how to start a non-profit step by step

How To Start A Nonprofit Organization

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A few years ago, my wife asked how to start a nonprofit organization.

Recently retired, she wanted to “give back” to society.  She wanted to start a charity.

She’s not alone.

Many retirees find that retirement is a great time to give back.  Many have considered starting a charity.  If you’re thinking about ways you can truly make an impact, this post is for you.  Today, we’ll answer the question of How To Start A Nonprofit Organization, with a 10 Step Overview of how to create a 501c3 corporation.

Interested in starting a nonprofit organization? This post is you, with 10 Steps To Start Your Own Charity. Click To Tweet

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How To Start A Nonprofit Organization

Fortunately, my wife and I figured out the steps. She’s now fully engaged in running Freedom For Fido (“FFF”), the legally incorporated 501c3 nonprofit organization (NPO) she founded in 2019.  The impact she’s had on our local community has exceeded her wildest expectations, and she’s found a true Purpose for her retired years. We answered the question of “How to start a nonprofit organization”, and we learned some things along the way. 

Today, we share our learnings with you.

Below are the 10 specific steps we followed, using actual examples from our experience.

10 Steps To Start Your Own Charity


how to create a nonprofit - identify your cause
Freeing Dogs From Life On A Chain

1. Identify Your Cause

The Purpose of Freedom For Fido?  “Freeing Dogs From Life On A Chain.”  A short 7-word sentence that captures what my wife’s NPO is all about. Through the generous support of our donors, we build free fences for low-income families in our area.  For those dogs who’ve lived “24/7” on a chain, we also provide a free doghouse. We have over 50 volunteers who willingly serve on our “Fence Building Days”, and we have a great time helping those in need.

What’s Your Cause?  Decide what area you want to impact, and how your NPO can make a difference. What do you want your focus to be?  What is your charity going to do? What needs are present in your community? How will you engage volunteers?  How will you reach potential recipients?  Spend a lot of time in this area.  It seems overwhelming at first glance, but this is the foundational question and the first step in How To Start A Nonprofit Organization.  Get it right.


2. Create Your Brand

Once you’ve identified your cause, the next step in How To Start A Nonprofit Organization is to come up with an appropriate name for your charity.  Make it short and snappy, something that will capture people’s attention.  The name of your charity is important.  It should clearly communicate what your NPO is all about.  You’ll also use it to build your online presence, so it needs to be creative and well-suited for our virtual world.  As you’ll see in Step 3, you’ll want your website to accurately reflect your name, so check out web domain availability as you’re considering a name.  We used Google Domains to search for available domains, which is an important consideration as you name your charity.

Next, it’s time for your logo.  Most folks will picture your logo when they think of your brand.  Think of your logo as being shorthand for what your brand stands for.  It needs to communicate your message while standing out amidst all of the “noise”.

For FFF, my wife envisioned the logo above.  Fortunately, our daughter is artistic and was willing to create the logo shown above.  If you don’t have an artist in your family, consider reaching out to my friend, Dave, at Accidental Fire.  He runs a small graphic art shop “on the side”, and creates logos for many organizations.  Tell him Fritz sent you, maybe he’ll give you a deal…  

In time, your logo will be on EVERYTHING, so think carefully about how you can illustrate what your “brand” is all about in a simple picture.  We were excited when we first saw the FFF logo, and never imagined how far it would go.  We now have it on all of our Social Media sites, our website, our merchandise (hats, t-shirts, cups), and our Customized Mobile Fence Building Trailer. (scroll to the 5:20 mark to see the logo on our trailer).  Our logo is simple, yet it captures everything the “brand” of FFF is about. 

Challenge yourself to do the same with your logo, it’s the foundation of your brand.


how to create a nonprofit website

3. Build A Website

Fortunately, my wife’s husband is a blogger, so he was able to build the Freedom For Fido website for her at no charge. There are plenty of folks who are willing to do this for you if you don’t have the talent, though I’d encourage you to try it yourself before you pay someone to do it for you.  I knew nothing about websites when I started The Retirement Manifesto, yet I’ve built everything you see on my page.  And, everything you see on the FFF page.

