How to Start a Nonprofit in Wisconsin

You can take your dedication to a cause to the next level by getting organized. Here’s how to do it.


Wisconsinites are passionate about giving back. Each year, we donate close to $3 billion to charity, representing 2.5% of household income. Now, Wisconsin residents are looking for new ways to give back: According to a Google Trends report about business-related searches, Wisconsin was among six U.S. states that Googled “how to start a nonprofit” exceptionally frequently in 2021.

Nonprofit organizations, legal entities that operate for public or social benefit, are a great way to enact change in the community. But launching one – and keeping one afloat – isn’t for everyone. Along with a unique mission and vision, you’ll need a strategy. Here’s what you should know about starting your own nonprofit in Wisconsin.

1. Identify the need

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Passion is a necessary ingredient, but there’s more to launching a nonprofit. Carmen Pitre, president and CEO of Milwaukee’s Sojourner Family Peace Center, says the first step is to do an environmental scan. “Ask yourself: Who’s doing what [I’m] thinking of doing, and why do I think I can do it better? Who would support this idea, and what unique talent do I bring that I think is missing?” If you identify another organization doing what you want to do, it may be better to support their work instead of reinventing the wheel (and competing for already-scarce resources).

Before you attempt to launch your own organization, try immersing yourself in the area you’re interested in. Bryce Lord, associate director at UW-Milwaukee’s Helen Bader Institute for Nonprofit Management, suggests volunteering or working in a similar, existing organization to understand the work involved in building solutions for the population you want to serve.


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2. Build a team to carry out your vision

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Convinced you’re the best person to meet an unmet need? The next step is to clarify your mission – the daily, operational focus that will make a difference – and your vision, or what you want the world to look like when you’re done. Pitre suggests hiring a marketing pro or a nonprofit consultant to help you clarify these.

Once you’ve pinpointed your goals and values, find a board of like-minded people willing to oversee your mission and the organization’s management. Wisconsin requires three unrelated board members, but Pitre suggests a diverse group of nine to 11 individuals with a variety of expertise (marketing, finance and accounting may come in especially handy).

3. Make it official

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After you establish a board, it’s time to incorporate your organization. You’ll need to file for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status with the federal government and register your status in the state. If you plan to fundraise, then you must register with the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions. According to Lord, it can take three to six months to make your organization official. Hiring an attorney can help ensure a smooth process. (Many do pro bono work for nonprofits.)

4. Make it last

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Theoretically, Lord says, you can operate entirely on a volunteer basis. But chances are, you’ll want to take home a salary, and as you grow, you may need to hire staff. That’s where fundraising comes in. Government grants can help, but Lord says they typically account for only about 13% of a nonprofit’s revenue. You’ll make most of your money from fees and services you provide, along with donations. Plan to diversify. “You don’t want all your revenue eggs in one basket,” Lord says. While fundraising plays a big role, remember, the work you do (and how you measure and report your results) is just as important to your organization’s longevity. “It’s my job to help people who care about our work understand how they can invest in making it happen, reporting to them and being accountable to them,” says Pitre.

Photo courtesy of Bridge Builder

One Nonprofit’s Journey: Bridge Builders

KURT OWNES, founder and president of Bridge Builders, officially launched his organization in 2016 – but he began the work of rehabbing homes in struggling Milwaukee neighborhoods long before that. “I didn’t go into it thinking of starting a nonprofit,” Owens says. “I just wanted to fulfill a need in the community.”

Luckily, Owens had an undergraduate degree in business and experience as an entrepreneur and accountant. So when people started approaching him about volunteering and donating, making it official came relatively easily. Along with securing his 501(c)(3) status, he formed a diverse board built around people who had skills (and opinions) he didn’t.

Early on, when he wanted to invest in a house, the Bridge Builders board voted against him. Having his idea shot down wasn’t easy, but Owens says forming a savvy, strategic board was

one of his best moves. “I pounce on opportunities too quickly sometimes, so having a diverse board that understands the community and can tell me ‘no’ when I need it has been imperative for our success.”


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s December issue.

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