Starting a Nonprofit Organization Checklist (+Template)

You’re about to become a hero to your community. By starting a nonprofit, you’re making a difference, but it can be a serious and confusing undertaking. To make that process easier, we’ve created a checklist with explanations on the federal requirements, along with information on how to build a board, volunteer, website, and other tools.

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Starting a Nonprofit Organization Checklist (+Template)

You are about to become a hero to your community. By starting a nonprofit, you are acting on your dream of making a difference but starting a nonprofit organization can be a serious and confusing undertaking.

To make that process a little easier, we have created a few articles for you to get a better idea of how to start. Our article on How to Start a Nonprofit Organization is an overview of what you will need to begin this process. The following checklist makes the process even easier with explanations on federal requirements and links to the IRS website. We will also walk you through how to build your Board of Directors, volunteer program, website, and other fundraising tools.  

Checklist for Starting a Nonprofit Organization:

  1. Define who you are
  2. Build your Board of Directors
  3. Legally Incorporate your Nonprofit
  4. Secure Start-up Funding
  5. Begin Early Operations
  6. Next Steps to Accept Online Donations
  7. Free Nonprofit Checklist Template (Downloadable)

1. Define who you are

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), more than 1.5 million nonprofits are registered in the United States. With that much competition, you will need to establish who you are and what you do before anything else.

1.1 Choose a name

Your name is the first thing people hear when learning about your organization. Your name can be moving or straight to the point. When starting an organization, it can be exciting to choose a name. Still, this is a step you should take seriously.

Find a name that tells the world what you do, speaks to the people you are targeting, fulfills all state requirements, and has not already been chosen by another organization. States have different requirements for selecting a name. Make sure you register your name with your state’s Secretary of State website.

1.2 Outline your mission and vision

What does your nonprofit do? Who do you help? Why should someone donate to your organization?

These are questions you must answer in your mission and vision statements. These questions will also lead you through the process of creating your nonprofit and finding donors for years to come. Without a clear understanding of who you are and how your organization will help others, there is no point in creating a nonprofit.

1.3 Define your population

By population, we mean both those you will help and those who will help you fulfill your mission. These two populations may be the same for some organizations. It is essential to know who you are speaking to when sending out messages of help or soliciting donations. Knowing your populations will also help you when developing your Board of Directors and creating your bylaws.

2. Build your Board of Directors

Building your board will not take long at first, but as your organization grows and changes, so will your Board of Directors. This is why it is so important to create job descriptions for your Board Officers and members, a detailed election process and board members must follow. The following steps must be taken to build your Board of Directors for your state requirements and your nonprofit’s future.

2.1 Create the titles and job descriptions for your board members and officers

The titles for your officers will most likely be President, Vice President, Treasurer, and Secretary. Some organizations choose to use the title Board Chair and Vice-Chair.

When creating job descriptions, you should treat them as you would for any other staff member. With a specific job description, you will find filling these positions much easier.

2.2 Find supporters who are willing and able to serve on your board

Your Board members inform the community about your organization, attend special events, and serve on committee task forces. They are also responsible for your organization’s operations and budget. Finding the right board members starts with analyzing what skills, experience, and expertise you need. 

Your nonprofit will want to continue the process of finding potential new board members, even when your board is full. It is best to start a Governance Committee to find new board members and oversee the effectiveness of the board as you begin to grow.

2.3 Develop a director election process

Each state has a maximum and minimum term limit requirement for directors. When you write your organization’s bylaws, you determine how your organization will fulfill these requirements and make them work for your nonprofit. Your bylaws will include member terms and the election process.

2.4 Develop an onboarding process

Board members, like staff, need to understand their role immediately so you can get to work right away. You have already created a detailed description for your board, so you are off to a good start. Once a new member is elected to the board, you should have an orientation packet and process that has been approved by the board. This packet should include the current budget, list of committees, meeting calendar and agenda, and contact information for each board member.

2.5 Elect your Board Officers

The timing of these steps will depend greatly on your organization. If you are a small organization that works solely in your neighborhood, you may want your members to be more hands-on in developing the board. If you plan on using members outside of your state and bring them in for quarterly meetings, you will be creating most of these rules alone and will want them finalized before the first board meeting.

