Thursday, June 24, 2010

How to Start a Not-for-Profit Organization

In 2007, I was hired by TV sitcom star and cancer survivor, Fran Drescher, to help her launch the Cancer Schmancer Movement (more on that another time) and learned some amazing lessons on the "Do's & Don'ts" of starting a not-for-profit. I used those lessons to launch Glamour Gone Good in January 2010. We're mobilizing glamour industry professionals (glamour-makers, as I call them) to raise funds and distribute grants to leading women's and girls' charities.

For those of you ambitious or crazy enough to start your own not-for-profit (or simply curious as to how it's done), here are some tips and tricks that I shared with in 2007 that you may find useful.

  1. MISSION. State your purpose. You should be able to sum up the purpose of your organization in one sentence. Think about the problem you’re wanting to solve and what you consider to be your solution. Do a competitive analysis to find out which other organizations are out there that fall into your niche. Draw out a chart that maps out their various mission statements, target demographics, membership size, and whatever else you find key to their success. Make sure that you’re not just repeating what someone else is already doing. Figure out what sets your organization apart and why funders will choose it over your competitors. Important: Starting a not-for-profit is NOT always a good idea. Only pursue it if you’re absolutely confident that you bring something innovative and effective to the table. If you find that you don’t, then consider getting involved with one of these organizations that’s clearly doing what you’re so passionate about.

  1. LEADERSHIP. Develop your Board of Directors. Think about who would be an appropriate fit for your Executive Committee, which should include the following positions at a bare minimum: President, Treasurer, Secretary. When considering whom to approach to be on the Board, think about what needs you want met for each position assigned. Also, give careful consideration to which industries and professional backgrounds are represented on the Board. I always advocate for an accountant in the role of Treasurer and attorney in the role of Secretary. The President must be someone trustworthy, dependable and passionate about the cause or issue because that person will set the standard for what each Board member should aspire to in his/her role. It’s always helpful to have marketing experts and mission-specific experts to help round out your Board. For example, if you run a children’s after-school program, you may want a school principal and child psychologist on your Board. Be sure to consult the lawyers in the state where you’re founding your organization to find out the minimum board size requirements because the laws vary in each state.

  1. BRAND IDENTITY. Develop your brand identity, which is the look and feel of your organization. You’ll probably need the help of a graphic designer to help you (either for free or for a discounted fee) develop your organization’s logo. This logo should embody the spirit of your organization. Brainstorm with your Board of Directors on the key characteristics of your brand. If it were a person, what would s/he be like? Now turn this person into an image and what do you see? What colors? What image(s)? All of your promotional materials should flow from this logo as extensions of your brand. That includes your business cards, company letterhead and envelopes, brochures, website and everything in between.

  1. LEGALITIES. Learn the laws and stick to them. Spend some time on learning about the different kinds of not-for-profits that can exist and determine which one makes most sense for you. Most organizations tend to file under the 501(c)(3) code, but not everyone is eligible to file in that category. Once you’ve determined what kind of charity you wish to file as with the IRS, you’ll need to decide under which state’s laws you wish to incorporate. Surprisingly, you don’t need to live or work in the state which you incorporate. All you’ll need is a mailing address there and that could be a mailbox you rent from a place like Mailboxes, etc. Visit the state government’s website to read up on its non-profit corporate laws and make sure to adhere to them. Find a good attorney to help you develop your Board bylaws and organizational resolutions, which will all be sent to your government for incorporation purposes, and eventually to the IRS when you file for tax-exemption status.

  1. ACCOUNTING. Develop a smooth-operating financial infrastructure. Think about all of the expenses you expect to encounter over the next 12 months. Include staff salaries and benefits, if any, plus administrative and legal expenses like incorporation costs, legal fees, bank and credit card fees, liability insurance premiums, etc. Put all of this into a budget to review with your Board of Directors at your first Board meeting. Definitely take advantage of your Treasurer’s expertise when working on this because s/he may have insights on things you’d never think of on your own. Together, you’ll want to create a system for tracking all of the money that comes in and goes out of your organization. Always allocate every dollar spent to a specific line item in your budget, whether it to be salary, office supplies, travel, etc. Save your receipts and get in the habit of filling out credit card expense reports. The more diligent you are, the happier the IRS and auditors will be with you! Remember, the IRS can shut down your organization if you don’t track your revenue and expenses. So, keep ‘em happy.

  1. PROGRAMS. Structure your programs. Now that you have created the beginnings of a road map for your organization that states your ultimate purpose and your brand, it's time to map out the programs that will help you achieve your ultimate goal while remaining true to your brand. So, if you are starting a local organization committed to provided clean and safe outdoor play spaces for school-aged children, your programs may include both hands-on renovation projects like giving makeovers to playgrounds and cleaning up local parks, as well as advocacy programs through which you lobby for increased funding for cleaner and more green spaces in your neighborhood. Or if you happen to be launching an international organization dedicated to helping low-income girls complete a high school education, you may need to establish a grant-making program that awards scholarships and grants to young girls while developing partnerships with local NGOs and schools to inspire more young girls in your key markets to stay in school.

  1. DEVELOPMENT (or FUNDRAISING). Raise some start-up funds. Start with what you’ve got – your Board of Directors. Ask them to contribute what they can to help you get started and be clear on where those funds will go. Look for support in your community. Host events locally and activate your personal and professional network to garner interest and support in your organization. Consider applying for seed grants from community-based foundations, as well as approaching small to mid-sized companies with a presence in your community to jointly develop cause marketing campaigns that are win-win for you all. For info on grant writing and foundations, visit For tips on cause marketing, check out this awesome blog:

  2. MARKETING. Get your name out there. Think about both online and offline marketing mechanisms. For starters, create a Facebook page and Twitter account that you can update regularly (multiple times a week, if not daily). Consider starting your own blog if you know your audience well and have lots to share with them. All of this will help you develop a presence that will eventually drive traffic to your website. Consider getting started with a free or low-cost website. I recommend for registering your domain name and for setting up a temporary site, but if you’ve got a web programmer and/or designer willing to help you get started, even better! Once you’ve started creating some buzz online, start getting active in your community by recruiting volunteers and community-based partners to help you host free or low-cost events. After all, events are a great excuse for people to write about you! Ultimately, you and your Board should draft a communications plan that includes all of your intended strategies for marketing your organization to your intended audience. Be creative and have fun with it!

The original recap of my interview with can be found here: