The Complete Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit Organization
Starting a nonprofit can feel like entering a new world with a completely different language at times. Trying to keep track of all the steps you need to accomplish can quickly become overwhelming.
In this post, we are going to provide you with a starting a nonprofit organization checklist to help guide you through the process. The items in this checklist will help transform this overwhelming process into something that’s both simple and attainable. By using this checklist, you can begin turning your passion project into a successful organization.
Let’s dive in.
Why Do You Need a Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit?
Setting up a new nonprofit organization requires a lot of different steps, and you want to be sure you don’t miss anything within the process.
Creating a nonprofit can be a complicated process, so a checklist can help you and everyone on your team stay on track and on the same page.
A checklist can also help minimize the chances of becoming overwhelmed, and can make the steps seem more attainable. An organized checklist can help you clearly see your path to a new organization.
Simplifying the process into these key steps will allow you to maintain clarity within your nonprofit, which will build trust among the community you serve and donors you invite to join your mission. Each step within this checklist will take intentional thought and time, but it will be worth it in the end!
The 8-Step Complete Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit
We have developed this comprehensive checklist to help you start your nonprofit on the right path.
1. Define Mission, Vision, and Values
The first step when starting a nonprofit is to define your organization’s mission, vision, and values.
You may inherently know these things as you think of the nonprofit work you want to begin, but it deserves time and energy to develop statements that speak to funders who may not be as close to the cause as you are.
So what’s the secret to creating a powerful mission and vision statement? Take a few hours with those working alongside you, or alone, and brainstorm keywords that capture the essential reason why your nonprofit exists. Ask yourselves:
- What would happen if we did not exist?
- If we are successful in every way, what will change?
- What are the 1-2 things that would make our existence matter?
If you can answer these questions clearly, you can write powerful statements, drawing funders in who will be just as passionate about the work as you are!
For even more insight into how to craft a compelling mission statement, check out this guide.
Once your mission and vision are crafted, think of the values that will drive your organization from start to finish. These will guide everything from your programs and staff to your volunteers, board members, and donors.
Values should not be static words. They should be core ideals that guide the work being done each day through the work of your nonprofit organization.
2. Do Research of the Space and Available Grants
All nonprofits require funding to exist. Research the types of grant funding that are available for the services your nonprofit will provide.
See what other nonprofits exist that might be serving your same mission. See what type of funding they have received, and make note of certain funders who may share your passions as you begin your new nonprofit organization.
You can also use databases that list funders, their areas of interest, and all available grants to understand the landscape of funding available to you. You want to be sure that the mission you are seeking to carry out has a need in your community and has potential funders to back it.
Tools like Instrumentl can help you easily access funder information, giving history, open grants, and more.
This NTEE code snapshot pulled from Instrumentl shows what areas funders care most about. You can filter through profiles, save ones that align with your mission, and create a list of funding opportunities within minutes. Researching funders that align with your mission can help you build a solid foundation to ensure you have ongoing funding to run your programs.
If you do not see funders that align with your mission, vision, and goals, you may want to go back to the drawing board. Consider programs you could add that might align with the needs of your community and funder’s passions, or consider adding your work in collaboration with another organization that is closely related.
3. Choose a Name
Here’s the deal: There are millions of nonprofit organizations. You want to choose a name for your nonprofit that grabs your audience’s attention and easily explains the work you do.
The worst thing you can do is have an organization name that confuses funders. Find something meaningful that people can identify and relate to from the start.
Consider Doctors Without Borders.
Their name clearly describes the work they accomplish and blends perfectly with their mission and activities. It is a name that most know the moment they hear it.
Similarly, Teach for America is clear, concise, and recognizable. You can easily decipher their work upon reading the name of the nonprofit organization.
4. Establish Your Nonprofit Team
Any good business takes a team of support to be successful. Nonprofits are no different.
Whether you have funding for staff or if you are an all-volunteer team, here are a few tips for establishing your team:
- Create an organizational chart
- Define team roles
- Develop a workplan
- Utilize volunteer committees
If your nonprofit is a solo effort for now, that’s okay. You can still build a team to help you accomplish everything on your starting a nonprofit organization checklist. Find one to two people in your circle of influence that have skills to contribute. Whether they have a creative mind to help you bounce ideas off of, or if they are an organizational guru, let them lend their skills to help you accomplish your goals.
5. Build a Board of Directors
Every 501c3 nonprofit organization is legally required to have a board of directors.
What does that mean for you? Part of starting a nonprofit organization includes finding the right people to serve on your board of directors. If you don’t yet have a team of volunteers helping you, reach out to your community.
Find your local United Way, a local community foundation, or a nearby university. These institutions are often key stakeholders within the community and might know individuals who want to serve nonprofit organizations.
Board members should bring needed skills and a passion for your work. As you bring in individuals to serve as board members, you will want to give them clear direction.
