How to Start a Charity: 9 Steps to Success

/ 12 min read
Jack Delaney

Between the looming spectre of climate change, the fearsome state of global affairs, and the incessant plague of internet ‘influencers’, sometimes it’s easy to get down about the state of the world.

Yet through all the negatives there’s one constant source of positivity; one beacon of light pushing back the darkness (well, two if you count The Great British Bake Off). We’re talking about charities.

It’s impossible to overstate how important charities are. They fight for the oppressed, the downtrodden, the sick and the war torn. They fight for culture and art. Most of all, they fight for the promise of a better future for the people and animals who call this planet home.

There are thousands of charities, but there’s always more room for people looking to do good. So in this guide we’ll cover everything you need to know about starting your own charity, because it’s never too late to fight for a cause you’re passionate about.

Important: We are lucky to work with lots of amazing charities and NPOs at Paperform. Check out our Conversations with Mario Trigueros from Pachamama Alliance and Ruth Daniel from In Place of War, and stay tuned for more.

Decide which type of charity to start

Before you do anything you’ve got to research what type of charity you want to start. This can be tough, because the chances are you have several areas of interest. It can be tempting to try and fit them all in to the one cause.

But remember that every great charity has a specific cause (and legally you need one). You can’t hit every bird with one stone. It's better to be laser-focused on one cause rather than splitting your time, effort and money between lots.  

So figure out what you'll do. Will you help local artists? Native animals? Or start a global environmental charity aimed at fighting climate change? Think about your interests and go from there.

We've outlined the main different types of charities below:

Animal charities

Established for animal rescue and protection, building and supporting animal hospitals, conservation, animal welfare and the general prevention of animal suffering.

Health charities

Established to support the sick and disabled, cure and prevent disease, conduct medical research and help patients and their families.

covid donation form

Education charities

Established to assist elementary, high school and tertiary students through scholarships, prizes and funding.

Arts & cultural charities

Established to support the arts and promote and foster culture. This includes museums, the performing arts, libraries, foundations and trusts based around the arts.

Environmental charities

Established for environmental protection and conservation,  preserving plant and animal life, rescuing or caring for animals and looking after natural habitats. (There’s a bit of a crossover with animal charities).

Religious charities

Established to promote the beliefs, principles and standards of religious congregations, support religious education bodies and establish funding for the maintenance of important religious buildings.

prayer request form

Social & public welfare charities

Established to relieve poverty as well as care for, support and protect children, young people, the aged, the disabled and other people who are neglected or discriminated against.

Equality charities

Established to promote harmony between people from different races, religions, belief systems and genders, eliminate discrimination and encourage equality.

International Non-Governmental Organizations

“NGOs” are nonprofit organizations established for disaster relief and preparation, human rights and political aid, development projects, and peace missions.

Your charitable purpose isn’t just a branding exercise. Depending on which country you are from, it’s a legal necessity.

For example, in the United States you have to be classified as a “public charity” or a “private foundation”. Both have different implications. While in Australia, each of the subtypes have a specific meaning under law.

Develop a mission & vision

Once you know what type of charitable organization you want to start, it’s time to set your mission statement and vision.

This is where you sit down with your partners and meditate on what you want your charity to stand for, and where you see it going in the future.

Small business owners and entrepreneurs will be familiar with these terms, but let’s quickly break down what they mean:

  • A vision is a mental image of what you want your charity to be in the future;
  • A mission statement is what your charity is, what it does and who it serves.

Let’s say you’re starting a nonprofit aimed at saving dolphins. Your vision might be: “a world where every dolphin is safe and free.”

But your mission statement might be something like: “we are a passionate charity who works globally through lobbying, field research and rescue efforts to protect dolphins.”

See the difference? Your vision is based on your loftiest goals and aspirations. Try not to get caught up on whether it’s achievable. Set the bar high. Do you want to save the Amazon? Cure world hunger? Help a million children learn to read?

