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Organizational Management

How to Start an Association Step by Step

Author: Terry Ibele
November 24, 2017
🕑 27 min read

I’ve created this step-by-step guide to help anyone who wants to know how to start an association in the USA.

I cover absolutely everything from creating a business plan, to incorporating, to generating revenue and more.

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What is an Association?

what is an association

In simple terms, an association is a group of people who come together around a common cause or purpose.

As association are a type of nonprofit organization, they can receive tax exempt status from the US government.

All nonprofits operate by taking profits they receive from goods, services, donations, or sponsorships, and cycling them back into the organization to further achieve their missions. In contrast, for-profit businesses distribute profits to the shareholders and investors of the organization.

The One Thing That Will Make Your Association a Success

how to start an association success

Nearly half of all nonprofits are set up to fail.

A year down the road, when you’re cash-strapped and stressed out from trying to build things from the ground up, what will keep you pushing through?

Nearly all successful associations I’ve spoken with had rough beginnings, but one thing above all else helped them face every challenge head-on.

That one thing was a strong sense of purpose to fill an unmet need in a community of like-minded individuals. Things like:

  • Pushing employers to create better working conditions
  • Creating career-building educational resources
  • Offering a support network for industry professionals
  • Etc. etc. etc.

If you have a clear sense of an unmet need in a community and a strong desire to fill it, your chances of success are high.

If you need some help determining your chances of success, here are three questions that can help you out.

  1. What proof do you have that your association will fill an unmet need in your community? Gathering support, receiving grants, and getting donations will become a whole lot easier if you have strong numbers to back up your idea. For example, if you want to start a Chiropractic Association, you’ll need to have a good estimate of how many Chiropractors live in the region you plan on serving. To help you do this type of research, use this Chamber of Commerce Directory to determine how many practices exist in your city or State.
  2. Are there any other associations already serving the same need? Even if your association is targeting a very niche need or geographic area, there may be another association already servicing that community. In this case, you’ll need to conduct interviews with the people who you plan on creating the association for in order to determine if they’re already part of a larger association. I also recommend becoming a member of a larger association to discover how well they’re servicing your identified niche (and what your association can do better).
  3. What sort of people will join or support your organization? One of the most crucial steps in getting your association off the ground is the ability to attract members quickly. That’s why knowing exactly who your targeted demographic is can make it easier for you to find supporters and members, and then create resources they’re interested in. A great tool to help you research demographic information is the American Fact Finder.

Answering these three questions can help you strengthen your association’s purpose and find new needs that are not being met by your target community. They will also help you formulate your association’s vision (here are 20 nonprofit vision statements to help you out) and mission (here are 20 nonprofit mission statements to use as examples).

In the next section I’ll explain how to create a business plan for your association.

 How to start an association

What to Include in Your Association Business Plan

how to start an association business plan

The mistake many founders make when they first incorporate is that they didn’t spend the time to make a business plan first.

Those that do make a business plan ahead of time find it much easier to face unforeseen challenges, because they already have a rudimentary plan in place for what to do — and just as Benjamin Franklin coined, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

If you need help creating a business plan for your association, here’s a great template to start from.

If you’re creating your own from scratch, there are seven major areas you’ll need to cover:

  1. Executive Summary: This is a short overview of your business plan. When writing yours, think of it as an elevator pitch. This is the first thing potential investors, sponsors, and even members will read when deciding whether to support you.
  2. Products and Services: Here you fill out the type of value your association will create. Besides membership and events, many associations offer additional merchandise like t-shirts to help bring in extra revenue. For example, the New York Association of School Psychologists offers travel mugs, jewelry, books and apparel to help raise money.
  3. Market Analysis: A market analysis is simply a snapshot of what the market looks like — the amount of people your organization could potentially serve and how much these people will spend on your membership and services. It also takes into account competitors who are already serving your market as well as a SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) on why your organization will succeed.
  4. Marketing Plan: This section outlines what activities you’ll do to attract members to your organization. As Kari Keir, a Minnesota native who started her own nonprofit in 2012 points out. “We were naïve to think we would form and people would hear about us through word of mouth and we would be successful.” To avoid this, it’s necessary to develop a strong marketing plan that does three things:
    • Explains who your organization will service
    • Explains how you will find these people
    • Explains how you will convince these people to support you through promotional campaigns, events, networking, etc. According to the Marketing General’s Membership Marketing Benchmarking Report (a fantastic survey of nearly 900 associations), here are the top five ways associations attracted new members — it would be a good idea to include some of these activities in your marketing plan:
      • Word of mouth recommendations from current members
      • Email marketing
      • Cross-selling to non-members who purchase your services/attend your conferences
      • Promotions at trade shows and conferences
      • Digital marketing
  5. Operational Plan: The operational plan simply answers questions such as:
    • Where will your office be?
    • What supplies and equipment will you need?
    • How will you deliver your services?
    • What kind of staff or volunteers will you need?
  6. Organizational Structure: This is the place to list your staff, their roles, and how they’re organized. To create a simple organizational chart, here’s an easy tool called Organimi that can help.
  7. Financial Plan: This is the page any potential investor will flip to before deciding to support your organization. It will also help you apply for grants and loans. To create yours you will need some knowledge of basic accounting principles in order to project cash flow (where your revenue will come from) and build a budget. If you need help, The Wallace Foundation has some excellent resources and calculators to get you started.

