How to Start an Organization

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How to Start an Organization to Help a Park

If you find yourself at the point where a more permanent group or even an incorporated not for profit 501(c)3 organization (non-profit) is needed, here are suggestions for getting started:

Discuss what needs to be done in the park; who has responsibility for doing it; and why it is not being done (lack of resources; not a priority; unclear responsibility; etc.).

Decide what kinds of things the group wants to help do: master planning, facility rehabilitation, trash removal, gardening, events, education, advocacy, fundraising, research, publicity. Then set priorities.

Are there other groups that are or should be involved? Have others tried to do these jobs? Were they successful? Why or why not? How will the new group interact with existing groups?

Identify the highest ranking people in the current administration (parks administrator, parks commissioner, mayor, etc.) who are likely to be (a) supportive of the group’s plans and (b) able to help implement them. Meet with them to discuss what you would like to do. This may take several meetings. Find out what the managers think needs to be done.

Reach agreement on the mission and constituents of the organization. Then discuss:

  • Will your organization have an executive director? How will that person be chosen?
  • How will the board be selected?
  • How will the group coordinate with the park administrator?
  • Where will the group’s office be?
  • Who will choose the projects to be undertaken and how?
  • How will volunteers be recruited, trained, supervised, and thanked? How will volunteers interact with paid park employees?
  • If professionals will be hired, who will select them, oversee their work, and accept the finished product?  How will they be paid?
  • Who can sign contracts?
  • Who must approve written materials?

Discuss who should be on the board. Members can include government officials, representatives of other organizations, neighbors, sports enthusiasts, political activists, fund-raisers, event planners, artists, historians, community volunteers, business people, lawyers, accountants, architects, engineers, contractors, etc. Some interests may best be represented in other ways: on committees, by meeting with board or staff, or in cooperation with other non-profits.

Board members are usually expected to contribute at least one of the following in a significant way: funds, volunteer work, knowledge, contacts, or name recognition.  Each board member should be willing to give at least some financial support and some time.

Select the initial board of directors and officers.

Select a name.  Usually, Conservancy indicates an organization that intends to find major contributions; Friends is a more grass-roots group; Alliance may be a coalition of existing non-profit groups or the private side of a public/private partnership.  A state official can tell you if your selected name has already been registered.

Create a charter and by-laws.  You may find a lawyer who will do the work pro bono or at a reduced rate.  The charter, which will be filed with the state to create a corporation, should be broad.  By-laws will be more specific.  Additional standing rules or procedures can be more detailed, and are more easily revised than the charter and by-laws.

Create an accounting system with a chart of accounts and cash controls.  An accountant may work pro bono or at a reduced rate.

Apply to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) for 501(c)3 status.  This will make the organization tax-exempt and contributions to it tax-deductible (as permitted by law).  Your lawyer can explain the rules governing the activities of 501(c)3 organizations, annual filing requirements, and other required actions which can vary by state.

You may wish to create a logo.

Select an initial project.  It should be both visible and doable with the resources at hand or likely to be available soon.  Set realistic goals and time-tables.  Success in the initial project will raise the organization’s credibility.

Begin raising money and recruiting volunteers.  Media coverage can be helpful.  Other similar organizations in the community may be willing to give advice and share mailing lists.  A direct mail campaign can help start a membership drive.  Consider a newsletter and an annual report.

Periodically, review these steps to see if the decisions made still meet the needs of the organization.  Three-year plans, with measurable objectives and assignments with deadlines, are usually helpful.

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