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How to Start a Military Non-Profit

Volunteering

Military spouses are often the first to see the holes in the military community that Washington doesn’t. A need here, a need there. We see plenty of them.

Being the entrepreneurial problem solvers that we are, military spouses often are ready to spring into action.

For many, starting a not-for-profit organization seems like the obvious way to do that. But  how do you start a military non-profit? Here’s how, in five easy steps.

Step One: Get the Lay of the Land

You know your idea is good, but there are a lot of great ideas out there. What makes your organization so different?

This is something you’re going to need to know from Day One -- it will keep your organization unique, and not a duplicate of something else. It will also help you focus your mission statement, vision plan and goals.

Ask yourself: Who else is trying to target the same need you are? How are they doing it? How are they succeeding? How are they failing? What do you do that’s different?

It isn’t enough to do a cursory Google search. There are more than 47,000 non-profits registered with the IRS that include “military” in their mission statements. You must do your research.

At this stage, you might find that your best bet is to join a larger organization working on the same kind of project. (See Step Five: Crowdsourcing.)

Keep in mind that the non-profit world is a very competitive environment: There’s only so much charity going around, and everyone is trying to get the biggest slice of that pie. Make sure you know who is going for the same piece as you.

Step Two: Mission, Vision and Goals

You probably intuitively know this, but now it’s time to put your ideas down on paper with a clearly written mission statement, vision plan, and short-term and long-term goals.

People new to the non-profit world often make the mistake of thinking mission statements and vision statements are the same thing. They are two different things, and you need both.

Your mission statement will explain why your organization exists and motivate you and those around you to work toward your organizational goal. Your vision statement will be a call to action for internal eyes only.

Defining your goals should be easy after working through your vision and mission statement. The long-term goal is obvious: It’s why your organization exists.

Your short-term goals may be less clear -- and just as important. What are the first few steps you are going to take once your non-profit is rolling?

With your short-term goals, make sure you set actionable tasks for these. This will help you refine your pitch and also clarify what kind of help you need.

This way, when you start looking for volunteers or donations, you know exactly who and what would be most helpful: Those will be what help you accomplish these goals.

Step Three: Incorporate

To be anything other than a good idea, you need to start your non-profit with incorporation.

This does a couple things: First, it makes sure that if there is ever a lawsuit, you are not personally liable. Also, it gets the ball rolling for you to apply for non-profit status with the IRS. (Yes! You have to do that, too!)

Filing for incorporation is actually pretty simple. It is something you do at the state level, usually through your secretary of state’s office. Most states have sample applications you can access to make sure yours looks right, but here is a general sample to get started.

Across all 50 states, you can count on needing the following:

  1. A business name that is legally available in your state.
  2. An initial board of directors for your organization. These don’t have to be the long-term directors, but you will most likely be required to list a president, vice president, and either a secretary or treasurer in your application. Most states require at least three members on the board.
  3. Articles of incorporation that explain why your organization is being formed, state clearly that no profits will be made through the organization, list the name and numbers of the initial board of directors, an address where legal papers can be served (if any), and the name of the director or registering agent (that’s you).  

Once you have submitted your application, your state will send you a time-stamped approval letter that you will need when you apply for tax-exempt status with the state and federal government.

Step Four: Get the OK from the IRS

Eventually, someone is going to give you some money. Or you are going to spend some money. Or someone is going to donate to your very good cause.

When that happens, both you and your donor will need a means of reconciling that gift come tax season. That’s why getting your status ironed out is so critical. (No one wants to be on the bad side of the IRS.)

Luckily, the IRS has a very simple step-by-step tool for you as you get started.

Step Five: Crowdsource Your Future

You’ve seen our articles on networking for military spouses, and networking to start a non-profit is a very similar undertaking.

Why do you need to network? Non-profits are tricky, and the old-timers in your area are going to be able to give you a lot of tips and a good helping hand.

Moreover, they’ll be able to connect you with people they’ve found they can count on to get things done. Everything from helping with your articles of incorporation to your vision statement to your first event or fundraiser, the people who have been doing this on the ground already are going to give you the most helpful information out there.

Start with your nearest city’s big foundations or other key non-profits nearby. Contact their program officers and set up a meeting to talk through your plans and just get some advice.

This kind of mentorship relationship serves two purposes: One, it helps you, and two, it helps them expand their reach and sphere of influence. You aren’t wasting their time. You are taking advantage of all they offer.

Big foundations are also repositories of a wealth of resources. Many have publications about how to start non-profits and things to consider in your region or industry specifically, many with documentation ready to access and directories of organizations that deal with similar areas of outreach as yours. Libraries, too, can be very helpful in this regard.

Once you’ve done that, begin reaching out to local civic organizations that can help you identify volunteers. Ask for meetings with leaders from the NCOs club, the O club, VFW, Kiwanis, Elks, Lions, Junior League, and the like.

The women’s city council and the men’s city council (if your local area has those) can be very helpful. Members and leaders of these groups are people who care about the community.

Explain to them that you’re just starting out and what you want to do, and they are going to be willing to talk to you. Don’t be surprised if they say, “You know, you really need to talk to So-and-So. She’s done just this kind of thing before.”

Lastly, get the word out about your organization at your religious organization and any other not-for-profits with which you are involved.

Now that you’ve had the input of wiser, more experienced not-for-profit leaders, you can share your organization’s goals, mission and vision with the people around you who can help you achieve it.

Resources like these connections can help you organize, volunteer, launch and get to work. In turn, every time you turn to them, you are essentially pitching the need for you and your organization under the guise of asking for help and meeting with the people who will become your first volunteers, donors and word-spreaders.

Essentially, you are going on a roadshow to glean advice, gain supporters, and cultivate your future. That’s no easy job.

Make no mistake: Starting a non-profit is going to be difficult. But if you know that going into it, and follow these five steps to get up and running, soon you will be making the difference you want to make.

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