1.) Determine what type of nonprofit organization you are starting by analyzing the primary objective. It is to support some issue or matter of private interest or public concern such as the arts, charities, education, politics, religion, research, or some other endeavor for non-commercial purposes. There are different legal statuses for nonprofits, one of them being a 501(c)(3), which is exempt from income and (sometimes) property tax, and able to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. While it can be helpful to consult with an attorney who is experienced in the area of nonprofit law to help avoid mistakes that people sometimes make when they try to incorporate by themselves, many people have been successful establishing a non-profit on their own. For those that are interested in proceeding without an attorney, sources found in books and on the Internet such as Secretary of State web sites may provide the necessary forms and information needed to establish a new non-profit.
2.) Formulate a mission statement. As a non-profit organization, you exist to accomplish your mission, which should be crafted based upon your purpose, services and values. The mission statement is a concise expression that covers in one or two sentences who the organization is, what it does, for whom and where. It should also be compelling, as it will be used in all published materials, funding requests and public relations. It should also portray how your organization is distinct from others.
3.) Form a Board of Directors. Forming a board requires careful thought and extensive recruitment efforts. Each state has regulations that determine the minimum size of the board, typically three, but the optimum number of people who sit on the board should be determined by the needs of the organization. Based on what your organization would like to accomplish, you should decide what special skills and qualities you will require of the individuals on your board. Identify qualified individuals who are supportive of your mission and are willing to give of their talents and time.
4.) File Articles of Incorporation. Articles of Incorporation are official statements of creation of an organization filed with the appropriate state agency. They are important to protect both board and staff from legal liabilities incurred by the organization, making the corporation the holder of debts and liabilities, not the individuals and officers who work for the organization. The specific requirements governing how to incorporate are determined by each state. You can obtain the information you need to proceed with this step from your state Attorney General’s office or your state Secretary’s office. Before you spend your money, at least consult with an attorney who is experienced in the area of nonprofit law so that you do not make one of the many major mistakes that people make when they try to incorporate by themselves.
5.) Draft bylaws. Bylaws are simply the “rules” of how the organization operates. Although bylaws are not required to file for 501(c)(3) status, they will help you in governing your organization. Bylaws should be drafted with the help of an attorney and approved by the board early in the organization’s development.
6.) Develop a budget. Creating a budget is often one of the most challenging tasks when creating a nonprofit organization. A budget is the expression, in financial terms, of the plan of operation designed to achieve the objectives of an organization. New organizations may start the budgeting process by looking at potential income – figuring out how much money they have to spend.
7.) Develop a record-keeping system. Legally, you must save all Board documents including minutes and financial statements. It is necessary to preserve your important corporate documents, including board meeting minutes, bylaws, Articles of Incorporation, financial reports, and other official records. You should contact your appropriate state agency for more information on what records you are required to keep in the official files.
8.) Develop an accounting system. If your board does not include someone with a financial or accounting background, it is best to work with an accountant familiar with non-profit organizations. Nonprofits are accountable to the public, their funders, and, in some instances, government granting bodies, and it is vital to establish a system of controls (checks and balances) when establishing the organization’s accounting practices. Responsible financial management requires the establishment of an accounting system that meets both current and anticipated needs.
9.) Apply for a federal employer identification number. Regardless of whether or not you have employees, nonprofits are required to obtain a federal Employer Identification Number (EIN) — also referred to as the federal ID number. Available from the IRS, this number is used to identify the organization when tax documents are filed and is used not unlike an individual’s Social Security number. If you received your number prior to incorporation, you will need to apply for a new number under the corporate name. Ask for Form SS-4 when applying for your EIN.
10.) File for 501(c)(3) status. To apply for recognition of tax-exempt, public charity status, obtain Form 1023 (application) and Publication 557 (detailed instructions) from the local IRS office or the IRS web site. The filing fee depends upon the size of the organization’s budget. The application is an important legal document, so it is advisable to seek the assistance of an experienced attorney or certified public accountant when preparing it.
11.) File for state and local tax exemption. In accordance with state, county, and municipal law, you may apply for exemption from income, sales, and property taxes. Contact your state Department of Revenue, your county or municipal Department of Revenue, local Departments of Revenue, and county or municipal clerk’s offices for information on how to do this in your jurisdictions.
12.) Fulfill charitable solicitation law requirements. If your organization’s plans include fundraising, be aware that many states and few local jurisdictions regulate organizations that solicit funds within that state, county, or city. Usually compliance involves obtaining a permit or license and then filing an annual report and financial statement. Contact the state Attorney General’s office, the state Department of Commerce, state and local Departments of Revenue and county or municipal clerk’s offices to get more information.
13.) Apply for a nonprofit mailing permit. The federal government provides further subsidies for nonprofits with reduced postage rates on bulk mailings. While first-class postage rates for nonprofits remain the same as those for the for-profit sector, second- and third-class rates are substantially less when nonprofits mail to a large number of addresses. For more information on eligibility, contact the U.S. Postal Service and ask for Publication 417, Nonprofit Standard Mail Eligibility