Perhaps the hardest part of a business plan is figuring out the financial model. And while everything is just theory on paper, it can help to look at the financial models of other similar associations. To help you out, I’ll cover the four major sources of revenue for the typical association in the next section.

Everything You Need to Know About Association Revenue

how to start an association revenue

Most associations receive the majority of their revenue from member dues — the monthly/yearly fee members pay to get access to the association’s value.

If you’re just starting out, it can be difficult to know what value people will actually want to pay for. Even if you’ve done your research, sometimes what someone says they will pay for and what they actually pay for are two separate things.

Luckily a study of nearly 900 associations reveals there are two main reasons why people pay to join associations. If you’re able to deliver on these reasons, there’s a good chance people will pay for a membership. Those two reasons are:

  1. Access to a unique community of like-minded individuals. Nothing engages and attracts members greater than the desire to belong to a community of like-minded individuals. Among the most popular ways to build this is through networking events. In fact, here’s an example of an association who grew over 1,000 members just by attracting new people to network at their annual conference.
  2. Access to specialized information and resources in your niche. What type of valuable information can your association offer that someone can’t get anywhere else? By far the most popular way of creating specialized information is through educational courses, resources, and whitepapers. If you can create this type of information, chances are, people may be willing to pay for it. Here’s an example. Imagine you’ve started a Writing Association. The types of specialized information you can offer could look like this (in fact, I’m part of a writing association and these are some reasons I joined):
  • Writing workshops and a mentorship program
  • Education sessions on how to pitch a novel to agents
  • Legal advice when it comes to copywriting

All this being said, member dues rarely cover all the expenses of a typical association. That’s why most associations must find secondary sources of revenue, called non-dues revenue in order to maintain operations.

From what I’ve seen, there are four non-dues revenue sources that nearly all associations seek out in one way or another.

In the next section, I’ll explain how to maximize these four sources of revenue.

How to Maximize Your Non-Dues Revenue

how to start an association revenue source

According to an Association Adviser Study, here’s a breakdown of non-dues revenue sources for the typical association:

  • Conferences and Events: 41%
  • Corporate Partnership/Affinity Programs: 24%
  • Continuing Education/Training (Professional Services): 24%
  • Donations: 12%

In this section, I’ll be covering how to maximize your earnings in each of these secondary revenue sources.

Conferences and Events: 41%

I know a Lawyer’s Association that runs completely off event fees without charging membership dues. That’s because they’ve created a regular schedule of amazing events that sell out every time.

However, this isn’t the case with most organizations who instead use events as a tool to supplement their revenue, and to attract new members.

How much you rely on events for revenue depends on what type of organization you’re starting (a small writing association, vs a national engineering association would have drastically different event revenue). However, to help you see what most organizations do when it comes to events, I analyzed over 1,000,000 events created by WildApricot’s nonprofit customers.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Member meetings are most common in February/March (think educational workshops, banquets, etc.)
  • Networking events are most common in February/March (think industry events, speaker sessions, etc.)
  • Conferences, conventions, and retreats are most popular in March/July/September/October

You can view the full details of what I call The Ultimate Nonprofit Event Calendar here.

If you plan on making paid events a major source of revenue for your organization, here is a full guide on how to plan an event and a fantastic event planning checklist that you can print off and use.

