The Beginner's Guide: How to Start a Nonprofit Organization

Ready to start a nonprofit? It’s an exciting place to be!

You’ve seen a vacuum that needs to be filled, and you have an idea of how to fill it. Now, all you need to do is create a nonprofit to move your idea forward.

But how exactly do you start a nonprofit?

That’s an important question! “A goal without a plan is just a wish,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. We couldn’t agree more.

When getting started with your plan to create a nonprofit, consider some of the following steps as a guide.

Start at the beginning

Determine if registering is necessary

Did you know that each state has different laws regarding what types of nonprofits must register to fundraise?

One of the biggest benefits to formalizing your charity is giving donors the ability to write off their monetary donations from their taxes. To have this status, you must register with the IRS, which requires federal and state registration.

But, perhaps after researching the laws of your state, you may find that registering with the state or the IRS is neither necessary nor beneficial and that an unincorporated nonprofit association status is a better alternative.

For example, you may run a neighborhood sports club for local children. Parents may donate to help purchase minimal equipment and supplies at times. Your revenue may run in the hundreds or low thousands. Perhaps you have no thoughts of expanding your geographic reach or fundraising. In this situation, you may want to talk to a tax professional about whether or not, depending on the regulations and laws in your state, registering is necessary or beneficial.

Define which type of nonprofit your charity will be

Did you know there are several different types of nonprofits? There are!

If you decide that registering your charity is important, then determining what category you file for matters. It may allow or prevent you from participating in certain activities, like lobbying. You can take a look at pages 67 - 68 of the IRS Publication 557, or take a quick skim through this helpful list of nonprofit types by Charity Navigator.

While most people think of 501(c)3s when they think of nonprofit organizations, that may not be the best category for your nonprofit’s goals. Take time to do the research or talk to a nonprofit consultant before moving forward with filing your organization’s status.

Ask some of these questions to help you identify the best fit:

· Will your charity want to participate in lobbying?
· Is your nonprofit an association? If so, what type?
· Do you want or need donations to be tax deductible?
· Does your work meet the qualifications of a 501(c)3 “charity” category?

Fine-tune the details

The basics: What’s your name?

While this is obviously an important part of creating a nonprofit, it can’t go without being said — choose wisely.

The cost of branding and rebranding can run quite high when you factor in logo design, print materials, and the official documentation that must be submitted. Additionally, confusion can arise from changing an organization’s name once it’s already known.

Better to get it correct from the start, so think through options, gather the opinions of as many people as you can, through surveys or conversations, and ensure you’re not committing a faux pas. This is especially important if you’re working interculturally.

Mission and Vision Statements: What’s the difference?

It’s usually one of the first pages you’ll find on a nonprofit’s website: their mission and vision. But what mission and vision statements mean, why they’re important, and what makes mission and vision statements distinct from each other may not be obvious to everyone.

The mission statement

The mission focuses on what your organization does — the here and now.

Do you feed the homeless? Your mission might be: To provide three nutritious meals each day for the homeless of our community.

Do you provide free, after-school tutoring to disadvantaged students? Your mission might be: To provide free, high-quality tutoring services to at-risk K-12 students in our community.

Answer these questions to help you define your mission statement:

· What do you do?
· How do you do it?

The vision statement

Your vision statement should be grander and more long-term. It should answer the question: what would you like the end result of your efforts to be?

For example, if we look back at the example of feeding the homeless. Perhaps your vision statement would be: To create a community free of hunger and malnourishment.

For the tutoring service, you might create a vision statement that says: To ensure every child in our community finishes middle school.

To determine your vision statement, ask:

· What do you hope will be the result of your actions 20, 50, or 100 years from now?
· How do you hope your organization will impact the world?
· What work or goals would you like your organization to be known for?

When creating your organization’s mission and vision statements, be sure to look at examples of vision statements and mission statements from other organizations to get the creative juices flowing and to help guide your sense of what does and doesn’t work.

Find and organize your people

Governance: Who will serve on the board?

When filing your articles of incorporation or registering your nonprofit, you’ll need to name at least three members of the governing board of directors. Finding individuals to govern your nonprofit is a paramount concern. Rule number one: take time to carefully decide who will serve on your board.

Start by conducting research to determine the laws regarding charities in your state. Determine if there are regulations regarding the relationships of board members and potential conflicts of interest. This will help you determine who you can and cannot legally recruit or what additional steps might be required for certain individuals to serve on your board.

The primary goal when finding board members is to ensure they’re passionate about the work the nonprofit is doing. Expertise is wonderful, but it will only take the nonprofit so far if the board members don’t care about the nonprofit’s end goals.

You’ll also want to find individuals who are willing to give their time and resources to further the work of the nonprofit. Without this commitment and determination from your board, you’ll find yourself without the proper governance or support needed to get a nonprofit from an idea to an effective force in the world.

Volunteers: Who’s doing the work?