As you begin to incorporate your nonprofit with your state, you will need to verify your board’s election process and meeting rules. In addition to board members, you will need to choose a Registered Agent to file and receive all official documents. In many states, this Registered Agent can be a member of the board.

3. Legally Incorporate your Nonprofit

Each state will have small differences in requirements to start a nonprofit. You will need to follow the rules your Secretary of State lays out for nonprofits in your state. Generally, each state will include the following steps when creating a nonprofit:

3.1 File Articles of Incorporation

Filing an Articles of Incorporation is the official beginning of your organization. You will need your name and organization address, a registered agent, and the organization’s purpose finalized at the time of filing.

3.2 Apply for an EIN

Applying for an EIN is when you become an organization in the eyes of the IRS. All organizations need an EIN, and your organization will need this number to continue to file for tax-exempt status. To apply for an EIN as a nonprofit, you will need to fill out Form SS-4.

3.3 Establish your nonprofit bylaws and file initial state reports

Your organization’s bylaws will manage your nonprofit. When writing your organization’s bylaws and filling out other state reports, you will need to include your board officer elections process and rules, membership structure, and policies to address key management issues. We have written an article to help you write your organization’s bylaws.

Your organization’s bylaws must include the following:

  • Purpose or mission of your organization
  • Board officer election process
  • Board quorum and a majority vote
  • Duties and responsibilities of board officers
  • Board reports required
  • Membership structure
  • Key management issues

3.4 Apply for federal and state tax exemptions

The appeal of starting a nonprofit is the tax-exempt status. As a nonprofit, you are exempt from paying all federal taxes. State taxes are different for each state. To achieve tax-exempt status, you must file either Form 1023 or Form 1023-EZ with the IRS.

3.5 Register for charitable fundraising

Once you have filed and achieved tax-exempt status, you can begin soliciting donations. In some states, you are required to register as a charitable organization before fundraising. Research your state’s Attorney General’s website and follow the requirements listed before soliciting funds.

4. Secure Start-up Funding

4.1 Grants

Now that you can legally solicit funds for your organization, it is time to find enough money to start your nonprofit. Many organizations choose to start their fundraising with grants.

Many foundations have funds set aside to help starting nonprofits, but grant funding requires a lengthy application process and in-depth information on your organization. You will also be competing with several different nonprofits for this funding.  

It is best to choose a few people to help you apply for various grants and make sure each person has access to the required information.

4.2 Begin building community partnerships

Grants are not the only way for nonprofits to raise funds, and often they are not the best way to meet your budget. When you start a nonprofit, it is best to network with other organizations in your community.

Introduce your organization and find businesses, other nonprofits, community groups that may be interested in helping you fulfill your mission. These community partnerships can end up developing into major donors and community events that support your organization.

5. Begin Early Operations

You have jumped through all the hoops and are now officially a tax-exempt nonprofit. You have also built a board of directors to manage your organization. Now you are ready to get to work.

5.1 Hold regular board meetings

Hopefully, you have already started holding board meetings and have a healthy support system to start your nonprofit. If not, you should begin to hold board meetings and encourage board members to play leading roles in your organization.

5.2 Start the hiring and onboarding process

Board members are not the only individuals to play an essential role in your organization. When writing your bylaws and forming your board of directors, you will have formally decided how to manage your organization. Now is the time to find people to fill those management roles.

Most organizations will require an Executive Director. The person in this role will be hired by the Board of Directors and report to them regularly. The Executive Director will be responsible for the management of staff and programs. After an Executive Director is named, the board can focus more on its oversight role and take part in fundraising for the organization.

Some organizations will need a full staff to fulfill their mission. In rehab facilities and nursing homes, federal and state requirements will include details on who can serve as a staff member. In organizations whose missions are more focused on fundraising, they may be able to have volunteers manage events and general fundraising at the beginning.

Regardless of whether you use staff or volunteers, you will need to create a hiring and onboarding process for these individuals. Creating detailed job descriptions and onboarding processes will help your organization run smoothly.