Consider drafting board member job descriptions. These descriptions will help them know exactly what to expect as they consider joining your nonprofit organization. You can check out a list of different board member responsibilities here.
6. Legally Incorporate Your Nonprofit
To gain funding from private donors, foundations, and grants, you must legally incorporate your nonprofit. This can be the most cumbersome part of starting a nonprofit organization, but that’s the beauty of a checklist. Follow each step, mark your progress, and you can finish strong!
While every state has specific requirements for incorporating your nonprofit, here are a few basic steps required nationally:
- Complete your Articles of Incorporation and file them
- Draft bylaws
- Hold an official meeting
- Apply for a Federal Employer Identification Number
- Apply for federal tax exemption
- Familiarize yourself with initial state requirements
- Register as a charity
It is extremely important to keep records of everything within this process. Funders will often ask for documentation that you will receive through the process above with each grant application. Save your files as a PDF so you can easily upload or share them upon request.
7. Build an Online Presence for Your Nonprofit
One thing that must be on your starting a nonprofit organization checklist is building an online presence.
Many funders will get their first impression of your organization online. Three places you should focus on are your website, Guidestar profile, and social media.
Website: the goal of your website should be to clearly explain your nonprofit's purpose and build trust with donors.
- Use images and bold fonts to clearly highlight your mission, vision, and programs. When funders land on your website, these are some of the first things they should see.
- List your staff and board of directors. Even if you are volunteer-led, list the people who are leading the organization. Use a headshot and list their profession. This is an easy way to build confidence and draw in funders.
- Make your Donate Page clear and easy to read. Always include your physical mailing address for those who want to mail a check. Include your EIN, as many foundations will pull this information when considering you for funding.
Let’s look at Teach for America again. Their website uses bold, clear fonts and often breaks wording up with photos and statistics.
Guidestar Profile: Every nonprofit should complete their Guidestar Profile. This is the main place foundations look for information when evaluating your nonprofit.
An easy way to stand out from competition is to complete the Seal of Transparency. This requires submitting information about your nonprofit, most of which you'll have from your incorporation process.
Your Guidestar profile will show when you pass the "Guidestar Charity Check" which means you are a 501c3 in good standing with the IRS. If you do not pass a Guidestar Charity Check, you will be ineligible for the majority of funding opportunities you find.
Social Media Platforms: Decide which social media platforms make sense for your organization to use and create business profiles. Start off with small goals:
- Post at least once per month on each platform
- Share your mission and vision to orient new donors to who you are
- Share stories of success about:
- Your programs
- People you are serving
- New board leadership
- New funding received
- Partnerships in the communities you serve
Start small and grow your online presence to help develop credibility behind your organization.
8. Start Applying for Grants
By now, you should be ready to start securing funding. The next step is to apply for grants!
You will find that the amount of information on potential grants is abundant. Rather than trying to create your own way of gathering, storing, and remembering all of the different funders and areas of interest, utilize a system that makes it easy for you.
With Instrumentl you can filter through funders and grant opportunities based on different criteria.
Using this system, you can gather the opportunities that you have a high likelihood of receiving funding from.
- Which ones do you fit best with their funding areas?
- Which ones are you eligible for?
- Who has open opportunities?
With Instrumentl you can organize the grant proposals you are working on in a smooth system. Never forget a deadline. Never miss a funding opportunity!
One helpful tip is to create a skeleton grant application, gathering the main items you will need for any application:
- History about your nonprofit
- Mission and vision
- List of board of directors
- Program descriptions and expected results
- Organizational budget
- 501c3 letter
You can tailor these items to fit the requirements for different grant opportunities. Having these items in one place will allow you to more quickly complete grant proposals and secure funding.
Click to find the best grants for your nonprofit from 12,000+ active opportunities.
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3 Examples of Different Nonprofit Requirements Based on the US State
Every state has different requirements for incorporating a nonprofit organization, so tailor your checklist to your state.
A state-specific checklist for starting a nonprofit organization in Maryland, Virginia, and Utah are listed below. These are just examples of how states differ slightly within certain steps of the process.
Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit Organization in Maryland
Here is a sample checklist for starting a nonprofit organization in Maryland. Feel free to save it and follow it through.
Important links mentioned:
Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit Organization in Virginia
Here is a sample checklist for starting a nonprofit organization in Virginia. Feel free to save it and follow it through.
- Important links mentioned:
Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit Organization in Utah
Here is a sample checklist for starting a nonprofit organization in Utah. Feel free to save it and follow it through.
Important links mentioned:
Wrapping Up: The Complete Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit Organization
All in all, the process of setting up a new nonprofit organization can seem overwhelming. But if you boil it down to these 8 steps, you can move forward with confidence and clarity.
We hope the examples and tips we provided will help you as you establish your nonprofit organization. Once you have everything set up, tools like Instrumentl can help you acquire much-needed funding and support so that you can further your important mission!