Wondering where you’ll get the manpower to get the work done? Recruit volunteers!

First, determine what you need done. Make a list of tasks — one-offs, long-term, or temporary — and any special skills or abilities that might be required to get those tasks done.

Then, think outside the box! Is there work you could delegate out to remote volunteers or do you need volunteers from your community only? Would you be able to mentor someone into a position? Perhaps interns would be beneficial?

Think of ways you can keep your volunteers engaged to prevent burn out and build up your network of volunteers.

Structure: Who is doing what?

Determining your nonprofit’s organization structure is central to creating a foundation of success. Even with just a few board members, staff, or volunteers, creating job categories, assigning responsibilities, and detailing lines of accountability will go a long way in preventing confusion, ineffectiveness, or frustration.

Donors: Where’s the money coming from?

Crowdfunding. Foundation and government grants. Individual donors. Gifts in kind.

There are a myriad of ways you and your stakeholders can work together to fundraise for your nonprofit today. But it’s important to recognize that, despite the many options, your nonprofit may be better suited for some types of fundraising than others, especially in the early years. And depending on the type of nonprofit you’ve registered, (e.g., 501(c)3, 501(c)4, etc.) you may be restricted to certain kinds of fundraising activities, or prohibited from engaging in others.

Some grant makers will require data that you may not have available in the early years, while others may not. Investing in the consultation services of a fundraising professional to get you up to speed on the fundraising market may be the best way to get started.

If you’re tight on funds, find free fundraising resources for nonprofits online to help you and your stakeholders get started.

Mobilizing: How will you communicate with stakeholders?

Once you begin recruiting individuals to help you govern and move your nonprofit forward, it’s important to think through how you’ll consistently engage with stakeholders. What tools will you use to communicate and plan with your team? There are several well-known platforms available to help you send updates to stakeholders, like free email software solutions that can support even the most budget-restricted nonprofits. A few good options that all have a free level include: MailChimp, Benchmark, SendinBlue, VerticleResponse, MailerLite.

Another option for both email and text communication is Unison. It’s free platform that allows group leaders to communicate and plan with stakeholders. You can easily send out messages, get feedback, add rich content pieces, like polls, RSVPs, and forms, to communication. The Organization plan offers other benefits, like registration forms and sub groups so you can easily integrate volunteers, board members, donors, and staff into different groups with the information you need most.

Get the word out

Use free marketing resources

When creating marketing pieces, take advantage of any and all free resources at your disposal. Design tools like Canva and Piktochart can help you make stunning infographics, print materials, presentations, and more.

Scheduling social media posts is a lot easier with free social scheduling tools. Popular software, like Hootsuite and Buffer, have enough features to get you started. Then, once you have a strong social media presence in place, you can always choose to upgrade.

If you want to find out where your website traffic is coming from, the value of Google Analytics can’t be ignored. Be sure to link this free tool to your website so you can capture information about where your site traffic is coming from and what efforts are most effective for bringing people in.

Create short, traceable links with free tools, like Bitly, so you can instantly track click through rates and other important data regarding your outreach efforts.

Use social media

With so many social platforms today, you have plenty of options to get the word out. If you’re budget is small, you can choose to post free updates on many platforms. However, if you’ve got the money to spend, you can also choose to promote posts to capture more leads.

Determining which platform to use depends on the demographics of your target audience. How young are they? This will help you determine which platforms, like Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook, would be most effective. Are they networking professionals? If so, you might want to use LinkedIn. If you need a private, streamlined way to chat online, you can create your own online group. Some platforms may be better suited for outreach to donors and advocates, while others may be better at reaching prospective clients or community volunteers. Do research on your target audience and find out what platforms they use.

Also, a great place to start is to find out what your stakeholders are using. If they can help spread the word on the social platforms they use, this helps get the world out fast regardless of the size of your budget.

Keep your efforts limited to two or three platforms. If you choose more, you’ll likely spread your efforts too thin and see diminished returns on your investment.

Educate the public

You know what you do, why you do it, and how you do it, but does everyone else? Get the world out! Depending on your organization’s geographic reach, you may want to hold local talks or create online webinars. You can encourage stakeholders to market by word-of-mouth, distribute flyers, brochures, and cards at local businesses, and post YouTube videos to reach a digital audience.

Be sure to explain the problem you are tackling and your unique approach. What makes you different from other organizations? Why should volunteers or donors trust you? Address questions or misunderstandings you may have run across during your formation and any you come across as the environment shifts and changes.

In conclusion

Does it take hard work to create a nonprofit? Yes.

Is it worth it? Definitely.

Rarely can you have so much impact in the world as you can by creating a nonprofit. It’s an important way to share your unique experiences, talents, and skills, all while making the world a better home for all.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to serve as legal advice. Consider it only as food for thought. It is always important to seek out professional, legal council when establishing any business or legal entity.