5.3 Find an office

Finding an office depends on your organization. This step should be taken after you have hired an Executive Director and will need the director to work with the Board of Directors to find the right fit for the organization.

5.4 Create a website

Whether you rely on staff or volunteers to perform daily operations, your organization will need to create a website. Websites are the best place to share your organization’s mission and vision. It is also a central place to add financial reports, solicitation letters, and success stories.

When foundations, businesses, and major donors look for nonprofits to fund, they will look for the organization’s website. Without a powerful website and updated information, your organization could be losing money without even knowing it.

Check out these 15 Great Nonprofit Websites and see what they are doing right.

5.5 Share your story on social media

Social media has become extremely important in telling your nonprofit’s story. Most board members and Executive Directors love the idea of using social media because of the cost, but too many organizations do not know how to use social media to benefit their organization. Creating a social media campaign can help make your efforts here a success.

5.6 Recruit and train volunteers

Volunteer programs are too often pushed into the background. Volunteers are used for events or to help with programs but with little thought on managing them. When planning to use volunteers, you should create a volunteer plan that includes volunteer recruitment, engagement, communication, and recognition.

By including each of these steps in your volunteer program, you will develop a robust volunteer program that can be used as a starting ground to find new board members, donors, and community partners.

Next Steps to Accept Online Donations

There are various ways to collect money online. Creating a website and social media plan are the first steps. As you start working towards fulfilling your mission, here are a few additional steps to allow for better fundraising success:

Add donate buttons to your website and social posts

The best way to solicit your donors is to make it easy to give to your organization and create a Donate Now button on your website. Learn more about donation buttons and How to add a Donate Now button to your website.

Set up recurring donations

Another way to make it easier for your supporters to give to your organization is with recurring donations. Some of your donors are capable of giving hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year. They may have attended an event and want to give more, but you can miss this potential funding without a campaign to reach out to them.

Recurring donations are given weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually and can be added to your budget at the beginning of your fiscal year. There is a way to Turn One-Time Donors into Recurring Donors and benefit from their gifts for years to come.

Enable gift matching

Some companies offer matching donations to their employees. Your donors may be unaware that their company offers this, and you both may be missing out on the benefits of this service.

Donorbox works with Double the Donation to make finding matching gifts easier. Learn Everything you need to know about Matching Gift Programs here.

Create donation pages

Donation pages are another way to increase donations from your supporters. Making these pages easy to find on your website and connecting them to your social media is essential. Adding your mission and a success story is another way to excite donors.

Other ways to increase donations are creating a donation page optimized for each campaign or event, including donation amounts, recurring donations, matching donation buttons, and other ways to give. We have written an article on donation page best practices to help you develop your organization’s donation page easily.

Segment and manage donors

Your donors have different financial capabilities and interests in your organization. Some may prefer to give at an annual event, while others are interested in becoming a recurring donor with your nonprofit. Segmenting these donors is essential to fundraising goals.

Donorbox makes segmenting donors easy with our Donor Management system that creates donor profiles and offers the opportunity to make notes about your donor’s gifts.

Integrate with third-party tools

Donorbox knows nonprofits must work with several online apps to get what they need. To make that process easier, we offer integrations with companies like Mailchimp for your donor emails and Double the Donation for matching gifts.

Other integrations with companies like WordPress, Weebly, Squarespace, Wix, and Shopify allow you to strengthen your current website and increase donations.

Starting a Nonprofit Checklist – Template

We have created a downloadable checklist template for you to easily follow these steps. Follow the steps one by one, or assign them to others on your team. 

How to use this nonprofit checklist template:

  1. Under file, click on “Make a Copy”
  2. Once you have made the copy, you can edit it directly or download it as an excel file.


As a new nonprofit, you are joining the ranks of millions of other organizations in the US that are changing this world. With a better idea of how to start, and the knowledge on how to grow your board, build a volunteer program, and create powerful fundraising campaigns, you are now ahead of the game.

To learn more successful fundraising ideas and online donations, visit our blog. Learn more about Donorbox features and integrations here.

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Kristine Ensor is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience working with local and international nonprofits. As a nonprofit professional she has specialized in fundraising, marketing, event planning, volunteer management, and board development.

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