Are You Ready to Start a Nonprofit?

Some ways to know if starting a non-profit organization is a good fit for you…

Most weeks, I get to talk to a person or two who has a dream of starting something that will make the world better. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job. Often, the automatic thought is to start a nonprofit (often referred to as a 501(c)3 after the IRS statute that gives tax exemption to qualifying organizations). For some, this seems like a scary process wrought with potential pitfalls that result in IRS men clad in dark suits knocking at your door. Others are more cavalier thinking it’s a simple process that will enable them to get paid to do what they are passionate about.

The reality is somewhere in the middle. There are many laws, regulations and ethical standards that need to be taken into account when starting a nonprofit or tax-exempt organization. But these are pretty straightforward and can be navigated with a support team familiar with the legal and record-keeping procedures necessary. Conversely, jumping into the process without a good handle on what running an organization effectively entails can cause problems that will shipwreck great ideas. Here are some suggestions to evaluate whether you are ready to start a nonprofit:

· Your idea is truly unique. There are lots of people already serving many needs in your community. It is possible that what God has put on your heart is part of a bigger story. Look around your community or church to evaluate whether the idea on your heart is already being pursued in a way you can jump into. You will experience joy in finding others with a similar heart and may avoid the pressure that comes with striking out on your own.

· You have already been doing the work for at least a year. Often, the idea of serving a particular population or addressing a particular need comes with expectations of how that will work. In reality, those expectations may be off-base. If you have an idea, it’s a good idea to start working that area in your spare time to see how the reality of the work fits the ideas you have. There’s nothing magic about the 1-year point, but it’s long enough to require some perseverance and give you a decent assessment if your idea.

· You are fairly certain you want to make this idea your life’s work.Because of the resources, both personal and financial, entailed in getting a new organization off the ground you will want to honestly assess what you think about the longevity of your commitment to your idea. If it’s just an idea your are floating for a year or two, starting a nonprofit might not be a good idea. If you feel relatively certain that this is something you believe in enough to do for the next 10 years, then it might be time to take the jump.

· You have a small team willing to take on responsibility for the organization. At minimum, you will need a Board of Directors. These aren’t just folks who will give you a pat on the back and tell you that your idea is fabulous. This would be at least 3 other people who would be willing to take legal responsibility for an organization and slog through the process of forming the organization with you. These are the folks who will be writing your bylaws, helping you hammer out a reasonable budget, make a strategic plan, evaluate the integrity of all actions and support you in making the risky calls on what direction to take your ministry. A nonprofit is not a lone ranger activity – this step is essential.

· You have a network of resources. Forming an organization will take time, money and expertise. You will want a network of people you know and trust who are willing to lend a hand with donating funds, fundraising, legal advice, volunteer recruitment, record-keeping, etc.

If you look through this list and think you aren’t ready to start an organization but still have a passion for something, don’t give up that dream. Keep doing what you are already doing and see where God takes you. Look for these things to fall into place in the future or keep working as a volunteer. Most of Underground Network’s ministries operate this way – some raise a little money through us but most just keep serving on evenings and weekends with their families giving time and personal resources to see the kingdom come. Find an organization that will support and empower that dream and keep pursuing what God has given you.

If you look through this list and think your idea is a good fit and ready to start an organization, don’t let fear hold you back. Ideas and visions are worth pursuing. Gather some people who will walk with you and believe in what God has called you to and take the plunge.

Regardless of the structure you pursue, don’t discount what God is doing when you have dreams and take steps of faith. God works in the details and you will be amazed to see what He will do with a small band of committed people.

-Brook Maturo

Former Finance Director