Corporate Partnership/Affinity Programs: 24%

Sponsorships can be the toughest type of private contribution to seek. Some organizations have a whole team just to seek out sponsors and maintain relationships. But if you’re just starting out, there’s only one activity you need to do that has the highest chance of landing a corporate sponsor. According to sponsorship expert, Chris Baylis, that one thing is a discovery call. The reason discovery calls win over all other tactics (including creating the dreaded sponsorship package) is because you can qualify a potential sponsor on the spot and begin a relationship right away with those interested.

Continuing Education/Training (Professional Services): 24%

Professional services cover any type of paid service your association chooses to offer on top of the basic membership benefits. For example, a large engineering association may gain professional services revenue from a professional certification fee, whereas a small student association may collect revenue from a paid mentorship program.

What type of professional services your organization offers really depends on what industry you’re in. Here are some common professional services I see to help give you some ideas:

  • Consulting
  • Research
  • Surveys
  • Mentorship Programs and Workshops
  • Educational Courses and Certification
  • Legal and Regulatory Services

Donations: 12%

Private contributions are made in the form of donations. But, before you can accept donations, or engage in fundraising activities, many states require you to complete Charitable Solicitation Registration. You can do this in tandem with incorporating your association. Some states even require you to register for “Games of Chance” like raffles and 50/50 draws, whereas in other states, these activities are actually illegal. To find out your State’s regulations, and to register, select your state from this map.

The Nonprofit Council has also put together a great article on Ethical Fundraising to help guide you when it comes to soliciting donations.

When you’re ready to start soliciting donations, there are three main ways to do so:

1) Regular Individual Donors

To reduce personal income tax, many people contribute to nonprofit organizations. However, people won’t give to your organization unless they believe in your cause and can see you doing good work. Once you’re ready, try some of these 18 ways pro nonprofits are collecting donations from individuals.

2) Fundraising Activities

Fundraisers are the simplest tactic to increase revenue. That’s because they utilize the people who already believe in your organization to reach new people through fun events and campaigns. Even the smallest associations and nonprofits are able to quickly raise thousands with some simple fundraising tactics. Take for example the story of one woman who raised $8,000 for her football club in just one month by shooting a video and having her club members email it out to their friends.

Fundraisers are also often best paired with events. If you want to raise money by holding a fundraising event, you’ll want to read this. A study of 99 nonprofits discovered that fun runs are the most cost effective, easiest to plan, and have the highest fundraising potential of all other types of fundraising events.

If you need more help, The Fundraising Authority has a great guide on fundraising for beginners.

3) Government Grants

Government grants don’t apply to all types of associations, but they’re definitely worth looking into.

Just one word of caution: if you’re new to grant applications, beware! The words “grant application deadline” have been known to cause panic in the nonprofit world, because filling out a government grant correctly, within wordcount, and on time can be a very stressful task. My best advice here is to know what grants you can apply for and start the application far in advance. I’ve heard way too many stories of computers crashing the night the application is due.

Here are some helpful places to begin your search for grants relevant to your association:

To help you get started with an application, the United States Government has a great guide on how to determine your eligibility, application instructions, and even how to avoid grant scams. Or, if you enjoy webinars, Charity How To has a free webinar on how to write your first grant.

One More Great Source of Revenue

One more source of revenue not covered in the Naylor survey, but which I’ve seen many associations get extra revenue from is merchandise sales.

Typically an association will offer swag like sweaters, ball caps, mugs, and other items available to purchase from the office or events.

While association merchandise likely won’t become a major source of revenue, it can create a nice little bump in your cash flow to help supplement expenses.

Once you’ve completed your business plan and determined how your association will make revenue, it’s time to recruit your board.

How to Recruit Your Board

how to start an association board

Before you can incorporate your association, some states require you to gather your board first.

If your state doesn’t require this, it’s still a good idea to recruit your board first, because they can help you with the incorporation process and lead your new nonprofit on the best path when faced with challenges at the start.

In this section, I will cover how to recruit the best board members for your association and the five steps to get them up to speed as quick as possible.

Who to Recruit for Your Board

An unsupportive and unmotivated board can quickly dismantle any association. Unfortunately this isn’t a rare occurrence and I’ve heard many stories of office drama, board members scrapping the mission, and even forcing staff to carry out their own initiatives. If you’re worried about this happening to you, here are 14 interview tips to help you uncover a toxic board member from the start.

