken, an attorney and a certified pet dog trainer, who has volunteered at area shelters and with greyhound rescues for more than 20 years. Ms. Aiken said she wanted to be able to focus on issues like connecting breeders of purebred dogs with people who wanted to adopt them. "Sometimes they don't know where to start, and we want to avoid having them go to puppy mills."
They started CARMAA in 2010, with an initial budget of $5,000 and one event, what has become their annual Dogtoberfest, where they showcase adoptable animals from across western Pennsylvania. Ms. Minech said their budget has quadrupled in size since then, and they've added more training and workshops.
Eve Salimbene, president of CARMAA, who has a soft spot for terriers, said it's crucial for nonprofit businesses to define who they are and what they do clearly, especially if they plan to rely on donations as their primary source of revenue.
"I think for us, since the public doesn't understand a lot of what goes on behind the scenes in the pet adoption business, they don't really know how things get done," she said. "We have to take the time to explain how the process works."
Ms. Minech said the cause may be worthy, but that's no guarantee that people will make donations. A lot of organizations are looking for help, she said, so it becomes about getting the word out, over and over. "You have to start small, and build a lot of relationships," she said. "It took some time."
The five women decided they wanted to run their business as much as possible like a democracy. "There was no way we were going to agree on everything, but we vote on things and if you're in the minority and disagree, you just deal with it," Ms. Aiken said.
For those considering starting a company, however small, in addition to having to working hard for every dollar donated, Ms. Minech said, expect to give a lot of time. "For every hour you think you're going to put in, it will equal five hours," she said.
And businesses that expect to rely on volunteers to staff events need to plan well in advance, Ms. Aiken said. "If you need volunteers, get them from the start, don't wait until you need them. We end up relying on friends and families and moms and husbands."
Jessica DiVito acted as an informal adviser to CARMAA when the group was starting. She got to know Ms. Minech and Ms. Salimbene in her job as former head of development at Animal Friends. She is well-versed in running a nonprofit, and currently is head of development at Special Olympics of Pennsylvania.
When starting a nonprofit, Ms. DiVito said, most people have the passion, the drive and a desire to help but not necessarily the background to run a business.
"It was a really quick learning curve for them, because when they got a hold of me, they were up and running, and getting ready for their first event," Ms. DiVito said. "I said to them, 'Hey, have you thought about this, this will cost money.'
"It can be a big eye opener when you really look at how much things cost."
The group is preparing for the next Dogtoberfest, held the first Saturday in October, and are proud at how it's grown to more than 100 groups and vendors. The key to their success, Ms. Salimbene added, is that they depend on each other.
"We rely on each other, and know each other's strengths," she said. "It's important for us to remember we can't do any of this alone."
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly