So You Want to Save the World: Starting your own nonprofit, Part 1 of 2

Many of us strive to make the world a better place.  Some do it through simple random acts of kindness.  Others support their favorite causes through their volunteer efforts and monetary donations.  Sometimes your passion for a cause is so strong, you want to take a lead role in the action. Your immediate reaction might be, “I want to start a nonprofit organization!”  Before you dive off the proverbial cliff, I’d like to offer a few words of wisdom from someone who has been in the trenches for a little while.

First, determine if starting a nonprofit is really the right direction for your cause. There are over 1.6 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. Virginia plays host to over 25,000 groups that carry the 501(c)3 designation.  Just like starting a business, creating a nonprofit takes a great deal of effort, setup cost, and energy. You need to establish your “brand”, get a large core group of supporters, and acquire capital and materials key to carrying out your mission.  Instead of starting something new, you might be able to partner with a currently established organization that is willing work with you. There are many advantages to this, including the fact that your partner organization would already carry the 501(c)3 tax exempt status and that they already have a board of directors and established organizational structure that would give you a head start.  Many nonprofits are very open to this concept so keep an open mind when drafting your mission and strategy.

Speaking of mission: One of the first things you will need to establish is the specific focus of your cause. This is important for so many reasons. It helps you determine not only who the beneficiaries of your efforts will be, but it can also help you share your cause with potential supporters clearly and succinctly.  How do you establish your mission? Form an advisory committee of people who are interested in supporting your efforts.  This may or may not be your initial Board of Directors (we’ll get to that in part 2) but they can help form your germ of an idea into a fully developed concept.  This is critical to the process because while your goals and objectives may be clear in your mind, they may not be clear to others at first.  You will need to find a good way to clearly convey your message.

When we started brainstorming ideas for what would become CJ’s Thumbs Up Foundation (CJSTUF), my husband and I pulled in friends whose talents spanned diverse areas such as finance, marketing, nonprofit governance, business, and the specific area we were serving (hospitalized children).  This was important because our original ideas around organization and mission actually evolved into something slightly different (and in the long run better) than what we initially envisioned.

Establishing your mission is only the beginning! In part two, I will discuss the intermediate steps to launching your passion.  Stay tuned!