How to get a nonprofit off the ground?
December 17, 2008 8:12 AM   Subscribe

We have a great idea for a nonprofit organization. However, we have zero experience founding or maintaining one. Where should we start?

The general idea is to produce a documentary featuring well-known experts on a particular subject and have local showings, with local speakers. These speakers will outline specific actions that audience members can take to further the cause.

1. How do we get the credibility to contact well-known experts?
2. How do we raise the funds to cover costs (videography, travel, etc.)?

We possess a range of skills and talents (technology, marketing, design, sales, organization); we just don't have the right connections or a solid idea of where to start.

This is in the US - initially in Chicago, hoping to expand nationwide. And no, none of us are former hedge fund managers. ;)
posted by desjardins to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, first you get the basics out of the way. Form an ad hoc board of trustees or council and start hashing out a constitution or set of by-laws. Contact an attorney so you can begin pursuing your 501c3 status. (If you're really, really motivated you can do the 501c3 stuff on your own, but a good lawyer can do it quick and on the cheap.) Agree on a meeting schedule. Who is the "we" you're talking about? Two people? Four? In my experience these things work best when you can get a minimum of six people working together on the project.
Get ye a website.

Don't worry about "credibility" right now - that will come with time. Many experts love being invited to things, it helps with the old CV and if they're passionate about their cause then often you can get them for the price of gas.

As for raising funds, after you incorporate with your 501c3 you can apply for grant funding, but that's often difficult and time-consuming. How much money do you really need? Do you have friends who are in a band? Do you know someone with a gathering hall / large basement / big back porch / yard? Put on a concert / art sale / craft sale / sushi tasting / beer tasting / food fight / melon-catapult competition. Something fun for those who would be interested in learning more about your nascent organization and have $5 to give you.

Did I mention that you should get a website?

And above all else, don't put your own credit on the line to finance this stuff. That's what 501c3 status is for. If things don't work out, you want to have a separate, incorporated entity between you and the lawsuit.

I'm in chicago part of the week each week and have worked for several not-for-profits - if you need anything at all my email's in my profile.

Good luck!
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:45 AM on December 17, 2008

Give Lawyers for the Creative Arts a call.
posted by macadamiaranch at 9:02 AM on December 17, 2008

How do we raise the funds to cover costs (videography, travel, etc.)?

This is known as "development" and is probably the challenge of the non-profit world. If you find a simple answer to the question, you will be the first. Applying for grants is probably the easiest and most straightforward for a new organization, but there are tons of development consultants out there, many of whom will sit down and give you an initial consultation for pretty small money.
posted by Rock Steady at 9:16 AM on December 17, 2008

Baby_Balrog addressed a lot of great stuff on fundraising, so I'm going to talk more about the grants side, if you decide to take that route.

Although most/all foundations require 501c3 status, in some cases, you may be able to get another nonprofit to act as your group's fiscal agent while you're starting up. Essentially, they "lend" you their 501c3 status so that you can begin applying for funding. Searching '"fiscal agent" nonprofit Chicago' yielded some interesting results, but someone with more information about the Chicago nonprofit scene would be a better resource. Arts umbrella groups and general community foundations are the most likely suspects.

Libraries are often good sources of information on getting a nonprofit off the ground. Libraries which host a Foundation Center Cooperating Collection have (in addition to a Foundation Directory subscription - incredibly useful) a collection of information on funding, and often nonprofit management, too. From the Illinois list, the library at the Donors Forum looks like a great resource.

I highly recommend the use of specialized resources (like Foundation Directory,, COS, Jon Harrison's site at MSU Libraries, etc) to search for funding, as simply googling for grants will often yield spam, scams and fail to give a true picture of the breadth of funding available.

Jon Harrison's site is incredible (and not just applicable to people in Michigan). Another good source is NYFA Source - it's maintained by the New York Foundation for the Arts, but is a national database in scope (registration is required, but free).
posted by clerestory at 9:39 AM on December 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: There are definitely 4 people involved in this venture; possibly 6. One has experience with grant writing, so that's covered. Someone is looking into the 501c3, although a lawyer would probably be a better idea.

The website is no problem. We have someone with 20 years in IT, a professional graphic designer, and I can handle the basic day-to-day stuff. We can probably wrangle a volunteer programmer if need be.

FYI, this has nothing to do with arts & humanities and more to do with social justice, just so arts/humanities doesn't dominate the (wonderful) advice given.
posted by desjardins at 9:54 AM on December 17, 2008

My school is huge on social justice issues. As far as recruitment, funding and advertising your cause, they'd probably love to talk to you.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:02 AM on December 17, 2008

for general not-for-profits, something to consider now or down the line, Board Source.
posted by alice ayres at 10:13 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

It might be a good idea to start out by partnering with other nonprofits. Instead of creating your own content, you'd partner with another organization and produce and promote something using their subject matter expertise.

You might be able to get them to pay some of your costs or participate in some joint fundraising for the project. It seems to me that "social justice" is too general of a cause all on its own; without some past work to show people I wouldn't think many people would be interested in giving money.
posted by Hermes32 at 11:10 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Seconding the "start out by partnering with other nonprofits" suggestion - only longer-term non-profits I've worked with all started out that way. Brings institutional memory and experience as well as a potential grant and revenue source to your idea.

Also, Nolo Press has an excellent and popular series on starting non-profits as well as an excellent FAQ section.

Best luck!
posted by unclezeb at 11:51 AM on December 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Don't just contact an attorney. Most attorneys know diddly about nfp, and they'll tell you all sorts of crap that isn't true. Contact these people. Helping people start nonprofits is a big part of their service. If you're not in Chicago, contact them anyway, and ask who you should contact in your area. Their website has other resources as well. This is not negotiable; it is THE best resources for newbies to nfp.
posted by nax at 7:38 PM on December 17, 2008

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