If you are a legal professional who is passionate about a specific cause or seeking a sustainable way to help a particular community, you may have considered starting a nonprofit organization. Legal nonprofits are one of the most common paths toward working for social consciousness, and they can be very successful when managed correctly.
Legal services nonprofits engage in various types of advocacy, and/or engage in both client-oriented and law reform work, including:
- Administrative Advocacy
- Trial Litigation
- Appellate Litigation
- Impact Litigation
- Community Lawyering
- Legal Writing
In addition to bringing your focus and dedication to the startup process, you must be prepared. If you don’t have your ducks in a row, starting a legal services non-profit can be challenging. On the other hand, if you have time and a clear vision, it might not be as difficult.
Here are five tips to get your legal nonprofit organization on the right track.
1. Understand regulations in your area
Different towns, cities, counties, and states have various laws governing legal service nonprofits. Hence, it’s essential to look into your area’s regulations once you decide to start a nonprofit organization. Knowing which regulations you need to adhere to at the federal and local levels will help you avoid problems down the road.
First, apply for tax exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). The fee typically ranges from $275 and $600, and can vary depending on your application method. It can take anywhere between three to 12 months for the IRS to return its decision, based on how many questions the IRS has about your application. Also, consider whether your organization will qualify for 503(c)(3) tax status.
In addition to looking into federal laws, research your local government nonprofit requirements.Your state, county, and city government may have regulations for nonprofits, as well as grants and other types of opportunities.
2. Figure out funding
Your legal services organization may be a nonprofit, but that doesn’t mean you won’t require funding to do things like pay employees, rent office space, equipment, host events, and so on. If you have the money, you can fund it yourself. On the other hand, you can raise money for a nonprofit in many different ways. However, know that there will be a lot of competition for limited resources.
High-profile legal issues often garner widespread support, which can help with crowd-sourced fundraising. You can also consider using a ‘fiscal sponsor.’ Fiscal sponsorship is a way to attract donors even when it is not yet recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). A fiscal sponsor acts as an administrative base for the cause.
Furthermore, look into grants, specifically federal government grants, based on your organization’s cause. Focus on the most practical ways to raise money and develop a concrete plan.
3. Take advantage of all resources
You can never have too much information. While the National Council of Nonprofits doesn’t offer one-on-one assistance, they freely share a lot of information on their website. They also encourage you to connect with local expertise—another attorney with nonprofit experience, an accountant, or an expert in tax-exempt law and charitable organizations in your state. These professionals can help you ensure that your nonprofit complies with the state and local requirements and federal laws.
You can also reach out to other organizations in the nonprofit sector to learn more about the process they underwent, especially for fundraising purposes. This type of networking can create many other kinds of opportunities for joint events and shared resources.
4. Don’t underestimate the power of branding
Just as social media platforms help boost awareness in the for-profit space, they can help nonprofit organizations with limited budgets reach a wide audience in a fast and cost-effective manner. Social media platforms allow your nonprofit to tell its story and storytelling help engage supporters, increase brand awareness, and promote fundraising initiatives.
A recent survey of 9,000 nonprofits found that nonprofits primarily leverage Facebook as their preferred social network. Twitter is the second-most popular platform, and other popular channels include Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and LinkedIn.
Consider connecting others in your sector on social media and post regularly. If you don’t have enough time to manage your accounts, you may want to hire a social media manager or a specialist. If your nonprofit contributes work to a high-profile case or a case concerning a topical issue, try to get media coverage of your work.
5. Give supporters a token of your appreciation
In addition to a strong online presence, branding is crucial to building a nonprofit. Essentially, branding will cover the visual and written ways you communicate your story, mission, and vision to your audience. It is a way to communicate the cause you work towards and your approach.
When building a brand, refer to your demographics and tailor your communications to meet their needs. Also, create a unique logo for your nonprofit. It should be simple yet compelling and communicate who you are as an organization. Consider how your logo will look on branded products. For example, research options for custom tote bags and popular promotional products.
Additionally, connect with the community you’re located in, both with your organization’s initiatives and as a part of community events, such as parades, potlucks, and so on. This will help you easily distinguish yourself from your competition. More importantly, it will help you truly understand the needs of your community.
Embrace your nonprofit journey
With these fundamental nonprofit startup tips, you are more prepared to get your organization off the ground. Always remember to keep your mission at the forefront of every conversation you have around finances, services, and hiring. Also, review your nonprofit business plan regularly, keeping an eye out for milestones to know you are on track.
Rebecca Stuart is a former legal aid turned career coach for young professionals. Her expertise helps those pursuing careers in law, medicine, and business administration. She contributes to several blogs in these industries.
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