How to Start a Non-Profit Organization: Step 1 – Form a Brain Trust

Before you do anything towards starting a non-profit organization, you need to form a brain trust. This is a group of friends that will add their thoughts to your idea and provide you with a platform to begin the process. Their ideas, questions, suggestions, misgivings, and other thoughts expand your thinking beyond a simple idea to a core value of what is important. 

What is a brain trust? How do you form one? What exactly do we do at our meetings? What is the end goal? 

All ideas start out in the thoughts of just one person. Even the greatest achievements of mankind started as an idea in one person’s thoughts. To take that thought from a lone person to a full scale deployment of a program takes several steps. The first step is to bounce the idea off of some trusted friends or colleagues and get some feedback. This feedback allows you to mold the idea further and gain acceptance of its validity. The primary goal of the brain trust is to confirm the idea’s validity. There are other goals to take once the idea is confirmed as valid. This includes transitioning into a committee of folks that will act as the trustees or board members of a founding board to start the operation. To begin this process, you must form a brain trust and get going. 

Forming a brain trust is actually easier than you may believe. You need to gather some folks together for feedback. These folks should be someone you know and you have faith and confidence in them to be honest with you. Look in the following places to find them:

  • Colleagues – others with a similar work background as yours. Ask one or two people at work to sit down with you over a course of a few meetings to provide the necessary feedback. 
  • Friends – a good source but sometimes a little distant between you and the brain trust members allows for good dialogue and better feedback. Friends have a tendency to protect and you need folks that will not be apprehensive in stating their opinion.
  • Church Members – probably the best source of individuals to have in this brain trust. Remember this is a charity concept and fellow members of your faith will come to the table with that in mind.
  • Professionals – if you have a good relationship with an attorney or an accountant, ask them to sit and add their input at these meetings. Explain to them that this is truly a short term commitment so they will not be apprehensive in joining. Remember these types of folks get really busy in life and feel a lot of responsibility towards others and another commitment especially long term raises concern.
  • Industry Contacts – someone from the industry or arena of charitable work you are thinking about. If your idea is medical based, find someone to sit that is in that profession. Their input is critical because they are familiar with the drawbacks and barriers of that industry.
  • Family – this is OK, but not the best course. See friends above as to why.

There is no need to formally document this group. You don’t need any type of organization papers, the idea is to get five to seven people together with you and have them give you feedback on your thought. You would need to meet about three to four times over a course of one to two months. They should be no more than one hour in duration each and you need to stay on topic. If you have a friend or family member willing to act as a moderator and recorder without providing any input, that would be the best use of someone from that field of influence. The following is an example of the plan for the respective meetings:

First Meeting (Sounding Board)

  1.  Spend 10 minutes and tell everyone about your idea and how you derived the idea
  2. Two to three minutes explaining that this group is temporary in nature and you asking them to provide insight and ask questions for you to research in order to see if the idea is feasible. The key is to find out if the idea is a good one or not. Questions about how to form and carry out the function are for later, right now the goal is to find out if the idea is a good idea; worthy of pursuing. The moderator should state that you will research or find out more information for about four to five questions.
  3. The members of the group begin to ask questions; you don’t need to respond, but to record the questions. Each member will want to know more; they’ll have some insight into the issue and most will provide you with some enthusiasm. 
  4.  Agree on the list of questions to follow up on and when you should meet again. Document the questions and confirm via e-mail to everyone.
  5. Thank them and follow up with a thank you card mailed the next day.

Second Meeting (Generate Concerns)

By now all the members have had a chance to reflect on your idea and they will likely have generated a lot more questions. Hopefully the group will have stayed focused on the idea itself. Remember, the legality and business aspect will come in due time. Stay focused on the idea, is it a good one or does it need to be modified? During this meeting state upfront that you are here to generate any real valid concerns about the idea not the operation, but to stay focused on the idea. Start out by answering the questions raised from the last meeting and asking everyone ‘What is the most important concern’ about this idea. There should only be one or at most two valid concern(s). Let me provide an example: 

Your original idea is to provide dental care to the indigent in a particular poor area of the city. It is strictly limited to the children under age 18. There would be fundraising to pay for this service and the goal is help the poor children. What are some legitimate concerns?

 If I sat on this type of a brain trust I would want to know the limitation of the service. Are we talking about just hygienist types of services or are we talking about true dental care to include cavities, extractions, or surgical based types of work. There is a lot at stake in reference to the licenses required, pharmaceuticals required onsite, and even equipment needs. I would want to know how children are addressed in our medical world for dental care under current state rules and regulations. Does Medicaid take care of them? If so, why allocate resources to children and not to adults that will need this type of care more than children?

 The valid concern here is: ’Are children the correct target group?’  ‘What level of care are we going to provide?’

Note that in this example, we are addressing the idea and not the operation itself. Concerns about where to place the facility or what type of facility is an operational issue, the key is to stay focused on the idea and verify the validity of continuing to pursue creation of a non-profit organization.

 Walk away from this meeting with one or two valid core concerns about the idea. Thank the team again and arrange for the third meeting.

Third Meeting (Validate and Create)

The goal of the third and final meeting is to validate the idea and begin the creation process. All the members should feel free to express their respective beliefs and any concerns they may have. Hopefully you purposely inserted at least one naysayer or ‘Doubting Debbie’ into the group. You need to begin the process of squelching individuals that will provide you with grief over this idea and its operation. They are everywhere, so begin practicing now. Furthermore, these individuals provide a great service to us because they get us to thinking and if we can overcome them, then there is no doubt the idea is beyond valid. It’s great to have an idea that is difficult for naysayers to put down. 

Now that everyone is on board and endorses the idea and the concerns have been addressed; it is time to begin the creation of a formal board of trustees or directors. The Brain Trust members should provide names of three to four folks each they believe will serve as trustees to help make decisions. The goal is to form a board of 7 to 9 directors that will help to create and legalize the idea into a formal entity. From here, you can begin the process of creating the business aspect of the idea and move it forward.

Thank the Brain Trust at the meetings and via personal phone calls. The greatest feeling for anyone is having someone call you and thank you. It is a warm feeling.

The Brain Trust served the goal of validating your idea and providing you with a list of founding board trustees/members to begin the entity formation. The next article in this series will guide you through the process of forming a board and creating an entity. Act on Knowledge.

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