Nonprofits have enriched, and even saved the lives of millions in need, but there's still so much to be done. Maybe you've decided to start your own nonprofit. If you’re up for the challenge, here is a comprehensive starter guide for launching a non-profit...
Make Sure Your Mission is Well Defined
At first, your nonprofit is more of a concept than a mission. The first thing you really need to do is come up with a very specific business plan. Get it all on paper, so you can review and share it. Include your organization’s focus, in other words – the problem you want to solve. Create a profile for the type of person you want to help. Based on this information come up with a name and a catchy yet impactful slogan.
It's also helpful to play “devil’s advocate” during this stage. List some of the things that could go wrong. Ask yourself tough questions; Is your focus sustainable? What are the liabilities? Use constructive self-criticism. Finding solutions to problems before they happen is a proactive approach that will save you time and money, so don't skip this step.
Put Your Team Together
Your initial planning is important, but the people you choose to work with are the key to your success. It's a good idea to start by selecting and soliciting board members. A board member should be trustworthy, with a reputation for strong leadership in their respective field. They should share your passion and vision, but be willing to disagree with you or say what needs to be said. Your board will be steering the direction of the organization – make sure they’re the right fit.
Try to find professionals who would like to serve as board members. An attorney would be a good first choice. During the initial stages, it’s critical to have someone who understands the law regarding nonprofits. A strong legal foundation will be important for the life of your nonprofit. A good insurance agent, a skilled public relations manager, a trustworthy accountant and a web developer are also high on the list of nominees. Highly skilled individuals very often like to use their gifts and talents for a good cause.
You may also determine you need to hire staff to help you with day-to-day operations. Decide whether you need full or part time help, and what you can afford to pay. Include the details in your business plan. Ask board members to participate in the hiring process. Having more than one person involved can help you find the right person for the job.
File Your Paperwork
You won't be official without it, so filing your paperwork should be one of the first things you do. Here is a basic list of the documents you'll need...
- Reservation/Trademark of your Nonprofit’s name.
- The online reservation form for a domain name with your Nonprofit's name.
- Articles of Incorporation Note: Some states require additional documents for incorporation, such as a Certificate of Disclosure, Proof of Corporate Name or filing fees.
- Forms to obtain an EIN (Employer Identification Number)
- Tax-exemption documents.
- Any applicable licenses or permits pertaining to the specific work your nonprofit will do.
- Research your state’s laws to ensure there are no other documents needed to start a nonprofit.
Filing for tax-exemption status is extensive and time-consuming. For more information and links to the documents you'll need, visit the National Council of Nonprofits:
In addition to the legal documents you must have, you may also want to consider drafting policies and procedures for your nonprofit. This would provide written guidelines to ensure clarity for all involved parties. These policies should include:
- Nonprofit Bylaws
- Conflict of Interest policies
- Compensation policies
It’s best to create a three-year plan for your nonprofit around this time as well. This will give everyone involved a deadline and specific goals to accomplish. Make sure it stretches you, but is possible to fulfill in the allotted time.
Determine What Assets You'll Need
Next it's time to consider your budget. It is likely that you'll need to take out a loan to support the organization for the first few years. Just like any situation that involves borrowing money, be wise about your investment and research all your options. It’s important to discuss the options and make sure your board members are “on board” with the decisions you make.
To determine how much you'll need to borrow, you should consider whether or not you need a physical space. Will you need to store supplies? Do you need office space? If so, calculate those costs into your budget. However, if there is no critical need for physical space, consider keeping the organization virtual (online), and work from a home-based office. This is by far the cheapest and easiest option. You can use a tool like #slack to setup a virtual office and communication space for your team. It's free to use (with limited space).
Next consider other expenses you will incur, including salaries, software, marketing tools, events, your website and social media. These expenses are your overhead –and typically need to be paid every month. This is why taking out a loan (and knowing how much you need) is so important. The loan will take care of your expenses while you build your donor base and apply for grants. Once your organization has built up some momentum, you use a small percentage of your donations to cover your expenses, however it's important to keep this to a minimum. Donors what to make a difference not pay your bills.
If you would like to learn more about what loans would work best for your nonprofit, here is a helpful article from the Non-Profit Quarterly:
You're not in the business of making money, but you do need to sustain your organization. Spend your money wisely. Rather than paying for several different apps that each do a few things, pick an affordable, all in one, solution like Argenta by Devscape. Argenta has all the tools you need to run your entire nonprofit.
Spread The Word
All the foundational tasks are finally complete. You're now the founder of an official nonprofit organization. Now the actual work begins. Growing a constituency can be intimidating, especially in the beginning. However, with the right strategies and effort, word can spread quickly.
A website will be your most valuable asset. It serves as the public face of your organization, so make sure it looks professional, it's easy to navigate, and it's friendly to mobile users. You'll also need great content. In seconds, a visitor will make inferences about your organization– either good or bad. Your job is to make sure those insights are positive ones. Your website should include a blog. If you don't have one you’re in the minority and you’re missing the mark. Chances are other nonprofits in your space are blogging about the things that matter to your target audience.
You'll also need a strong social media presence. Social media should be the key to all of your communication efforts. It’s the foundation of your marketing strategy because it can be used in tandem with all the other elements. It’s also your front-line communication tool you’ll use to keep in touch with your community. You must develop strategies to capture the attention of would-be supporters. This is where your non-profit can really stand out from the rest. Create and share content that grabs someone’s attention and compels them to take action.
Another option is Nonprofit Partnership Networks. They're becoming popular because all parties mutually benefit from working together. Not only do these partnerships get the job done, but they also provide more brand exposure and credibility for your organization.
Finally, you must begin to build meaningful relationships with others in your community. There are plenty of festivals, conventions, and events to attend or even sponsor. Consider your target demographic and start planning ways you can network with them. Remember everyone you meet can teach you something. Don't miss these important opportunities.
If you want to learn more about how to market your nonprofit from the ground up, check out Devscape’s comprehensive marketing white paper here: https://argentasoftware.com/donorbase
You're about to begin an important and exciting journey. There will be many twists and turns – failures and successes – what's important is that it's all worth it in the end.
Other helpful resources for starting a nonprofit: