14 Steps to Starting Your Nonprofit Organization: A Guide

14 Steps to Starting Your Nonprofit Organization: A Guide

If you’ve decided to start a nonprofit, congratulations! You’re about to embark on a fulfilling journey with an incredible purpose: to do good things in this world

If you’re driven by a mission to help others and improve your community, you belong in the nonprofit world. Individuals with passion and drive are particularly well-suited to nonprofit work, especially when they’re able to direct their own mission.

But first, you’ll need to get everything set up the right way. Building an effective nonprofit structure to last takes determination and planning. Yet being fully prepared and understanding every aspect of nonprofit work go a long way toward lasting success.

There are plenty of useful resources out there to get you started, but we’ve cut through the clutter to give you the basic framework. The following steps are key to not only starting but also growing your new nonprofit organization.

First, a quick note: We assume you already have your mission statement in place, since that’s at the root of any nonprofit. But if not, check out our tips and techniques for writing an effective nonprofit mission statement.

Here’s how to start a nonprofit, broken down into 14 core steps. Use this list to jump to a specific step, or follow along from the top:

Get Set Up for Success

1. Take advantage of powerful free technology.

2. Start building your brand.

3. Set up an online donation page.

4. Set up text donations.

Get Your Team Together

5. Build your nonprofit’s leadership team.

6. Find local partners for your nonprofit.

Get Official (and Funded)

7. Write your organization’s bylaws.

8. Legally incorporate to start your nonprofit.

9. Secure initial funding to start your nonprofit.

10. Apply for and receive 501(c)(3) status.

Get Started Doing Great Things!

11. Get started pursuing your mission.

12. Start building membership.

13. Build your nonprofit’s professional network.

14. Plan for your organization’s growth.

As you read through these essential steps, remember that while some may be pursued in whatever order you see fit, others should follow this order. For instance, you must write your initial bylaws before applying for 501(c)(3) status, and you must set up your online donation page before you start any fundraising campaigns.

Starting a nonprofit organization is among the most admirable work you can do. You owe it to yourself and your mission to be fully prepared. Follow these essential steps for building an organization that will benefit its community for years to come.


Part 1: Get Set Up for Success

1. Take Advantage of Powerful Free Technology.

When you start a nonprofit, you’re the person who’s running the operation. Regardless of its type, there’s one thing you should be prepared for: You’ll be busy. There’s no end to the tasks you could be doing, so nonprofit management becomes a question of prioritizing. And it becomes a question of streamlining operations wherever possible.

Simplify daily operations right out of the gate by setting up an online platform for your nonprofit. This is the foundation from which your nonprofit will be able to grow. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • An online donations platform (must accept recurring gifts)
  • A pledge fundraising platform
  • An event planning and registration platform
  • Reports and analytics
  • A constituent relationship management (CRM) system, also called a donor database

Juggling numerous systems will likely complicate, rather than simplify, management of your nonprofit, so look for an all-in-one platform for donations, events, and reports.

Here at Snowball Fundraising, for instance, our software for nonprofits offers comprehensive donations tools and integrates with nonprofit CRMs. That means you’ll be able to collect and store critical donor data such as contact information. Having key donor data will allow your nonprofit to build its support base and establish long-term relationships.

Looking at these tools might seem intimidating at first. You’re still a new organization and would probably prefer to focus your budget on your mission rather than software solutions. The good news is that many of these tools have free options that are perfect for starting a nonprofit. They’re often ideal for new, smaller organizations, and have potential upgrades available for your organization as it grows.

Doing extra research about these tools will pay off in the end. Ready to get started? Here are our picks for the best nonprofit software.

2. Start Building Your Brand.

Building a brand and sense of identity is an important early step in how to start a nonprofit.

Now that you have the groundwork laid, you can start building your nonprofit’s brand and website. Branding isn’t just for commercial businesses. It defines how any organization expresses its goals and conveys its mission.

You will need to think deeply about how to position yourself in the nonprofit—and wider—world. Think about how your nonprofit compares to similar ones, and what sets yours apart.

What are the key demographics of your future supporters? How will you reach out to them? What is the “persona” of your nonprofit? These considerations will inform your branding and presence, including:

  • Logo
  • Website
  • Social media profiles
  • Marketing materials (print and digital)
  • Events
  • Press outreach

You’ll probably continue to work on your nonprofit’s messaging and materials once you have your leadership team in place, but it’s good to start thinking about them early and often.

Tip: Don’t develop too many print materials at this stage. Because you’re still finding your nonprofit’s voice, your profile and messaging may still be evolving. Focus instead on your online profile, where you can reach people quickly—and make updates quickly.

For more resources on nonprofit branding, check out the following:

3. Set Up an Online Donation Page.

Next, it’s a good idea to go ahead and get set up with online fundraising tools. This is something that anyone can do in just a matter of a few minutes. You definitely don’t have to be a programmer.

While you don’t need to build out a full toolkit just yet, having your online donation page ready to go when it’s time to begin fundraising is a smart way to save time.

Many small nonprofits struggle to maintain energy and momentum throughout the entire process of beginning operations and applying for 501(c)(3) status. Plus, many young organizations underestimate how long it might take to find and implement the right tools.

This creates the risk of a gap period when you’re in a position to begin fundraising but don’t yet have the basic tools in place to process donations. Since your online donation page will serve as the foundation of your fundraising campaigns, start there.

It’s free to sign up with Snowball and begin processing donations right away with a customizable donation page. This ensures that your most dedicated friends and supporters will be able to get involved from day one.

Bookmark our guide to perfecting your donation page to learn more about how to get started.

4. Set Up Text Donations.

Now that your nonprofit’s fundraising platform is in place, you’ll want to offer easy ways to give to it. In addition to online giving, text-message-based donations are a great, quick way for your nonprofit’s supporters to give on the go.

Donors text a keyword (such as “give”) to your nonprofit’s text-to-give phone number and then confirm the amount they’d like to give. First-time donors fill out a short donation form with their credit card information. The first-time process takes under a minute; repeat donations take just two clicks.

As with your online donation page, you don’t need to have a full suite of text-to-give campaigns ready to go just yet. But it’s good to have the tools in place. Having your nonprofit’s giving channels set up to accept donations means you’ll have one less important thing to manage after your nonprofit is fully up and running.

Find out more about how text-to-give helps nonprofits grow their donations.


Part 2: Get Your Team Together

5. Build Your Nonprofit’s Leadership Team.

Building an initial team is an important and essential step in how to start a nonprofit organization.

Next, build a strong team of leaders to help guide the creation of your nonprofit organization. You may already be part of a group that shares a vision and has decided to found a nonprofit together.

The founding participants of a nonprofit organization should include an executive director and any volunteers.

Consider also asking people to be unofficial advisors, or members of a board of advisors. These advisors will be connected to the organization in a fairly informal way; if they’re really helpful, they may be ideal future members of the board of directors.

Once your organization has gained its footing, you’ll be able to take on dedicated staff members, compensate your executive director, and create a more extensive leadership structure. That will include a board of directors with at least three people and, preferably, an odd number of people.

Nonprofit organizations tend to grow out of existing networks of individuals who are brought together by a common goal or interest. If you’re part of a group working together to found an organization, this is where you’ll find your director, volunteers, and board members.

If you’re driven by your own individual mission, you’ll need to find partners who share it. Creating a reliable leadership structure composed of passionate, committed individuals is the only way to ensure that your nonprofit’s operations and culture will be sustainable.

In the meantime, it’s important to accept help wherever possible but also refrain from taking on too many individuals!

Nonprofit organizations tend to operate on extremely slim budgets, especially when they’re young. This, combined with the inherent challenges of founding a nonprofit, means that you must remain focused on your mission and vision.

And you must make it easy for your team to work together. This means regular, open communication and easy-to-use systems with multi-user dashboard access. Everything should be an open book, and everyone should be on the same page!

6. Find Local Partners for Your Nonprofit.

Next, identify some local partners in your community who can help support your launch.

At this point in the nonprofit startup process, deliberately cultivating a local network of partners is helpful because it builds momentum and keeps everyone excited. Before you start reaching out to potential partners, it’s a good idea to have your website and fundraising technology up and running, so any future collaborators can see your nonprofit’s mission in action.

The next two steps can be quite time-consuming or frustrating if you’re new to them, so having some buzz in the community is a smart way to maintain engagement.

Find local partners to help promote your work as you begin the process of starting a nonprofit.

Your community partners will be essential once you actually start reaching out to constituents and donors, too. It can be very difficult to immediately begin engaging new stakeholders without already having a shared connection. Think about the local partners who might be interested and useful to your mission, like:

  • Local businesses of any size
  • Schools and local universities or colleges
  • Other nonprofit organizations
  • Local municipal offices or agencies

Remember, you’re founding a nonprofit organization to better your community and address particular problems. Your founding leadership is likely already well connected, but expanding your local network is always a good move. The right connections will unlock new donor bases, marketing outlets, and opportunities to directly pursue your mission.