On the other hand, a supportive and motivated board can help your association grow quickly. It’s all about finding the right fit during the hiring process. But what is the “right fit” exactly?

You may be tempted to hire someone with the “right fit” when it comes to skills and experience, but a survey of over 2,000 HR professionals reveals that the right fit has more to do with the following seven characteristics:

  1. Strong work ethic: Setting and achieving goals
  2. Dependable: Consistently following through
  3. Positive attitude: Creating a good environment
  4. Self-motivated: Working effectively with little direction
  5. Team-oriented: Making the most out of collaboration
  6. Effective communicator: Understanding the benefits of clarity
  7. Flexible: Adapting in a meaningful way

Another important point from The Nonprofit Answer Guide is that your board should be made up of individuals who have expertise and resources in different areas. They offer a good rule of thumb when recruiting

  • One-third from individuals who have access to financial resources or soliciting donations.
  • One-third from individuals with management expertise in areas of financial, marketing, legal and the like.
  • One-third from individuals connected at the community level, with expertise in your service field.

If you recruit a team who possess the right experience, skills, and characteristics, there’s a good chance you’ll build a strong team that will make your organization a success.

To help you recruit such a team, I’ve broken down the whole recruitment process with into four steps, including templates to follow and places to find board members.

1) Define Success and Build Job Descriptions

Before you can begin your recruitment process, you’ll need to determine which roles you need filled. This is where you can refer back to the organizational structure you created in your business plan.

Most associations create similar roles when it comes to the board. Here are the three most common ones for you to consider and examples of what success in each role might look like for your organization:

  • Leader: This person is the key representative who can lead the nonprofit and act as a spokesperson. The role title might be: President, CEO, Board Chair, etc. If you’re creating this association, this role is likely yours. Sometimes boards have a second in command to the Leader, typically called the Vice Chair.
    • Success for the Leader might be to grow the organization a certain percentage year over year, develop a strong culture within the organization and build up the brand of the nonprofit as a professional organization within the community.
  • Secretary or Committee Chair: This role is responsible for helping the Leader execute projects, write meeting minutes, keep track of office activities, help organize meetings, make sure the board complies with all local bylaws, etc.
    • Success for the Secretary might be to organize all meetings on time, facilitate discussion between board members and make sure all board members are informed and on track.
  • Treasurer: This person is responsible for keeping track of money, fees, expenses, paying bills, etc.

After determining the roles of your board members and defining success, it’s time to craft job descriptions to recruit your board and formalize their roles. Here are some great job description examples of each role, but overall your job descriptions must include:

  • Benefits of the position
  • How long the term of board member is for
  • General duties
  • Weekly time commitment
  • Legal / Financial commitments
  • Qualifications / Skills requirements

This is also a good time to note that board members are typical not paid, and are often expected to contribute financially to the organization. When writing up your job description, it is a good idea to mention this. If you do decide to pay your board members more than $600 a year, you must issue them an IRS Form 1099 Msc.

Another important note is that your organization will need bylaws, which all board members must follow when carrying out their duties. Your bylaws will establish procedures for the affairs of your organization (operations, elections, conflicts of interest, etc.). To help you get started drafting your own bylaws, consider this helpful template with examples.

Once you have full job descriptions, it’s time to find the best candidates.

2) Where to Find the Best Candidates

Most new associations looks for candidates from their personal connections — colleagues partners, or volunteers, as these people already have access to their community and are in line with their mission and values. However, a word of caution when approaching family and personal friends as often emotional matters can take precedence over business goals.

If you need help finding potential candidates for your board members, there are a number of great resources perfect for just that, including:

Once you have a short-list of potential applicants, the next step is to interview these people to determine the right fit.

3) How to Screen and Select Your Board Members

Before you begin interviewing, develop a standard set of questions to ask all candidates. This will help you objectively evaluate each against the other.

To help you out, here are five necessary questions developed by Joan Garry, the “Dear Abby” of nonprofit leadership to ask your candidates:

  1. What do you know about our organization? Why are you interested in committing your time and energy to us?
  2. What do you think are the characteristics of a great board member?
  3. Fundraising is a significant obligation of board service (state give/get clearly). Can you tell us about your experience in fundraising?
  4. Board members bring experience, wisdom, strategic thinking, and their rolodexes.  Can you tell us about yours?
  5. What kind of autonomy do you have over your calendar? There will be meetings between board meetings, occasional donor lunches.

When you conduct the interview, don’t do it alone. Gather a small committee of people whose judgement you trust to help you make the right decision.

Once you’ve selected your board members, have them sign a Board Member Contract to officiate their role. Here’s a great Board Member Contract template you can use.

The next step to ensure success is to give your board members the training and tools to let them hit the ground running. A comprehensive orientation program will do just that.

4) Five Steps to Get Your New Board Members up to Speed Quickly

Every smooth transition into a new role starts and depends on orientation.

If you need help with this, here is a great template to get you started. And if you need an example to follow, the Association for Talent Development has published all their onboarding materials online in a comprehensive list. However, since you’re just starting out, a simple process that you build on over time may be best. At a minimum, you’ll want to cover the following:

  • An overview of the organization – its history, mission, vision, and strategic plan
  • Organizational chart (as outlined from your business plan)
  • Schedule of board meetings (and locations)
  • Contact information – board chair, members, staff contacts etc.

Once you’ve created your guide and materials, the next step is to orient your members. Rachel Muir, a seasoned nonprofit founder suggests five critical steps to orient your members in the most effective way:

  1. One-on-one orientation. This should be done by the founder, or CEO. Include a tour, meeting of the rest of the board and reviewing of the board contract.
  2. Match them with a board buddy. At the beginning, everyone will feel like the new kid on the block. Board buddies can help your new members get up to speed faster and eliminate feelings of intimidation from insecurity. Plus, one of the most common reasons people become board members is so they can network and socialize.
  3. Provide them with your orientation guide. These are the materials you created in your guide. Since your board members are volunteers, take-home materials will allow them to get up to speed in their spare time.
  4. Host a welcome reception. This is a great way for everyone to get to know each other, including staff, donors, volunteers, and community leaders.
  5. Announce it publicly. As Rachel says, “Send a press release announcing your new board members to your local newspaper and business journal. Most have an “On the Move” section, and this is a simple, free way to get publicity for your organization and your new board member.”

A well oriented board is one of the best ways to ensure success of your new nonprofit. Once you’ve completed the above steps, it’s time to finally incorporate your nonprofit.

The First Paid Role You’ll Need for Your Association

how to start an association paid

While a Board will help you coordinate and execute many of the operational tasks for your association, the board is volunteer-based, meaning they likely have full-time jobs and cannot devote 100% of their time to the association.

As such, the one paid role most new associations require to really get the ball rolling is the role of the Membership Manager.

The Membership Manager’s responsibility is largely administrative, but also involves a lot strategic work when it comes to marketing the organization, running events, and creating services.

Often this person becomes the face of the organization, because of his or her frequent connection with the association’s members.

If you’re looking to hire a Membership Manager, here is a list of responsibilities and skills which can help you find a good candidate. This list is quite extensive, because this person usually ends up wearing all the hats at the organization:

  • Manage and update the association website
  • Plan and coordinate events
  • Plan and coordinate marketing campaigns
  • Research and apply for grants
  • Plan and execute fundraising activities
  • Coordinate volunteers
  • Maintain the association’s social media
  • Collect and process member dues, event fees, other revenues
  • Maintain and update the member contact database
  • Communicate with members and coordinate the monthly newsletter
  • Builds relationships with prospective, new, and existing members
  • Plans and executes member retention strategies

To add to the above duties, this person often requires:

  • Good knowledge of print and digital marketing
  • Strong communication, organizational and project management skills
  • Experience in administration, budgeting and finance, and relationship management

If you’re not able to hire candidates right away, consider also looking into an association management company to help you out.

You may have noticed the duties in this list are quite extensive. That’s because the role can become very demanding.

Many Membership Managers find themselves caught up in a never-ending stream of administrative work, and are unable to focus their time on growing members and creating more value for the association.

This is the exact reason why WildApricot (our company) exists in the first place. We created our membership management software over 10 years ago when we realized many Membership Managers were struggling to keep up with all the administrative tasks necessary to run their organizations.

With our software, a Membership Manager can focus on executing strategic projects, while our software automates nearly everything else – things like member dues, event registrations, website updates, the contact database, email communications, and newsletters.

If you’re interested in learning more about how WildApricot can help out any Membership Manager, watch this free webinar we’re running on how WildApricot can save you 20 hours a week:

Or, you can start a free trial of our software right now to test it out for yourself.

Once you’ve got a good candidate for a Membership Manager, it’s time to incorporate your association.

