So You Think You Can Start a Non-Profit?

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with many non-profit organizations as a volunteer or board member. Most recently, I joined with some friends to found Ujaala, an organization that aims to support other organizations in India through projects that are locally actionable by volunteers in the US. (We didn’t want to focus our efforts on simply sending money overseas. Instead, we want to engage the local community in order to build awareness of the needs and issues affecting people in India.)

Since then, we’ve collected, sorted, and packaged over 1000 articles of clothing in a campaign that we ran this summer – they’ll soon be shipped to an NGO in India. While our first project has been quite successful, I’ve learned many lessons about what’s required to start and run a non-profit organization, and thought I’d share:

  1. Write a Mission Statement
    Before you can even start, it’s important that you identify a need that your organization will strive to address. It can be something as specific as supporting a particular team at your local high school, or a bit more broad, like Ujaala’s: Bringing opportunity to those in need by collaborating with non-profit organizations in India. Not only will a mission statement give your organization a defined purpose, it will give you a standard upon which to measure every action and project that your organization undertakes.

  2. Assemble a Diverse and Committed Team
    If you’ve read this far with interest, you’re probably committed to your cause enough to help get an organization off the ground. Find more people like yourself and get them excited about your idea. You will need a dedicated team in order to fill your organization’s board of directors and also to spread out the administrative and substantive workload involved with running any organization. Additionally, as with any group of people, a diverse set of individuals will bring many different ideas and opinions to the table, which will prove to be extremely useful as you brainstorm fundraising and project plans.

  3. Understand the Legal Stuff
    While not nearly as fun as the actual work your organization will be doing, it’s important that you understand and navigate through the legal process required to set up a non-profit organization. In most cases, you will need to set up a non-profit corporation in your home state, and then apply for 501©(3) federal tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. While a tedious process, filling out the intimidating 28-page application, IRS Form 1023, will help you to solidify and understand your organization’s activities along with its long-term financial plans. This process may not be applicable for every non-profit organization – please remember that I’m not a expert, and do contact an accountant or lawyer if you have any questions.

If you can successfully complete those three tasks, there is no stopping what your organization is capable of. Keep your team motivated, and go help the world!