One easy idea might be to set up a simple matching gift or volunteer grant program with a sympathetic local business.


Part 3: Get Official (and Funded)

7. Write Your Organization’s Bylaws.

Writing your bylaws is a crucial step in how to start a nonprofit, as you'll need them to apply for tax exempt status.

Your mission statement will guide your organization’s goals, and your bylaws will guide your organization’s operations. Your nonprofit’s bylaws are an extremely important founding document that will affect both its internal culture and functions.

Comprehensive bylaws to govern your operations are a central element of responsible nonprofit management, and they’re also required for receiving tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status.

Work with your nonprofit’s leadership team to draft a set of founding bylaws. They should directly address, but aren’t limited to, these topics and elements of how your organization will work:

  • Clearly defined leadership and staff roles
  • A formal mission statement
  • Donation solicitation protocols
  • Membership program and committee structures
  • Policies for resolving conflicts of interest, setting compensation, etc.
  • Procedures for amending the bylaws
  • Explicitly defined financial reporting protocols

It’s important to draft and vote on a set of bylaws early in the process of starting your nonprofit for two reasons: It’s a required part of the federal 501(c)(3) application, and it sets a strong precedent.

Organized procedures and clearly defined roles are absolutely essential to the success of your nonprofit organization. Your bylaws will ensure that all founding members hold themselves accountable and committed to the organization’s continued health.

8. Legally Incorporate to Start Your Nonprofit.

In addition to your founding bylaws, there’s another important document you’ll need to draft before moving on with starting your nonprofit: your official charter.

Officially incorporating your nonprofit is required for eventually receiving 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, accepting donations, and essentially functioning as a legal nonprofit organization.

Sounds intimidating, but creating and filing nonprofit articles of incorporation is actually one of the easiest steps in the entire process. Do some quick research on your state’s nonprofit laws, then simply complete the incorporation document with the following information:

Legally incorporating your organization is essential for starting a nonprofit.

  • The legal name of your organization
  • The official location of its operations
  • The names and addresses of all initial trustees, or board members

Each official board member identified in your bylaws then needs to sign the articles of incorporation. Submit this document to your state’s secretary of state office, and you’ve legally incorporated your nonprofit organization!

Of course, this process varies slightly state by state, so do your research before starting. For more specific guidance, check out this handy template from the IRS that can guide your team as you draft your own founding charter.

9. Secure Initial Funding to Start Your Nonprofit.

Nonprofit grant writing can be a major challenge. This is particularly true in the earliest days of your organization.

However, finding and applying for nonprofit startup grants is also extremely important. Without some initial funding, it can be difficult to reach and engage with the donors who will support your work in the future.

Start by researching the different sources and types of nonprofit startup grants.

As you start a nonprofit, you should actively research funding and grant opportunities.

Next, familiarize your team with the grant writing process. If most or all members of your team are new to grant writing, doing some research beforehand will go a long way toward boosting your chances of success. Put generally, the steps of grant writing are:

  1. Understand your goals.
  2. Identify grant opportunities and research the sources.
  3. Build a grant writing team.
  4. Get started on the proposal, refining your strategy as you go.
  5. Build a strong case for support.
  6. Review and submit.

This is a minimal version of the grant writing process, but there are plenty of resources out there that can give you a much fuller understanding of how to write a winning grant proposal.

Securing some initial funding early on is the best way for your nonprofit to start pursuing its mission. Continue researching and applying for startup grant funds as you work on the next step, too.

Tip: Depending on the specifics of the grant application, you may want to highlight how your nonprofit is using technology to meet its goals. As appropriate, include your text-to-give number and keyword, as well as a link to your online donation page. Show how you’re engaging, expanding, and unleashing generosity!

10. Apply for and Receive 501(c)(3) Status.

Time for one of the most important steps of starting a nonprofit organization - applying for 501(c)(3) status with the IRS.

When imagining starting a nonprofit, this is the step that most people immediately think of, and for good reason.

The federal 501(c)(3) application process is very important for any nonprofit. It can be time-consuming and requires a great deal of organization, but it’s not nearly as intimidating as many believe.

The most important tasks associated with applying for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status include:

  • Filing articles of incorporation with your state
  • Receiving an IRS employer identification number
  • Preparing your bylaws, leadership structures, and initial programming
  • Completing the lengthy IRS form 1023
  • Researching and complying with any separate state-level requirements

For a more thorough explanation, be sure to read our complete guide to the 501(c)(3) application process.

