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Spotlight on Walden // Nov 26, 2012

Starting a Successful Nonprofit Organization

Dr. Gary Kelsey, a Walden University School of Public Policy and Administration faculty member and longtime organizational development consultant, knows that it takes more than passion to establish a nonprofit organization and make it a success. In conjunction with Nonprofit Awareness Month, he offers practical advice for people interested in creating a nonprofit organization to promote positive change in their communities.

Start with a bit of research. “Don’t just dive in unless you know there is truly a gap in services,” Dr. Kelsey says. To find out whether there are organizations already addressing what concerns you, contact your state’s council of nonprofit organizations for a listing of nonprofits by category. Your research might lead you to collaborate with an existing agency or propose that your idea or program become a part of an agency’s efforts rather than start your own nonprofit.

Define the mission. To attract board members, funding, and clients to your programs and services, you first need to define your organization’s mission. This is usually done with a mission statement, which communicates an organization’s purpose, values, and desired outcomes—ideally in 25 words or fewer. The best mission statements are clear, meaningful, inspiring, and future oriented. Some organizations also develop a vision statement, which Dr. Kelsey describes as the challenging and empowering desired “ultimate outcome” of their work and planning.

Recruit board members. Every 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization requires a board. The number of members required varies by state, but members are legally, financially, and morally responsible for the organization. “You need board members who are committed to the same mission as the founder and have the expertise necessary for the organization to grow and thrive,” says Dr. Kelsey, who advises choosing people who can offer the wisdom needed to perform the work, make community connections, and provide wealth or access to it. People with backgrounds in accounting, marketing, or fundraising can be particularly helpful.

Do the paperwork. Contact the office of your state’s secretary of state or attorney general for a guide to starting, incorporating, and developing legal documents for your nonprofit organization. Nonprofits that have no paid staff may work directly with a fiscal agent to handle financial record keeping and provide the 501(c)(3) status required to raise funds.

Plan ahead. “The most important advice I give people is plan, plan, plan. Don’t lose your enthusiasm, but be thoughtful,” says Dr. Kelsey. Develop realistic goals at the outset and a strategic plan to build the infrastructure to provide services over a longer period. Every organization also needs a funding plan to get started and to sustain itself over time. Foundation grants often provide initial support, but you’ll need to diversify your funding sources to continue to cover your costs.

Allocate sufficient time. Starting a nonprofit can take longer than you might expect—a year or more from developing the idea to gaining 501(c)(3) status. It’s also time consuming, as you’ll need to develop services, approach foundations, write grants, and raise your organization’s visibility in the community. Starting a nonprofit by yourself will likely require at least 20 hours per week of your time.

Prepare for challenges, but celebrate your successes. Running a fledgling nonprofit can be overwhelming but also energizing. Fatigue and stress are the biggest obstacles, and obtaining ongoing funding can be another major challenge. Dr. Kelsey advises reminding yourself why you started your organization. “Meeting the mission motivates people more than anything. Celebrate your successes, even if they’re small at first.”

Interested in learning more about the role nonprofits play in the future of social change? Check out Walden’s “