Tips for new nonprofits

Your group has a passion for doing some particular good,  and lots of ideas about how to do it.   You decide to set up a nonprofit — but how do you begin?

1. What’s your brand?

Ask yourselves:  how is what we propose to do different from what’s already being done ? what niche do we want to fill?  when people think of us, what’s the first thing we want to jump into their minds?   Your answers will help you to identify and create your brand– the position you want to occupy in the mind of your audience that will differentiate you from other organizations serving similar purposes. Once you’ve staked your position:

  • Develop a mission statement with your founding team. Ask yourselves: what, exactly, do we intend to do?  for and with whom?  where and when? what are our goals — what result do we expect to see? (See The Music Teaching Project’s mission statement, below.)
  • Gather an interim board of directors, which can be your founding team; appoint a registered agent (typically a board member) to communicate on behalf of your fledgling organization with your state and the IRS.
  • Apply to your state for 501( c ) 3 status as a not-for-profit corporation, and to the IRS for an employer  identification number (called an EIN or  tax ID number.)
  • Create articles of incorporation, organization bylaws, and board guidance materials.  You can find templates for these on the web.  Be sure to check your state’s requirements re: content and wording.  You should be able to find this information on its government website.
  • Next, apply to IRS for tax-exempt status on form 1023, which can be downloaded from .  Take your time and be careful, it’s quite long and detailed. Now that you’ve done a good deal of work toward establishing your nonprofit, you should have all the information you need to fill out the 1023.
  • Wait for IRS to respond (can take anywhere from 4-12 months, on average.) They might contact you for additional information or clarification– that’s normal, don’t let it throw you.
  • Celebrate when you get their approval!   You’ll get it if you’ve thought everything through carefully, gone through all the steps, and and provided the requisite documentation.

2. Create a strategic plan

Now, all you have to do — in addition to developing  ideas for your program and gathering information about your intended target audience — is to create visibility, credibility, and of course raise money!  It can feel daunting. You’ll want to develop a strategic plan to steer you through it.

A strategic plan is kind of a blueprint of what you want your organizaton to do, and how and when you want it done, and who will do it. A good strategic plan will  serve as a guide to your fledgling organization’s current operations and future growth. This plan should encompass fundraising, communications, and other outreach strategies you’ll pursue over the next several years to get going and to stay viable.  Some plans are just for one year, but most take a trajectory of several years into account.

Incorporating the ideas and information you came up with during your branding phase, the plan should clearly identify your goals and objectives –what you intend to accomplish and what you need to do to accomplish it.  Objectives especially  should be measurable and quantifiable. You’ll want to be able to evaluate how you’re doing; now more than ever funders require your organization to demonstrate with facts and figures that it ‘s doing what it says it will do.

As part of your strategic planning,  you’ll need to consider very carefully who will be responsible for the steps needed to carry out your objectives and reach your goals, and when and where those steps are to be taken.

3.  One organization’s approach

Take a look at how The Music Teaching Project (TMTP) in Washington, DC, approached creating a strategic plan.  First, let’s take a look at and then analyze TMTP’s mission statement:

Our mission: To enrich the lives of disadvantaged DC students grades 2-8 by offering free after-school instumental music classes taught by professional musicians at partner organization sites throughout the city.

  • The mission statement tells what business TMTP is in — providing free after-school music lessons to disadvantaged public school kids. That’s its brand, its identity, its reason for being.   By identifying  whom TMTP is in business to serve, the mission statement essentially is telling you why it’s chosen to serve them.  It also includes some operational details of  how, when and where  —by professional musicians during after-school hours at partner sites.  You get a good idea from its mission statement of what TMTP is all about.

The mission statement identified  the resources TMTP needed to reach its goals: its intended clients, the students (no clients, no organization — so count your intended client base as a resource);  musical instruments; music teachers; space for lessons; and public school and parental cooperation.

So how did TMTP  go about acquiring those resources?  That involved what I like to call outreach:  all the things a fledgling organization needs to do to secure awareness of, interest in, and support for its program. Among other things, outreach meant getting the local schools to cooperate in identifying students who wanted to take music lessons; securing parental permission; hiring musician/teachers; making arrangements with churches and civic spaces for room; finding people/foundations/corporations to donate funds to pay the teachers and buy or rent instruments; and on and on.

4. Back to you

Outreach, then, encompasses communicating, marketing, fundraising,  community relations — anything you do by reaching out that will bring resources in to your organization.  That’s that’s what you want your strategic plan to spell out. And it needs to identify in a way that is measurable and time-specific what it is that you want to achieve.

For example, your organization might say that it intends to raise $50,000 within 6 months to purchase operating equipment.  Or that it intends to identify as potential  financial supporters  25 individuals, five foundations, and two corporations  and approach them for funding within the next four months.  Or that it will have its Facebook page up within six weeks.

There’s a lot that goes into creating a solid strategic plan.  Following are two resources that should be of help in finding out more about strategic planning for nonprofits. Good luck!