Starting a non-profit? Start here


What do you envision after deciding to start your nonprofit? Grateful participants shaking your hand? Ostentatiously shiny award statues being handed to you for your contributions? Lavish fundraisers, perhaps with shrimp cocktail? Before you settle in and drift off to the dull roar of thunderous applause from the loving community you’ve helped, you’ll need to do a serious reality check. Take a look through this checklist to keep your goals on track!

Do Your Homework: Figure out a clear plan for your nonprofit and decide on real, attainable objectives. Research your demographics, and determine the physical area your nonprofit will encompass, if applicable. Take a deep dive into other nonprofits doing similar work, and figure out what makes your idea unique and necessary. If you find that your idea is identical to an already existing, successful nonprofit, consider whether you need to start another organization. Would the energy it takes to create a new nonprofit be better spent joining forces with an existing one?

What’s In a Name? Decide on a name for your nonprofit, and do a thorough search to be sure your name isn’t already taken. Some states require that your name include an identifying word like “incorporated” or “limited,” so check into your particular state’s regulations. Register your name with the appropriate state agencies.

Get the Gang Together: Now’s the time to choose a board of directors. Consider strengths, opportunities, and past experience to properly balance your board. Make sure you’re all on the same page regarding time commitments, responsibilities, and goals.

Put Pen to Paper: Or, more accurately, prepare to hunker down over your laptop. Write out your nonprofit’s bylaws. You’ll need them to apply for tax exemptions and to file your Articles of Incorporation. Speaking of which, now’s the time to create and sign the Articles of Incorporation.

The Nitty Gritty: Fill out IRS’s form SS_4 online to obtain your Employee Identification Number. You can then apply for tax exempt status – see our last article about 501(c)3s to learn more about how that works. But don’t worry; the paperwork fun doesn’t stop quite yet! You’ll still need to get business licenses and permits from your state, city, and federal governments.

Bank On It: Open up a bank account for your brand new organization!

Et voila! You have yourself a baby nonprofit! Before you celebrate, remember that there are still many things to do as your company grows. You’ll need to find an office space and proper equipment, and while you may rely on volunteers for a while, at some point, you’ll have to hire a competent, organized staff. Once you have a staff, you’ll need to figure out payroll and insurance coverage.

After that, you can at last take a deep breath and appreciate all the work you’ve done and how hard you’ve endeavored to make your dreams a reality and touch the lives of those in need. Go ahead, savor the moment!

…and then it’s time to figure out your fundraising plan. But hey, maybe it involves shrimp cocktail!