How I Did It: Started a Nonprofit


Sarah Timms, founder of Love Animals (www.loveanimals.org)

Growing up in the rural community of Norfolk, England, Sarah Timms, 33, knew at an early age that her life’s purpose was to help animals. She didn’t want to help just one animal or have an impact on just one animal welfare issue. She wanted to help every animal species on the planet.

“I wrote my first class project about cruelty to animals and how to prevent it when I was 8 years old,” says Timms. “My mum still has it as a treasured memento.”

What is Love Animals?

In the simplest terms, Love Animals is a website where animal nonprofits located in the United States (or with offices in the U.S.) post projects in need of funding that will help improve the lives or welfare of animals. Individual donors then choose which projects they want to fund, and how much they want to donate—the minimum is $2. Donors see the impact of their donations by tracking the progress of their projects, sharing their donations on social media, and inviting their friends to donate as well. “It makes giving fun. It’s like shopping,” says Timms. “It opens the platform to everyone who wants to help, even if they don’t have $20 or $100 to give.”

But, years later, when it came time to choose a profession, Timms says that she didn’t believe that she could make a career out of animal welfare, so she decided instead to pursue a law degree.

“I just kept going down the law route, thinking maybe I could prosecute animal cruelty cases,” says Timms.

But she didn’t. Timms landed a job at a prestigious London law firm, and for several years she ignored the voice inside her own head saying, “You’re not doing what you were meant to be doing.”

It wasn’t until Timms married an American and relocated to the states that she decided to revisit that childhood dream. She got a job at the Denver, Colo.-based Animal Assistance Foundation (AAF), which gives grants to animal charities throughout Colorado. It was there that she began to learn about the challenges faced by animal welfare nonprofits.

“We [AAF] were distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars to animal charities—a massive sum—but I quickly learned that it was just a drop in the bucket,” says Timms.

Timms discovered that donations to animal and environmental charities make up only 2 percent of all charitable gifts. Around this time, she also learned about a new kind of fundraising called “crowdfunding.”

Most people first hear of crowdfunding through sites such as Kickstarter, which allows anyone with an idea and some gumption to ask individuals for small donations—sometimes as little as a few dollars—toward their projects. When added together, those meager gifts can turn into hundreds or even thousands of dollars. In 2013 alone, crowdfunding websites raised approximately $5.1 billion in donations.

While working at AAF, Timms says that she often was asked which animal welfare projects would benefit most from a small donation.

“I would get calls from the public saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got 50 bucks, who should I give it to?’” says Timms.

This sparked an idea: There already were specialized crowdfunding sites such as DonorsChoose.org, which supports education, but there weren’t any crowdfunding platforms specializing in animal issues.

The idea started to form, but Timms put it in the back of her mind.

Unless there was a money jar on a counter somewhere, there is no way that these small donations would have been made without Love Animals.

Then, in the summer of 2011, she attended a graduation ceremony where the keynote speaker was one of the founders of Kiva, a crowdfunding site that focuses on international development issues.

“Listening to that speech, I just knew that this was it,” says Timms. “This was the opportunity that I had been waiting for my whole life—the reason I had been put on this planet. That was the moment when Love Animals was born.”

Since its launch in 2013, Love Animals has raised more than $130,000 for 80 animal groups, from a small Colorado veterinary practice that needed $3,500 to buy a spay-neuter machine—a project that received full funding within 24 hours—to a big-cat sanctuary in Florida that raised $20,000 in three weeks. The largest single donation any project has received so far is $3,000 (the rest have been small gifts). “I love seeing the $2 donations come in,” says Timms. “Because that person would not have written a check to that nonprofit for $2. Unless there was a money jar on a counter somewhere, there is no way that these small donations would have been made without Love Animals.”

How She Did It: 7 Steps to Launching a Startup


Though she practiced as a lawyer for a few years, Timms knew next to nothing about starting an organization from scratch. Her first step was to enlist the help of knowledgeable people, including her husband, Scott, and father-in-law, Ron, who helped write and review her business plan. Timms researched the market, collected statistics, and learned everything she could about crowdfunding platforms. “In the evenings, I wrote out the business plan on my old laptop,” says Timms. “Then I showed it to Ron—he was my litmus test—because he has a background in business and finance. When he said it had potential, it gave me the confidence to move forward.” Ron is now on the Love Animals board and serves as chief financial officer. “Love Animals absolutely would not exist without Ron,” says Timms.