Even once you’ve completed the application for nonprofit tax exemption, your organization might not officially receive 501(c)(3) status for quite some time. There are policies in place that address nonprofits in this situation, so go ahead and get started engaging constituents and raising funds.

Just be sure to research and comply with all applicable federal and state solicitation and tax laws in the meantime.


Part 4: Get Started Doing Great Things!

11. Get Started Pursuing Your Mission.

While you wait to receive 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, begin pursuing your mission! You’ve been excited to get started with bettering your community, and now all the official startup processes are out of the way. If you’ve already worked on identifying some local partners who can give you a foothold in the community, start leveraging those relationships.

You might begin reaching out to donors and engaging constituents in all kinds of ways:

Once you start your nonprofit and apply for 501(c)(3) status, get started pursuing your mission.

Events. Organize an event with a community partner. Maybe an established local nonprofit also focused on improving the community would be willing to help you host and promote a kick-off event. This is a great chance to meet new donors, hear from your neighbors and civic leaders, and promote your first projects.

Before your first event, make sure you have your event software set up, so you can sell tickets (if applicable) and collect information about who will be attending.

Donations. In the digital age, it’s crucial for nonprofits to accept both in-person and online donations in various ways. Far and away the most popular way to give is online: According to Double the Donation, 55% of millennial and Gen X donors prefer to give online, compared to 14% of millennials and 10% of Gen X’ers who would rather give with cash.

If you haven’t set up your donations platform yet, now’s the time. You don’t want to lose out on the initial momentum your nonprofit is building.

Relationship building. One of your overarching goals at this early point in your nonprofit organization’s life should be to build relationships. Developing and nurturing initial relationships with donors and partners will form a strong bed of support from which your nonprofit can grow. Keep outreach at the top of your priority list, and make sure to nurture any relationships you’ve already started to build.

12. Start Building Membership.

Start to market your nonprofit to donors and constituents. Set up social media pages for your nonprofit. Ask followers to share your content, and be sure to invite everyone to your fundraising events.

Social media is a great way to convey your mission and values, let people know about events, share fundraising initiatives (such as your text-to-give number), and direct followers to your online donation page. Your donation page can include social media share buttons, so your supporters can let their friends and family know about your nonprofit. Here’s an example of an effective online donations page.

Collect contact information and start an email campaign, with regular (but not too frequent) newsletters that let readers know about the great work you’re doing. Include plenty of visual content, such as fun photos or short videos of your team in action.

Keep your website updated frequently, with new blog articles, pages, etc. Make sure everyone knows your nonprofit is diving head-first into accomplishing amazing things.

13. Build Your Nonprofit’s Professional Network.

As your nonprofit gets to work pursuing its mission, you and your team will discover the immense value of developing an extensive professional network. Important groups or individuals to connect with might include:

  • Other nonprofits in your area of any size or mission
  • Nonprofits in the wider region with missions similar to yours
  • Media or digital outlets, such as blogs, that focus on nonprofits
  • Other media outlets related to your mission
  • Networks or associations that work in your field

Building a professional network for your nonprofit can have some major benefits early on, particularly because others who believe in your mission will be happy to promote your work to their own audiences.

Expanding your network will help to increase visibility for your work, attract new donor bases, and connect your nonprofit with essential resources.

14. Plan for Your Organization’s Growth.

Once you've started your nonprofit organization, plan for its growth and expand your community.

You’ve put in plenty of hard work to get your new nonprofit organization up and running. That’s a real testament to your passion and the value of your mission.

Now’s the time to plan ahead and invest in your nonprofit’s growth. Having smart development plans in place will greatly reduce any growing pains or internal friction as your hard work starts to pay off.

In addition to the nonprofit platform you’ve already set up, identify tools you’ll need in the future. These might include automated marketing systems such as social media scheduling tools or an email marketing service.

Consider how your staffing and leadership strategies will adapt to growth. Have some plans in place for officially growing your board, instituting membership programs, and creating new staff positions.

Now that you have a community presence, focus on recurring donations. These should be the foundation of your fundraising revenue because they’re more reliable and predictable than one-time donations. They’re fundamental to nonprofit growth. Planning for your nonprofit’s successful future is the best way to invest in its stability and healthy growth!

Set up recurring donations for your nonprofit.


Nonprofit organizations are founded for just one reason: to better the world and the communities that make it up. If you’ve made the admirable decision to start your own nonprofit, familiarize yourself with the entire process, and be prepared to learn as you go. Always be on the lookout for useful resources that can provide you with new insights and resources, like these:

 

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