It should be a source of inspiration for you and your staff. A spot in the distance that you can keep one eye on while you focus on doing hard work on a daily basis. And it shouldn't be hard to think of one—  think about what motivated you to start a charity in the first place.  

Your mission statement is the more practical part. It concentrates on the purpose of your charity: what it does, how it does it, and for whom it does it for. Where goals can be a bit vague, your mission should be specific, and full of details about what you do on a day to day, how you'll do it, and how it supports your vision.

Write a business plan

Starting a charity is no different from starting a business or robbing a bank. If you want to succeed, you need a plan. Writing your vision and mission statement are the first part of the process, but a proper plan is next.

Your business plan is the blueprint for how you want your charity to run. It helps to define different parts of your business— from fundraising strategy and organisational structure to adding a board of directors and coming up with a cool name.

The key elements of a nonprofit business plan are:

  • Executive summary (who, what, where, when, how)
  • The services you provide
  • Market/customer analysis
  • Staffing requirements
  • Operational plan
  • Marketing plan
  • Overall vision
  • Financial plan (including funding, revenue and expenses)

During the outline and research process you should assess the overall feasibility of your charity. This is figuring out if it'll be worth the time, effort and money to actually go through with it.

Assuming the answer is yes, the next step it to understand more about potential donors and stakeholders. What kind of concerns do they have? How do they want to spend their money?

pledge form

Throughout the process keep in mind that the plan isn't just for internal use. It's an important document that shows the viability of your charity, helps attract investors and prove that you're serious. It's kind of like a movie script in Hollywood.

By formalising your ideas you’ll discover areas for improvement and find opportunities for growth. It also helps nail down your messaging by forcing you to think about how you'll position your awesome new charity to the public.

An essential part of starting a new charity is differentiating it from the rest. There are over 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States alone. How will yours be different? You’ll have to convince donors and fundraisers to support your cause over all the rest.

Oh, and at some point you’ll have to come up with a name. Charities are usually named after the function they fulfill (i.e. World Animal Protection), or after people (i.e. The Fred Hollows Foundation). Try to keep it simple and memorable.

We won’t sugar-coat it. Creating a business plan is a time-consuming process. There’s lots of number-crunching and brainstorming to do. But if you take the time and put the effort in, you’ll set your new charity on the path for long-term success.

donation request form

Register as a charitable organization

Hopefully you’ve invested in a good pair of sneakers, because it’s time to start jumping through some hoops. Unfortunately, it’s not good enough to just behave like a charity, you have to qualify as one legally.

This process differs depending on what country you’re from. But in the United States, it means you’ll have to deal with your nation’s scariest government agency; the folks that brought down Al Capone: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Your new charity has to qualify as an Internal Revenue Code §501(c)(3) Organization. Basically this is a way to make sure new nonprofits really are operated for charitable reasons, that funds are going to the right place, and you're eligible for registration as a tax-exempt organization.

There’s a similar process if you’re looking to start a charity in Australia, or anywhere around the world. Governments want to make sure people can’t pretend to start a nonprofit corporation just to get tax-exempt status.

The legal process is about public safety and ensuring the right structures are in place to actually make a difference. It’s serious business.

Important: There are all kinds of bylaws and articles of incorporation to worry about, so make sure you hire a lawyer and accountant with experience setting up nonprofits to give you a hand.

Create A Website & Social Media Presence

Once your new charity has been given the green light it’s time to spread the word. There’s no better way to do that then with your own website. A great example of a charity website is The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Your site is the home base for your charity. It’s a place for you to announce your inspiration, the story behind it, what you want to achieve and how you’re going to achieve it. It’s also your primary tool for gathering leads and collecting donations.

Your site should tell curious visitors everything they need to know. By the time they’re done browsing they should be convinced that they need to donate and that their donation will make a positive change.

"It’s particularly important to be transparent. The best charity sites don’t just explain why a charity is raising money, they show where the money’s going and changes that will take place directly from it."

This goes for social media too. You’ll want to create a community across sites like Instagram, Twitter and even LinkedIn (depending on your charity’s purpose). Use these tools to spread your message, run promotions and connect with like-minded charities and individuals.

