If you’ve decided that your group is ready to start a non-profit, consider the following steps involved in the successful and legal creation of a new non-profit organization. Be aware that requirements can vary from state to state and from organization to organization. This list is best used as an overview, a basic to-do list to get you started and as a reference when consulting legal help and professionals.(Related Should your PTO file for non-profit status?)
Steps for starting a new non-profit organization:
1. Formulate your goals and mission statement
You will need this mission statement later as you file various documents. Your mission statement and goals also have the purpose to focus the work and attention of everything your group does. Take your time with this task, because every action your non-profit takes in the future, or fundraising campaign it runs should be aligned with your defined goals and mission statement.
2. Start building your team and plan the first meeting
Your group’s first ‘board’ should be chosen with care as this is the team that will carry your group through the process of starting your non-profit and will make critical decisions regarding bylaws, mission, goals, etc. This group needs to be a motivated group who is willing to put in some targeted effort. As you’re going through the process you will eventually have to designate a president, a treasurer and secretary and any other voting members.
3. Name a registered agent
The registered agent is designated to receive legal notices on behalf of the non-profit and can be an individual or company. Note that the registered agent’s name and street address (no PO box) will be public information.
4. Decide on a name and address for your non-profit organization
This gives your group an identity and it is a legal requirement. Be sure your name is unique. Search the internet and government websites (incl. your county’s recorder website) to see if your desired name is being used in any way. While you’re online, you may also want to make sure the website domain, or URL, is available.
Consider buying at least the .com .net and .org versions, so no one else can use them. You can shop for URLs at sites like aPlus.net. (Once you have your name and a logo, consider trademarking them to protect your brand.)
5. Determine the legal type of non-profit your group should be
There are basically three possible legal distinctions for a non-profit – a corporation, charitable trust, or an unincorporated association. You can choose to remain an informal unincorporated association, but incorporating as a non-profit has many advantages and is the most appropriate for many groups who are planning long-term.
6. Identify an attorney who will set up your legal structure and act in a consultant capacity and/or hire one for further work as needed.
7. Write Articles of Incorporation and/or bylaws
This document will name your non-profit and designate your location and purpose. Some states require non-profits to draft bylaws as part of the Articles of Incorporation and some do not.
8. File legal documents to incorporate as a non-profit
Legal incorporation minimizes risk and liability to the group, officers, and members.
9. Write a business plan and a budget
A plan and a budget give definite direction to a new non-profit. Just like a new business, a non-profit needs a solid business plan. The main difference between a non-profit and a business is that a non-profit benefits others or other non-profits, whereas a business benefits its owners or shareholders.
10. Apply for Federal Identification Number, or EIN
This gives you a legal identification for purposes of taxes, banking, and accounting.
11. Apply for Federal Tax Exempt status
Usually, this will be the 501(c)(3) status; 501(c)(3) status not only grants federal recognition, but also serves as recognition for grant funding, donors, and other organizations. (Other non-profit types.)
12. As applicable, file for state recognition and/or (sales and property) tax exemption.
These basic steps will set you and your organization on its way to becoming a successful non-profit organization. Upon completion of these steps, you will be ready for the business of achieving your new non-profit group’s mission and goals!
More about non-profit incorporation.