Capacity Building

Healthy watersheds depend on healthy and strong organizations. Around our state, watershed associations are implementing quality programs and advocating for the protection and preservation of the environment. The difficulty is balancing the needs of a growing organization’s operational challenges against an ever growing “to do” list. 

Administrative

Nonprofit organizations strive to achieve a mission and accomplish a set of goals. These goals may include restoring a section of streambank, monitoring water quality, working with a municipality, or hosting an educational workshop. To reach these goals, it is necessary to have more than the knowledge of how to restore a streambank or partner with a municipal official. Nonprofits must also manage their organization’s internal operations and their administrative resources. 

Creating Your Mark in New Jersey

A group of local citizens discovers plans for a new manufacturing facility to be built on the banks of a nearby river, upstream from their residential development. Effluents from the manufacturing process will pollute the river, creating a repugnant odor, and making it unsafe for children to swim and play. The citizens gather together and decide to fight not only the development along the river, but numerous other sources of water pollution as well. This group realizes that the environmental issues in their community are worth the time and investment to continue into the future. To maximize its resources and ensure its survival, this group decides to form a nonprofit organization and become a legally recognized corporation.

The Shield of Protection

Watershed groups are innovators, passionate about their mission, and take the inherent risks needed to protect and enhance local waterbodies. Many activities undertaken by watershed groups have a high potential for risk. For example, youth groups assisting in a streambank restoration project are using equipment (hammers, shovels, stakes) that may result in injury. The injured participant may claim negligence by the sponsoring organization(s) or staff (employee or volunteers) even if the organization and responsible staff ensured all safety measures were followed and volunteer waiver forms signed. Insurance coverage is critical to protect organizations from unforeseen events, but this protection does come at a substantial cost.

Guiding Your Organization’s Decisions

Starting and sustaining a nonprofit can be a lengthy and involved process. Building an organization requires many steps, such as incorporating, writing bylaws, applying for tax-exempt status, and developing personnel procedures. As you begin to consider these issues and chart your organization’s course, you may find yourself asking questions to determine the right path, such as:

  • Should my organization become an incorporated entity?
  • Do I need to file for tax-exempt status?
  • How do I write a Certificate of Incorporation and Bylaws in accordance with state regulations?
  • Should I take a corporation to court, if they have not cleaned up their environmental damage?

When answering these questions, it is often best to obtain legal advice to ensure that your organization takes the right steps to comply with applicable corporate and tax laws and regulations. A lawyer can help in determining which tax-exempt status is appropriate and in confirming that your organization’s Bylaws are prepared properly.

Legal representation has been extremely helpful for many groups. An attorney can aid in preparing legal documents, assisting with open space purchases, obtaining permits, representing a group in court, and much more. Finding the right attorney to work with your nonprofit can help your group obtain these benefits and many others. Using your resources wisely (staff, board, members, etc.) and educating yourself on legal matters are the first steps to forming a long relationship with an attorney who can provide many vital services.

Getting Started

Get names of lawyers who have a good reputation and experience with nonprofits. Obtain referrals from respected nonprofits and also check with the American Bar Association, or your state bar association. Refer to the “Public Resources” section for a list of resources to assist with obtaining legal advice.

When seeking a lawyer, keep the following in mind:

  • Area of expertise. Find a lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced in nonprofit matters. Specifically, seek someone who has experience with the issue at hand.
  • Fees. When contacting lawyers discuss their fees for services. In addition, ask if they offer free consultations or other discounted services for nonprofits.
  • Rapport. After obtaining the names of potential lawyers, be sure to speak with each of them individually to determine how their personality blends with yours. Getting along with your lawyer is just as important as their skill and knowledge.

Lawyers can provide great legal advice and technical expertise. However, this often comes at a price. Ways to reduce fees include:

  • Combine requests. Rather than presenting a lawyer with your Certificate of Incorporation, Bylaws, and application for tax-exempt status individually, work on all three at the same time. The applications are closely related, and you will save time and money in the long run.
  • FeesDo not rely on your lawyer for everything. For example, do research on the issue. Your lawyer will only have to review the document, instead of spending valuable time (and your money) drafting it him or herself.
  • Rapport. Educate Yourself. Read as much as possible on the topic at hand. Ask your lawyer to share his experiences and knowledge. The more you can learn, the less time and money you will have to spend on a lawyer’s advice.
  • Seek pro-bono services. Legal advice can be expensive. However, lawyers or law firms are often willing to provide free (pro-bono) legal services to nonprofit organizations.

In addition to providing guidance on starting your organization, lawyers can contribute legal advice as your group becomes more established. This may be the case with interpreting environmental laws, taking a position on a policy or issue, purchasing open space, forming a lease agreement, obtaining a permit, or developing risk management policies. By forming a relationship with a lawyer early in the life of your nonprofit, it will be easier to seek their advice when encountering legal and tax questions later.

Use caution when consulting directories or referral services. These sometimes refer inquiries to the next lawyer on the list, rather than one with the necessary nonprofit experience.

Following your initial search, you can use the Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory to obtain more information about a particular lawyer. The directory contains the names of most practicing lawyers and provides information on their education, area of expertise, and work experience.

Before contacting firms, ask your colleagues, Board, and members if they can recommend any attorneys that are known to work with nonprofits, environmental issues, and/or watershed associations.

 Further Resources

  • Nolo, Law for All An organization dedicated to explaining legal matters in common terms through publications, forms and their resourceswebsite. Provides a legal encyclopedia, law dictionary, legal research center, and more.
  • The Pro Bono Partnership Offers a complete legal resource center for nonprofits and attorneys, including free legal services to community-based nonprofit organizations, workshops, and materials.

Securing Organizational Benefits

Environmental nonprofits perform a wide range of valuable services to the community. They promote the protection of local waterways and forests, restore polluted or eroded sites and habitats, combat suburban sprawl, offer environmental education programs, and/or develop eco-tourism.

Despite this inspiring potential, most nonprofits have small budgets to carry out their work. Therefore, many organizations would like to solicit donations so they can participate in watershed management activities, address environmental concerns, and engage in education initiatives. One of the best ways for a group to attract donations and accomplish these goals is to obtain tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Filing for tax-exempt status offers several benefits to an organization, including:

  • Public and Private Contributions
  • Exemption from Income Taxes
  • Discounted Rates (postal rates, advertising and registration fees)
Getting Started

Before a group can file for tax-exempt status and take advantage of the associated benefits, there are certain steps it must take. For example, the IRS requires a conformed copy of a group’s Certificate of Incorporation as part of the application process. Therefore, a group must incorporate with their state before it can begin preparing its tax-exempt application. Other requirements include a conformed copy of your Bylaws and a request for an Employer Identification Number (EIN).
There are various tax-exempt status options; the most common is the 501(c)(3) determination. The main advantage to filing as a 501(c)(3) involves tax deductible contributions. A disadvantage involves your group’s political involvement. The IRS limits a 501(c)(3)’s lobbying abilities and other political activities.

Other common alternatives are briefly outlined below. For more information on these options, contact your attorney or tax advisor, or visit the IRS website at www.irs.gov.

  • File as a 501(c)(4). A 501(c)(4) is a type of nonprofit association that is also not required to pay federal income taxes. A 501(c)(4) group must be organized to promote social welfare. Donations to this kind of group are not tax-deductible, however, these groups may engage in lobbying as a primary activity without threatening their tax-exempt status.
  • Form a Sister Organization. If your group is already recognized by the IRS as a 501(c)(3), form a sister group that is a 501(c)(4) organization.
  • Work Under an Umbrella Organization. You can also choose to work under a local umbrella organization that has already filed as tax-exempt.
  • Elect 501(h) status. If you file as a 501(c)(3), your group can elect to follow a different standard called the 501(h) standard, also known as the lobbying expenditures test. The test allows a group to spend a certain amount of its budget on lobbying.

It is important to note that not all activities are appropriate for tax-exempt organizations. To be eligible for federal 501(c)(3) tax-exemption, your group must be organized for charitable, educational, religious, literary, or scientific purposes; or participate in fostering national or international sports competition, preventing cruelty to animals, or testing for public safety. Therefore, when determining which option is best for your group, consider your group’s mission, the types of activities in which your group will participate, and whether or not these activities will be limited by a certain tax-exempt status.

IRS Tax Exempt Government Entity Helpline: (877) 829-5500

Once an organization incorporates, it is important to begin preparing its tax-exempt application. According to the IRS, an application is filed in a timely manner within 27 months of incorporation. This includes a deadline of 15 months after incorporation with a 12-month extension. If your application is filed within this time period, your tax-exempt status is considered retroactive to the date of incorporation. Otherwise, it is effective from the postmark date.

Consult an attorney versed in tax-exemption or the IRS for assistance in determining if your group’s purposes comply with those allowed for tax-exempt organizations.