One of the most popular trends in online marketing is simply being authentic. People want to learn about the people and stories behind your charity.

Try to share posts that give a peak behind the curtain - introduce board members, post a photo of your executive director working late, or a video of volunteers out in the community.

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Start fundraising

The cause might differ, but all types of nonprofits have the same simple goal: to raise money. It just so happens to be one of the hardest things to accomplish.

How do you do it? Well, as we touched on before, it’s about finding the right audience and convincing them your charity is going to make a difference. The cause can be as big or as small as you want - as long as people connect with it.

There’s no secret path to successful fundraising. Especially when you’re just starting out, you may have to rely on some cool activities and strategies to help raise money. We’ve put together some ideas below:

Crowdfunding has become a popular strategy for encouraging folks to donate. The way it works is that you offer rewards depending on how much money someone gives. So $10 might get donors a sticker, but $50 might get them a t-shirt and mug.

fundraiser order form

Never just rely on one strategy. The best charities have multiple campaigns, running across multiple channels, at the same time.

Set up an advisory board

In case you haven’t realised, setting up your own charity is a lot of work. Like, a lot. So it helps to gather your own dream team of folks with nonprofit experience to lend you a helping hand.

That’s exactly what your advisory board is. It should be four or five people who knows the ins and outs of the nonprofit game - including fundraising and finances - who can advise you throughout the launch.

They should be available to bounce ideas off and hold a formal meeting weekly or monthly until you’ve got the proper operations in place. Once you’ve launched you should slowly expand the board to include large donors, and people with notable contacts.

Keep in mind that each additional board member means another ego and opinion to deal with. Luckily it doesn't mean more money—board roles are usually unpaid positions.

Get to work

It’s time to make your dream a reality. Get out in the community and start making a difference, whether you’re trying to save the planet, cure a disease, or start an arts program in a tiny South American village.

There are a few things to keep in mind before you do. Firstly, as much as you may want to, you can’t spend all the cash that comes into your charity on your cause. Be frugal! Make sure your accounting is in order before you start tossing money around willy nilly.

Treat every last cent as if it’s your last, and respect every donation. People donate to charities not to fill the pockets of the people working there, but to achieve the charity’s mission. Don't abuse their trust!

A rough guide to keep you on the right track is that you should spend about 80% on program expenditures and around 20% on administration and fundraising. Of course there are plenty of unforeseen operating funds and that’s okay—just try to consider your donors at all times.

donation form

Don’t expect things to change overnight

You started your own charity to change something. To contribute to making the world a better place. That’s admirable. But the reality is that things take time and nothing will change unless you’re in it for the long haul.

This means you have to look after your charity. Expand only at a rate that is sustainable. Move slowly and with purpose rather than rushing into decisions. This goes for everything from building your team to growing your donor list.

For a long time you’ll be chipping away without much fanfare or reward. But you didn’t start a charity for fame and fortune did you? If you did you’re in the wrong business.

Commit to your cause and let your passion sustain the energy that inspired you to open up a charity in the first place. Your ultimate reward? Satisfaction and a knowledge that you’ve truly helped people (or animals, or plants).

Over to you

Been thinking about starting your own charity? Well now it’s time to get off the fence, take a leaf out of Nike’s book and 'just do it'. The world could use more charities.

The beauty is there’s no idea too big or small. Your charity could raise funds for young women with breast cancer, help disabled gamers play Fortnite, save an exotic species of spider, or anything and everything in between.

No matter what type of charity you choose, at Paperform we want to support you. That’s why we offer special pricing for charities or nonprofits. You can pay as little as $1/month for our Pro Plan, or get access to our Agency Plan for half price, any time.

Create a website, schedule events, take payments and accept recurring subscriptions and more with Paperform today. Get started with our 14-day free trial - no credit card required.

About the author
Jack Delaney
Content Manager
Jack is the Content Manager at Paperform, a digital Swiss Army Knife that empowers you to create forms, eSignatures, surveys, bookings, payments, and more.

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