Nonprofits FAQ

I want to start a nonprofit -- does it matter that I've never worked in one?

Many great nonprofits have been started by people whose main qualifications were energy and passion for a cause. However, success in the nonprofit sector is anything but guaranteed. Some important questions to ask yourself before you leap include:

  • Can you handle working long hours with no salary for the potentially long time it might take to get the nonprofit established?
  • Is there truly a need for the nonprofit you're thinking of starting, or is there another organization in your community doing something similar, which you could volunteer or work for?
  • What types of transferable skills do you already have, such as business, accounting, marketing, writing, Web design, or client services expertise -- and what skills will you need to either develop or find other people to supply? (Remember, a nonprofit is a type of business, and donors and grantmakers will judge your professionalism from the outset.)
  • Do you have friends and contacts with a similar interest in the same cause, whom you'd be willing to reach out to for help or contributions?
  • What other assets could you draw on to jumpstart your nonprofit, such as property you already own and could use for office space or a shelter?
  • What will be your minimum operating expenses for the first year, and where will this money come from (especially given that you're unlikely to receive grant funding in these early stages of getting established)?

Do some serious advance research, both by reading the many available print and online resources and talking to people in other groups. If possible, finding an organization similar to the one you have in mind and making a significant volunteer commitment to it can be the best way to learn, make personal contacts, and get ideas for how to proceed.

Also consider starting small. You can create a miniature, test project, just to see how things go. As a next step, before you apply for tax-exempt or 501(c)(3) status, you might ask an established nonprofit organization -- preferably one with a similar mission -- to become your "fiscal sponsor." This allows you to basically ride on its 501(c)(3) coattails, while it initially handles any money you receive. You can offer donors the right to tax deductions, and rely on the sponsoring organization to report and fulfill other requirements to your grantmakers.

For More Information

To learn more about managing, building, funding and marketing your nonprofit, get Nolo's Nonprofit Bundle, a three book set filled with practical advice and step-by-step instructions to get your organization off the ground and maximize its chances of success.

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