06/23/2011 11:12 am ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

How to Start a Non-Profit, Part Three

This is the third of four articles on starting a non-profit enterprise. Read Part one here and part two here.

Here are some factors and issues to keep in mind as you are starting your non-profit. Note that some of this advice could apply equally to a for-profit venture.


Develop your position in the field. Determine how your non-profit will differ from others that have more or less the same mission. Make sure your mission and positioning are unique. Don't compete, create.


Come up with a name that describes what you do and is clear and memorable. Think carefully about your overall look -- logo, color scheme, etc. Getting the right branding in place will be invaluable and will pay off later. On the other hand, getting the name and logo and design wrong will retard growth and success, and will have to be corrected before you can move ahead.

Protect Your Intellectual Property

Have a lawyer set up your legal structure and protect your logo and name by trademarking them. Make sure all your published material is copyrighted. Start researching accounting firms so you will have one ready after your first year of operations.

Build Your Team

Start with a lawyer, an accountant, and a part-time bookkeeper. Often, if you are a non-profit, professionals will give you a break on fees, but beware of this kind of arrangement as a firm may put your affairs at the bottom of their client list, or assign them to inexperienced staff members.

Create A Program Manual

Much of the value of your work will depend on your ability to capture your insights in print and share them with others. From the beginning, take an hour a day to work on an operating manual, capturing your insights as they are developed. Think of it as a document that will be read by others to help them understand and potentially replicate your ideas. Without the potential of replication, your work will have limited value. Even if you are not interested in major growth, try to focus on the big picture. If you can figure out how to make the world a better place on a small scale, then your manual can help someone else reproduce your program on a larger one.

Marketing Materials

Develop simple marketing materials that state clearly your mission and unit of change. Make use of a summary page. This should state the problem and explain your mission and strategic goals. Also include how you will measure change and how much each unit of change will cost. Keep your research costs separate and have a separate page for research. When you develop visual presentations, such as with PowerPoint, keep it simple and practice your presentation skills an hour each day. In addition, create a Website and keep it informative and uncluttered. How your marketing portrays your organization to others will play a large part in determining success or failure.

Research Your Target Market

Ask the people who will benefit from your mission how your program can be of greater value to them. For example, when I was putting NFTE together in 1986, I asked my high school students a variety of questions about what they would find helpful in an entrepreneurship program. This research formed the basis for many features of the resulting curriculum, such as taking a class on a trip to wholesalers to buy products for a public resale event, after which the students would record the financial records of the experience. This trip brilliantly encapsulated the basic business experience in a way that classroom teaching could not.

Know the Decision Makers in Your Community

Learn who is in your "philanthropic community." These will be foundations and wealthy people who would be interested in your issues. The resources of the Foundation Center will be of use in identifying those foundations of interest to you. As to individuals, there are essentially eight groups you will need to reach in your community:

  • Leading entrepreneurs

  • Heads of major corporations
  • Government leaders
  • Influential educators
  • Media people
  • Heads of organizations, such as the Rotary and Lions Clubs, and the Freemasons.
  • Community activists
  • Non-profit leaders
  • Advisors to the above
  • Keep a record of which reporters are covering your field. Develop a list of government and community leaders who would be interested in what you are trying to achieve. Get to know the top entrepreneurs and wealthiest people in you community, as well as community activists and business leaders. Join groups like Rotary and Lions clubs. Remember, do not compete directly; make sure your mission and positioning are like no other in your area. Again, don't compete, create. If you can find people from the above categories that are interested in a problem that can be solved by your organization, that will be a great fundraising market for you. Those who are interested in related missions can also be great sources of help.

    Become Involved in the Community

    Get involved in community activities. Whenever possible, arrange to speak about your organization and its mission at formal dinners and other events. In NFTE's first ten years, I spoke from thirty to forty times a year at such functions.

    Build Your Board

    Getting the right people on your board of trustees and advisory board will be key to keeping your organization going in the right direction. Seek out individuals from the lists you generated on the community decision makers. Make sure each board member will donate money to your mission (determine a minimum amount -- say, 2500 dollars). Start with four three-hour meetings a year. Board criteria should include caring about your organization's mission, ability to bring intellectual property or other resources to your efforts, a capacity for getting along with your team and the other board members, and belief in you, personally.

    However, it will not be easy to get the people you want. For ten board members your list should start with 50 names. Write a letter to each prospect and try to set up a personal meeting. Most of the time you will not be able to book such an appointment and, if you do, you will often get a "no." Steel yourself to these temporary failures. Be fearless and don't let your ego get in the way.

    If an individual doesn't want to be a trustee, ask if he/she would consent to be on the advisory board. This would involve mention in your publicity and on your stationery, donating some money, and meeting with you once a year. The names of your trustees and advisory board members on your stationery will give credibility and help build your brand.

    Reach Out to Potential Funders

    So now you're ready to raise capital in the form of donations. The most important tools will be your cover letter, some simple marketing material, and your charisma and salesmanship. You will have your first prospects from the same people on your decision-maker lists, and from which you have most likely assembled your boards. When I was first starting out, I had read about a particular local entrepreneur in Forbes -- he had started his own small business in high school and had a track record of assisting low-income youth. I knew he would help me if I could only get to see him. I finally did, for half an hour. Ray Chambers donated 200,000 dollars, and my non-profit organization was on its way.

    Read part four here.