How to Incorporate Your Association

how to start an association incorporate

I’ve taken these steps directly from the website so they are very clear:

1) Choose a business name: Association names are typically very straight-forward. They commonly include the industry and location they serve. Here are a few examples to help give you some ideas.

(By the way, all the above associations manage their memberships with WildApricot.)

2) Appoint a Board of Directors: (covered in the above section)

3) Decide on a legal structure: In this step, choose association.

4) File your incorporation paperwork: Here are instructions from the IRS website on what paperwork you need to file. You will need to choose which state you are filing in and follow the instructions provided. If you plan on soliciting donations from more than one state, you will have to register there too. Generally you will have to register:

  • Your association’s name
  • Name and address of the registering agent (the founder)
  • Address of the association
  • Names and address of the board members
  • Statement of purpose to which your association will operate

5) Apply for nonprofit federal and state tax exemptions: The IRS provides guidance and instructions on applying for tax-exempt status for your association here. Since you are filing as an association, you will need to select the forms under the heading Other Nonprofit or Tax-Exempt Organizations (501(a)).

6) Obtain necessary licenses and permits: Does your association have all the licenses and permits needed to comply with federal, state, and local rules?

Filing to Be Tax-Exempt

how to start an association tax exempt

One of the main benefits of incorporating an association is tax-exempt status. This means that your organization does not pay any tax to the IRS.

There are 29 types of nonprofit organizations that can file for tax-exemption under section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code. The most common of these is the 501(c)(3), which includes all charitable, religious, scientific, and literary organizations.

Most associations fall under the 501(c)6 category, which covers all types of business leagues, including:

  • Trade Associations
  • Professional Associations
  • Chambers of Commerce
  • Real Estate Boards
  • Boards of Trade
  • Professional Football Leagues

In order to receive tax-exemption, you will need to register with the IRS as your appropriate 501(c) organization.

Here is the link to apply for 501(c) status on the IRS website.

Apply 501c

If you need help, you can phone the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities Hotline.

The application process can be lengthy (anywhere from 3-12 months to receive a decision), so start as early as possible. To make sure you complete everything correctly the first time, read through these 13 common reasons why applications are rejected.

It’s also important to note that there are fees for filing for tax-exemption:

  • $850 if you expect annual gross receipts over $10,000
  • $400 if you expect annual gross receipts under $10,000

The final step is to register with your state. This is usually accomplished through the state tax commission, but the IRS State Links for Exemption page will help you find the correct office, filing procedures and annual reporting requirements in every state.

By following these steps on how to start an association, you’ll have all your bases covered and be in a top-notch position for staying in compliance with both federal and state regulations.

How to Maintain Compliance

how to start an association compliance

Once you’ve successfully incorporated your association, there are a number of things you must do every year to keep your tax-exempt status.

The first thing you must do is file a 990 Form. This form collects information regarding your revenue, expenses, board members, achievements, and other operational information. However, which form you fill out depends on your gross receipts.

After the 990 Form, there are a number of things you must do to remain in good standing with the IRS. For a fun way to remember what to do, RocketLawyer has put together a 17 “Thou Shalt” and “Thou Shalt Not” rules. Here are a few of them:

  • Thou shalt not have any shareholders
  • Thou shalt not contribute to political campaigns
  • Thou shalt conduct proper board meetings

This is also a good time to note that before you can accept donations, or engage in fundraising activities, many states require you to complete Charitable Solicitation Registration. You can do this at the same time as incorporation.

If you and your board follow all of the compliance regulations (remember that this is part of the responsibility of the Secretary or Committee Chair), then you shouldn’t have any problem maintaining your tax-exempt status.

(And don’t forget, you’ll have to fill out form 990 every year. If you missed your 990 deadline, here’s what you have to do.)

Now that you’ve completed all the legalities of starting your nonprofit, it’s time to start setting up your office.

How to Set Up an Association Office Space on a Shoestring Budget

how to start an association office

The writing association I’m a member of has nearly two thousand members and operates entirely from a single desk in a shared office space. I also know of another association, which operates entirely out of volunteers’ homes.

While not as glamorous as large offices complete with cubicles, meeting rooms, and reception areas, these associations have been resourceful by taking advantage of two main things.

The first is that there are a number of organizations that provide office space, computers, and furniture for nonprofits for free or at a discount.

