When it comes to charity, Americans do a lot. According to a number of studies, between 70% and 85% of all Americans make some form of monetary charitable donation every year. In addition, many people contribute large amounts of time toward charitable causes. By being a soccer coach, a leader for a group of Boy or Girl Scouts, a phone operator for a local charity option, or any of a thousand other ways to give of yourself, you can make a difference in the lives of others in your community.
For some, however, doing good involves more than just money or time. Although many charitable organizations exist that cover a huge range of important causes, many communities still lack the presence of a strong charity to do work that their citizens need. If you feel motivated to go beyond writing a check or working an hour or two a week to make your community a better place to live, you should think about taking the next step and creating a new charitable organization of your own. This article will give you some basic advice on how to get started.
Know your community
Before you consider starting your own charity, you should have a strong knowledge of the charitable resources that already exist in your community. Often, you can make a more valuable contribution to an existing charity that has as its mission the same goal that you're interested in pursuing. Because the pool of interested community members, volunteers, and potential donors is limited, having multiple charitable organizations with overlapping missions is a luxury that only larger cities can afford.
In addition to avoiding unnecessary duplication of charitable purposes, you should also become acquainted with influential members of your community, including civic leaders, large individual donors, principals of local businesses, and other well-known community members. By meeting with these individuals during the initial stages of planning your charity, you can gauge support for your ideas before you've committed a huge amount of time, energy, and money toward your efforts.
Don't go it alone
Once you've decided that you have enough support, get other people involved. Starting a charity has a lot of things in common with starting your own business for profit, but there's at least one crucial difference: Because the rewards of your efforts are not monetary, there's no reason to exclude anyone who wants to help you. On the contrary, having a wide variety of people in different occupations brings a diverse and extremely helpful set of skills to your organization.
In talking with people who want to help you, keep in mind that prospective volunteers can help in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important thing to find first is a group of highly motivated people who will agree to volunteer for the organization's board of directors. Because your charity will likely have extremely limited financial resources, you'll want to find volunteers who can take care of the business aspects of running a non-profit organization. The ideal charitable board of directors, therefore, would include several professionals, including an attorney, an accountant, a financial professional, and at least one business executive with management experience. In addition, new charitable organizations often rely on a core of wealthy board members to sustain the organization financially until other sources of funding become available.
Because working on a charitable board of directors involves a significant commitment of time and money, many people who are interested in helping you will be unable to volunteer as board members. However, that doesn't mean there's no place for these people. As you work with your board members to plan how to reach the charity's goals, certain areas will arise that require large amounts of volunteer time. Having volunteers ready and willing to help out in these key support roles is crucial to achieving success. Of special importance are people who are good at raising funds, whether by soliciting donations personally from individual and corporate donors or by writing grant proposals to other organizations that are potential sources of funding. In addition, volunteers who have strong ties throughout the community are nice to have when you need to get your message out to the public.
Have a mission
Once you have a committed group of individuals on your team, you need to work with them to establish exactly what your charity's mission will be. This may seem to be a simple task, but in reality, figuring out a precise mission for your charity can be one of the most difficult exercises you will face in establishing the organization.
As the primary founder of the charity, you must possess a rare mix of assertiveness and humility throughout this process. On one hand, the people working with you will want to recognize your efforts in taking the first steps to create the charity and will therefore be tempted to defer to your judgment. On the other hand, however, you need to know when to step back and let the abilities of your fellow board members come to the forefront. After all, only by letting all of your compatriots make their own valuable contribution toward the cause will they become fully committed to the charitable goals you share with them.
After you get through these initial stages of starting your own charity, you should have a good idea of whether you have the support to make your idea work. If you conclude that things look favorable for going forward, then it's time to turn to the legal formalities involved in establishing a charitable organization and obtaining the tax-exempt status necessary to accept tax-deductible contributions from donors. The next part of this series of articles focuses on these legal requirements.
For more charitable Foolishness:
- How to Form a Non-Profit Organization
- Do Charitable Fundraising Right
- Live, From New Orleans
- Mercy in Beirut
- Where Are They Now?
The Motley Fool is committed to helping charities. Through our annual Foolanthropy campaign, The Motley Fool and its members get together to nominate and support five worthy charitable organizations whose missions span the globe. Stay tuned for more information on Foolanthropy 2006 beginning on Oct. 16, when we kick off the call for nominations.
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