How She Did It: 7 Steps to Launching a Startup


Timms’ next step was to get her business plan into the hands of the right people. She asked friends and acquaintances for the names of anyone they knew who was an animal lover, was involved in nonprofits, or who had started a business. Then, she started reaching out and making connections. She set up 20-minute coffee meetings with friends of friends, who then gave her names of other contacts. Through this networking, she got in touch with influential business leaders. “I literally had more coffees than you can imagine,” says Timms. “I’m a total coffee addict now.” But Timms’ persistence paid off when two donors agreed to give her $10,000 if she could raise $10,000 on her own through small donations. She contacted all those people from her coffee dates and asked them for small investments. With their help, Timms met her goal and used that $20,000 to build the first version of the website and crowdfunding platform for Love Animals. “That was an incredible moment, because it was like, ‘Wow—Love Animals is real,’” says Timms.

How She Did It: 7 Steps to Launching a Startup


While Love Animals was still in the planning stages, Timms built a network of successful, knowledgeable advisors with whom she still meets informally on a regular basis. She even enlisted some of them to serve on Love Animals’ board of directors. “Love Animals has been built through this collective of people giving advice and talking to each other,” says Timms. “I couldn’t have done it alone. That’s why I’m so confident that it will be a success, because there are so many clever people involved. If I have an idea, and they all tell me, ‘No,’ I listen to them. This is no longer my organization—it’s a team effort.”

How She Did It: 7 Steps to Launching a Startup


Timms filed legal documents with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) so Love Animals could be classified as a 501(c)(3) organization. Requirements included filling out a 20-plus-page document, responding to the IRS’ follow-up questions, and providing additional information to back up Love Animals’ nonprofit status. “Crowdfunding was still very new, so even the IRS had questions about exactly what it meant,” says Timms. “We had to persuade them that we were not going to be a for-profit business trying to get away with not paying taxes.”

How She Did It: 7 Steps to Launching a Startup


If there is one thing that annoys just about everyone, it’s a pushy salesperson. Timms learned that the best way to get her message across was to allow her natural enthusiasm and passion to shine. “One thing that has made busy, influential people pay attention to me is that I don’t come across like I’m doing a sales pitch,” says Timms. “I have found that potential investors are people who are looking to give back and who want to make a difference, too. They want to do something impactful, and I’m willing to put in the hard work, which makes us this perfect match. I can help them fulfill their dream of giving back to society and leaving the planet a better place.”

How She Did It: 7 Steps to Launching a Startup


Detractors will contest even the best, most innovative ideas. But, Timms says, if you truly believe in your vision—and you have received positive feedback from advisors who know what they are talking about—then don’t be discouraged by other people’s negativity. “Most people are really supportive and enthusiastic, but there are other people who will say, ‘That’s dumb. I don’t get it. You can’t do it,’” says Timms. “The entrepreneurs I spoke to advised me that if you have a vision, it is your job to paint the picture for other people and help them see it, too. I could picture Love Animals so clearly in my mind, so I had to just ignore the naysayers, be completely focused, and do anything to make it happen.” “Of course,” she adds, “nothing ever really looks how you think it’s going to look, so you also have to be flexible.”

How She Did It: 7 Steps to Launching a Startup


It took two years from that fateful graduation ceremony where Timms was inspired to really pursue her dream, to the launch of the beta version of the website in May 2013; and Timms only collected her first salary from Love Animals in January 2014. “You think you’ve done hard things in your life, but it’s nothing until you’ve tried to do a startup and sell a new idea,” says Timms. “It keeps me up at night. I wake up at 2 in the morning thinking, ‘I have to do this’ and ‘I have to do that.’ I don’t have a big staff and there is a lot resting on my shoulders.” But, in the end, seeing her idea move from dream to reality has made all the effort worth it. “That voice telling me that I wasn’t doing what I was meant to be doing has gone away since I started Love Animals,” says Timms.