If you’re looking to set up an inexpensive or free office space, check these websites:

  • The Nonprofit Center lists available shared spaces for nonprofits
  • Contact State Association and ask them for a referral
  • PivetDesk offers temporary offices, shared spaces, and private office space for nonprofits.
  • Ofixu is not specifically for associations, but many great offices, spare desks, meeting rooms, creative spaces, coworking spaces, and more are found on this website.
  • ShareDesk is also a great resource to browse through

If you’re looking for free or discounted computers, or furniture, check these websites:

  • Cisco: Apply to their Product Grant Program
  • CSR Eco Solutions: a global social enterprise managing the redistribution of redundant assets on behalf of corporations, government institutions and healthcare facilities.
  • connects companies with used equipment to nonprofits who need it.
  • a marketplace where people post furniture and supplies they have to donate.
  • Good 360: a place where companies donate products to nonprofits.
  • GreenStandards: sign up to receive gently-used office furniture and equipment donations delivered right to your door.
  • gives out nonprofit computer grants.
  • a nonprofit recycling and reuse network — this can be a great place to find free computers for nonprofits.

While this list is already quite large, I’ve discovered even more places that help out nonprofits and listed them all here.

The second reason associations are able to operate on a small scale without a lot of staff is due to something I mentioned before — they use software to automate all their administrative tasks so they can focus on the mission of the association and serving its members.

This Software Will Run Your Association For You

How to start an association software

Many new associations reach a breaking point with the way their organization operates within their first few years. And if they can’t break through, they risk dissolving.

This happened to one nonprofit I know of, a Lawyer’s Association.

Around year two, the organization reached about 300 members. The breaking point came when the Membership Manager found herself up to her neck in administrative work (processing payments, coordinating events, member record management, etc.). Without the budget to hire another staff, things started to take a turn for the worst.

Events became half planned, the monthly newsletter was dropped, and member email inquiries stacked up without answer.

Members began to leave.

Even with the board’s help, things didn’t appear optimistic. The more members they got, the less they were able to deliver value, and the more members left.

It wasn’t until that they spoke with a large association in a neighboring state that things turned around. The large association used membership management software in its early days to handle all their administrative tasks, which allowed them to focus on attracting and engaging members.

Fortunately, the Lawyer’s Association followed suit (they actually became a customer of ours) and was able to break through through their conundrum. They’re now pushing 700 members.

If you’re looking to grow your new organization quickly — and keep growing it, I encourage you to look into membership management software.

What is Membership Management Software?

Membership Management Software, sometimes also called Association Management Software or AMS, works like an army of robots that do all the administrative work for your organization — things like:

  • Instantly process online payments, fees, and donations.
  • Setup online event registration pages, payments, and reminders.
  • Improve member communication through automated invoices, emails, and newsletters.
  • Give you a professional, easy to build website where you can host a news section, notices, resources, member directory, an event calendar and more.
  • Maintain a full contact database that’s easy to search, filter, and update.
  • Provide you with financial reports, analytics, and membership summaries in seconds.
  • Save your organization money and time by automating many more administrative tasks.

The list goes on and on.

Just to be upfront, WildApricot is a provider of membership management software used by over 7,000 small and medium-sized associations around the world. In just an afternoon, you can build your entire website and upload your contact database all by yourself. That’s because WildApricot is an easy-to-learn system and even if you do get stuck, we offer free support to get setup as quickly as possible.

I’d encourage you to start your free trial of WildApricot to see how it can help build your association from the ground up.

Click here to start your free trial now.

WildApricot Review“We use this software to manage a small association of approx. 100 members. It handles everything from membership lists, renewals and notices to donations and conference registration. The support is helpful and it is very easy to use. We love it!”

-Ted Goodman, Treasurer, Association of Architecture School Librarians

WildApricot association Software

Free Trial WildApricot

We also provide free educational support for associations just starting out through training on how to attract and engage members, how to run events, and more.

To access this free training, simply sign up for our free monthly expert webinar series, or find helpful articles on our blog.

And if you’re looking for peer support on building your association, we’ve created a Facebook Group of over 2,000 other Membership Managers who share their tips and expertise when it comes to running a member-based organization.

It’s my hope this comprehensive guide has given you all the understanding, tools, and resources on how to start an association and become successful in today’s world.

Best of luck!

Additional Resources:

The Membership Growth Report:

Benchmarks & Insights for Growing Revenue and Constituents

Get the report now!