If you’d like to take a stab at it, simply go to Bluehost and follow the steps.  You’ll spend ~$150-200 to get your domain name and get your WordPress site up and running for the first year. If you don’t want to build your own site, at a minimum I’d encourage you to go to Google Domains and “buy” the domain name you’re considering.  It’ll cost you less than $20 to secure the domain name for a year, and you’ll want to secure that before legally establishing your organization. 

(Why are we doing all this before we’ve formed the 501c3?  If you do it the other way around and set up the legal 501c3 only to find out you can’t secure a website with the same name, you’re in a bit of a pickle.  I suspect many folks have done it in reverse order, but this is the route we chose and it’s worked well for us).


how to create a nonprofit organization social media

4. Lock-In Your Brand’s Social Media Accounts

Now that you have a purpose, a name and a logo, it’s time to secure your brand on Social Media to ensure your “name” is available on all of the relevant sites.  Our Freedom For Fido Facebook page is invaluable to us, and where the majority of our public interaction occurs. You want your social media accounts to match the name of your charity, so it’s best to set these up before you process your legal paperwork with the IRS.  In addition to Facebook, we’ve secured the FFF name on Instagram and Twitter, as well.   You’ll notice we don’t even use the Twitter account, but it’s best to have it secured for potential future use.  You don’t have to do much with your sites at this point, but I would encourage you to establish them with the name of your charity for future use. 

Social Media will become your main connection point between the public and your charity.


how to start a nonprofit organization - legal steps

5. Make It Legal

Finally, the issue most people wonder about as they’re trying to answer the question of “How To Start A Nonprofit Organization”.  How hard is it to legally incorporate as a 501c3?  Fortunately, the answer is “not very”.  There are 3 requirements that must be met in order to incorporate as a 501c3:

  1. will serve a charitable, religious, educational, scientific, or literary purpose; 
  2. will not participate in political campaigns; and 
  3. will not distribute their assets for personal gain or benefit. 

In my opinion, filing the official paperwork is one area where it pays to hire experts.  After doing some online research, we found Floyd Green Financial Services, a CPA firm that specializes in setting up 501c3’s.  After a few email exchanges, we hired them to work through the incorporation process on our behalf.  We spent ~$1,000 to have them do everything, and it was money well spent. 

I should note that we spent our personal funds to do this since we were not yet in a place to count on donors to fund our incorporation.  Be prepared to spend a bit of your own money to set up your NPO, but it’s not excessive.  I’d estimate we spent ~$1500 to do all of the steps outlined in this post.  Technically, we could have reimbursed ourselves from future donations, but we felt it was an investment we were making in my wife’s future and we have no regrets.

Floyd Green provided all of the legal documents we needed, including Bylaws and other legal document templates that we could easily modify as needed for FFF.  They provided direction on establishing our Board of Directors, and they filed all necessary documents with the IRS to receive our Employer Identification Number (or EIN, corporation’s equivalent to a SSN) and the Georgia Secretary of State for our Certificate of Incorporation.  They were there every step of the way, and we were impressed with how smoothly the entire process went.  Trust me on this one, hire out the incorporation process.  


6. Build Your Board Of Directors

It is a legal requirement for each NPO to have a Board of Directors, and your Board must meet certain legal requirements and be comprised of at least 3 members:

  1. President 
  2. Secretary 
  3. Treasurer 

As the Founder, you are able to serve in one of the 3 functions, and my wife serves as President of the FFF Board.  Initially, we hired fellow dog-lovers who we knew in the community.  It served us well for the first year, but our Board has naturally evolved into a different construct in the second year.  We told our initial Board members we were only asking for a one-year commitment, and their involvement was critical in our first year.  One member ran a local dog boarding facility, and he taught us how to build fences.  Another was a downtown merchant, and he ordered a nice run of FFF T-shirts for us.  They worked great for Year 1, and we thank each of them for their contributions.

