How to Start a Nonprofit Organization | Grace College Online Skip to content

May 27, 2021

How to Start a Nonprofit Organization

Starting a nonprofit organization such as a church or charity can help you make a difference in the world and in the lives of others. Once you have the idea for your nonprofit, you can incorporate the organization to gain the formal structure that enables it to have limited liability. Your organization will also be eligible for public and private grants, as well as federal exemption from payment of corporate income tax.

Starting a nonprofit organization requires a lot of time, effort, and money. The following sections can help you focus on how to start a nonprofit organization.

How to Start a Nonprofit Organization: First Steps to Take


Before starting out, you will need to identify and quantify the need for your specific organization, to research whether there are other groups already engaged in the same or similar work, and ensure that starting a new nonprofit is the right solution.

As you evaluate your idea, here are some questions that can help test whether your nonprofit will be ready to succeed.

  • Is there a need in the community for your nonprofit idea? Similar to the “supply” and “demand” of small businesses in the marketplace, you’ll need to determine the need for your nonprofit. Determine what organizations exist and whether yours will be able to meet the current need for a nonprofit. 
  • Do you have a plan for financing the organization? You’ll need more than passion to start a successful nonprofit. 
  • What are the costs? Consider the costs of necessary filings in each state. Also, evaluate what the costs will be for infrastructure to deliver services, office space, supplies, and special licenses, permits, or certifications to provide services like child care or health care.
  • Where will you get startup funding and operational funding? You’ll need funds to start the nonprofit and manage day-to-day activities.
  • Can my nonprofit demonstrate its impact? You’ll need to demonstrate to funders that your nonprofit is making an impact and is worth investing in. Plan how you’ll measure this impact.

Once you answer these questions, you’ll be able to answer if starting a nonprofit is the right solution for your community and determine how to start a nonprofit organization there.

Build the Structure of Your Organization

Here are some questions that can help you build your nonprofit’s structure.

  • Who will be involved? Having people involved in the launch can signal support and a better chance of success. Many states have requirements for how many boards members your nonprofit will need.
  • What do you need to do? Consider the economic climate and funding need for the nonprofit. Continue to develop a detailed business plan. Consider potential community partnerships and the skills needed for volunteer and paid staff.
  • When should you file paperwork? There are three steps involving quite a bit of paperwork, followed by ongoing reporting on an annual basis. The three steps are: incorporating at the state level, securing your tax-exempt status from the federal government, and filing for tax-exempt recognition at the state and local levels.
  • Where can you get quality assistance? Seek assistance from an attorney, accountant, or another professional who has experience working with nonprofits.
  • Why is a new organization the only way to accomplish the mission? When it comes to how to start a nonprofit organization, you’ll want to ask “Is starting a new organization necessary?” The answer to this question will be the core of your efforts to recruit board members, staff, volunteers, and donors.
  • How do you create and sustain a nonprofit organization? This answer depends on your business plan. If the organization can achieve its mission in less than three years, the National Council of Nonprofits recommends that it is probably better as a program housed at an existing organization.

Complete Incorporation and State Forms

Find your state association of nonprofits for state-specific resources on incorporating. Laws and regulations vary from state to state. Once you find information on incorporating in your state, you’ll be able to complete this step for starting your nonprofit.

File for Federal Tax-Exempt Status

The IRS offers “Stay Exempt” tax courses that help nonprofits meet filing requirements. Also, the IRS has a booklet for applying for 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

Ongoing Compliance

Once you receive your determination letter from the IRS, you’ll be required (in most states) to complete additional filings to receive tax-exempt recognition from those institutions. Check with local legal counsel to make sure you’re compliant with local initial filing requirements.

State and Local Government Filings

  1. Before you start operations, review state and local laws to ensure compliance on topics such as registering (if necessary) before starting any fundraising, registering (if necessary) before engaging in any lobbying, and securing (if necessary) required permits and licenses.
  2. Completing state tax exemption requirements (usually must wait until IRS acts).
  3. Registering (if necessary) for unemployment insurance and reporting to officials.
  4. Registering (if necessary) to secure any additional tax exemptions (such as property tax, sales tax collections, and exemptions from paying sales tax).

Finding a Nonprofit Management Degree Online

When it comes to how to start a nonprofit organization, one of the best ways to prepare yourself is to get your master’s degree in nonprofit management. Grace College’s online nonprofit management degree equips students with the knowledge and skills to succeed in marketing communication, applying technology, creating and training staff, raising funds and improving efficiency within an organization. 

This accelerated program can be completed in two years. It takes place in a fully online learning environment, allowing students the flexibility to complete coursework alongside personal and work responsibilities.


Learn more about our nonprofit management degree online.