For year 2, our 5-member Board is comprised of highly active, charitably minded individuals with extensive experience in other local charities.   A rockstar finance lady was recommended as Treasurer, and it’s been helpful to have an experienced person who has played the same role with larger charities.  My wife sends all donation and expense receipts to her, and she maintains the books.  My wife also tracks everything, and they compare notes throughout the year to ensure their “numbers match”.  We use a local CPA to keep us straight with the IRS (the requirements are minimal for 401c3’s with <$50k in annual donations, with one simple form, the 990-N, being all that’s required at tax time).

The President of the local Trout Unlimited chapter (a much bigger charity) has been a great addition to our Board, and his experience with fundraising and community networking has been invaluable.  There’s a guy we call the “Professional Networker”, who knows everyone in town.  He’s our biggest promoter, and he has a ton of respect in our community.  A well-known restaurant owner has also joined our Board, and he talks us up to patrons and supports our fundraising efforts.  Every member of the Board has participated in multiple fence builds, and they bring a great balance of tactical and broader strategic perspective to the operation of Freedom For Fido.

When you’re first getting started, don’t stress too much about your Board composition.  Ask for a one-year commitment, and let your Board evolve as your charity needs become clearer in time.


7. Set Up Banking / Post-Office

Once you’ve received your EIN, you should establish a bank account in your charity’s name.  Only my wife and our Treasurer have access to the account, and all money flowing in or out of the charity touches this account.  Having all of your funds flow through one account helps keep a clear audit trail, and makes financial reconciliation as straightforward as balancing a checking account.  As mentioned in the “Build The Board” section, having an experienced Treasurer on your Board is a big asset when it comes to maintaining financial integrity and integrity.

For your mailing address, you’ll want a P.O. Box at your local post office.  Again, we established this under Freedom For Fido, and we swing by once a week to check for any mail.  To ensure the sustainability of your organization, you do not want to use your home address.  Should you move or become incapacitated, you don’t want to modify all of your contact information with an updated address.


8. Fundraising

Now that you’re legally established and ready to change the world, it’s time to raise some money.  This is the area we were most concerned with, but it’s turned out the be the least of our problems (keeping up with the demand for fences is #1. We have enough money, but we never have enough time). 

Once people hear about what you’re doing, you’ll likely be surprised by the generosity in your community.  We were fortunate to have a local resident approach us with a kick-off donation sufficient to build our first 2 fences.  As word spread (Social Media!) about what we were doing, the money has consistently trickled in. 

We have held two major fundraisers: 1) a wine & food pairing at a local restaurant and 2) a comedy night.  For both events, we used Eventbrite to manage the ticket sales and created our own promotional material (we used Canva).  We’ve printed posters and hung them at various establishments around town.  We’ve leveraged our Board to help get the word out, and we’ve utilized social media extensively to get our events in front of potential patrons. 

Both events were successful, raising ~$6k each.

Also, think beyond the “typical” fundraiser.  We had the idea of holding a “Doghouse Building Contest” at a local festival, and the “Professional Networking” on our Board of Directors convinced our local newspaper to run a story on it (see above). 

In addition, we had a volunteer who’s active in the Boy Scouts make them aware of our need for doghouses, and we currently have a Scout who is planning on leading his troup in the building of 5 doghouses as his Eagle Scout project.  If you’re struggling with ideas, get creative.  Google “Fundraising ideas for charity” and you’ll get 26 Million results. 

Raising money isn’t the obstacle we once feared.  If your charity is making an impact, folks will want to help.  We’re blessed to live in a generous society.  Focus on getting the word out, and the money will likely follow.


how to start a nonprofit organization - engage your volunteers

9. Engage Your Volunteers

Finally, making a change in the world requires effort.  Make it easy for folks to get involved, and share your appreciation as often as possible on social media.  We take a “group shot” at every fence build, and post it on our Facebook Page (the pic above is our group shot from last week’s build).

To make it easy to volunteer, we have a “Volunteer Now” button on our website and maintain an email list of all who have expressed an interest.  Prior to every fence build, my wife sends out an “email blast” to all of our volunteers with the details for the next build.  Volunteers can come if they’re available, but they don’t feel an obligation.  With 50+ volunteers on the list, we consistently get ~10 who show up for every build.  It’s a rotating group of volunteers, and we keep it fun.  We’ve heard from numerous volunteers that they enjoy the atmosphere at our events, and my wife deserves all of the credit for being intentional in keeping things fun and lighthearted.  No politics, no tension, and a lot of laughs.  It’s all about the dogs that we’re here to help. 

It works, and it works well.

Find a way to keep your volunteer obligations to a minimum.  Throw in some fun outings to build relationships.  We’ve done an outing to a local vineyard, and a few weeks ago we all met up for “Wings Wednesday” at a local restaurant to celebrate our year-end.  Folks will get engaged if it’s something they enjoy. 

Keep it fun.


10. Promote Your Successes

To close, it’s critical to find ways to promote your success.  When folks see that you’re clearly making an impact, the donations and volunteers will naturally flow toward helping your cause.  If you’re making a difference, find a way to make people aware of it.

As I mentioned, we’re very active on our Facebook Page, and post pictures immediately following every fence building event.  At the end of the year, I built the following infographic to celebrate the impact made in 2020:


Conclusion

When my wife first asked the question “how to start a non-profit organization”, she didn’t know the first step.

Fortunately, she figured it out and learned some things along the way.

18 months later, she’s making a huge impact in our local community.  More importantly, she’s found a true Passion in her retirement years and she’s having a lot of fun running Freedom For Fido. She’s created a true community among dog-lovers in our area, and we celebrate together when each “Fido” is freed.  We all look forward to “fence building days”, and we’re having fun while making an impact for good.

Do you have the urge to start a non-profit?  Follow that curiosity.  Take the first step.  Follow the steps outlined in this article. You’ll likely be surprised where it takes you.

Your Turn:  Have you ever considered starting a non-profit?  Are there any other questions you have that we can answer?  If you’ve started a non-profit, are there other tips you can provide?  Let’s chat…

10 comments

  1. This is amazing and is somewhat close to what I hope to do in retirement but focusing on older dogs. I’m going to follow your wife’s social media accounts now!

  2. This is awesome Fritz, and nice detail on the process. I hope to start one someday myself, something in the arena of outdoor sports or cycling. Just haven’t come up with the killer idea yet and it’d probably be best if I’m fully retired to dedicate time to it. But I see it in my future

  3. I’m impressed Fritz with all you and Jackie have accomplished!

    Such a worthy cause and truly a means of finding “purpose in retirement”. Thank you for laying out the steps so clearly and all the invaluable tips!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Shannon. We also haven’t forgotten about that guest post, guess we’re too busy building fences these days, but we definitely plan on taking advantage of your generous offer. Thanks for your patience!

  4. Excellent article for those who have found the passion and just need “a little” technical assistance to overcome the boring part in the execution of his/her inner passion.

    This is where over 95% of us in the population gave up of our inner unlimited potential…small hurdles in the way!

  5. Love this! Shed a tear or two. Want to find a nonprofit passion as well in retirement. Reposting to @Financial Literacy Project!:)

  6. This is a great article! I have an uncle who’s a civil engineer who goes to Africa to build wells in impoverished regions. He typically works locally with a priest. We support the effort financially and also just send money to the priest for food and supplies for local people but it’s not a 501c3. We’ve been talking about setting one up but I suppose have just procrastinated taking that first step out of fear of the unknown (and laziness 🙁 ). This is just the prodding I need to get that started!

    One question – I did a quick google search and it sounds like this may be state-dependent? Does it matter where the 501c3 is headquartered?
    thanks!
    dan

    1. Impressive about your Uncle, Dan. Glad I was able to prod you to start on that first step!

      As for differences between States, I suspect there are some technical differences, but the 10 steps would still apply. I know Floyd Green works across the country, so I’m sure they’d be happy to answer any specific questions you have about your state.

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