As of 2006, organizations must file their annual report online. Each year your organization needs to renew your incorporation status. To file electronically, a nonprofit will need to go to the State’s website, http://www.state.nj.us/njbgs/. Failure to file forms and pay the annual fee for two consecutive years results in dissolution of the corporation. 

Further Resources

  • Center for Non-Profits  Provides guidance to charitable organizations on a wide range of issues such as incorporating, obtaining 501(c)resources(3) tax-exempt status, insurance, and board development.
  • USA.gov for Nonprofits Highlights resources in numerous areas of running a nonprofit including tax-exempt status, incorporating, and more.
  • Internal Revenue Service Offers a hotline for questions on nonprofit, tax-exempt matters and allows a group to check the status of its application. Phone: (877) 829-5500
  • IRS Stay Exempt Tax Basics for 501(c)(3)s This website provides online training to help you keep your organization’s exempt status intact. It consists of five interactive courses, which you can take individually and in any order.
Publications

Strength In Numbers

Do you feel like an abundance of ideas and projects, combined with limited time and staff, are causing rough currents threatening to capsize you and your efforts to keep your organization afloat? If so, consider recruiting and utilizing volunteers to help accomplish your goals. Volunteers offer a wide range of ideas, abilities, and backgrounds. They provide the extra support to help you fulfill your mission, thus propelling your organization forward. Volunteers can assist with projects including mailings, streambank restorations, water quality monitoring, filing, trail maintenance, and grant writing.

Getting Started

There are five main components to a successful volunteer management program – project identification, recruitment, retention, recognition, and internal systems. To begin with project identification, compile a list of current projects and determine their suitability for volunteers. Use this list to decide where and how volunteers can help. Then, develop volunteer job descriptions. This allows staff to thoroughly consider and plan how they can use volunteers in a meaningful way. The job description also presents the volunteers with clear expectations of their work.

The key to successful recruitment is to communicate your need for volunteers while generating interest in your organization and its work. Contact schools, community groups, senior centers, and advertise in your newsletter, website, and local papers. Once you have a group of committed volunteers, remember that they give up one of their most valuable assets – time – to work at your organization. Saying thank you and recognizing their hard work is extremely important! Verbally thank them, write thank you letters, and/or hold volunteer recognition events throughout the year. Also remember that a well run volunteer management program considers the organization’s needs as well as the needs of the volunteer. Improve retention by matching a volunteer’s interests and abilities with the right job. Finally, develop a database to organize volunteer contact information and interests. Use this database to recruit volunteers for new projects.

 Helpful Hintshelpful_hint

Volunteers are an invaluable resource to any organization. Therefore, providing training and recognition for their work is vital to ensuring their continued support. Ask current volunteers for feedback on job descriptions, procedures, communication with staff, and recognition. Use their responses to improve your program and volunteer retention. To assist with recruitment, create a volunteer profile form to obtain a volunteer’s contact information and interests. Then, interview prospective volunteers to get a better feel for how they can fit into your organization.

Further Resources

Publications

Need to Know Basics for Managing Volunteers, from the Maine Commission for Community Service. Provides guidelines for developing a successful volunteer program.
23 Ways to Say Thank You, from USEPA’s The Volunteer Monitor. Provides 23 ways to thank and recognize your volunteers.

Education

Environmental education is the key to children developing a positive relationship with the environment, as well as inspiring environmental stewardship in adults. Forming an environmental education program is a beneficial project for the community and future. It helps your group to reach out to the public, spread knowledge, and recruit volunteers, in addition to providing funds and donations. The process of creating education programs takes plenty of planning and funds to get programs off the ground.

Getting Started with an Educational Program

It is important to decide what types of programs your group will offer. When picking topics, think about:

  • Where will staff conduct the programs?
  • Who will teach the programs?
  • What types of supplies will be needed?
  • Where will the organization obtain funding?
  • Who will the programs be geared towards?
  • What is the goal of programs?

Learning from other groups can help you avoid problems and start off your environmental education program on the right foot. The following groups were inspired to have local citizens, especially youth, learn and feel passion for the environment. Here are some examples of how groups started and are running their education programs:

Musconetcong Watershed Association 
In 2001, the Association dedicated to formally create an education program curriculum and integrate it into the budget. Each year, they present four-day programs on water to fifth grade students. They discuss:

  • Water cycle, watersheds
  • Non-point source pollution, how land use affects water
  • Chemical, biological, and visual monitoring

The following links will take you to websites with available materials for developing an environmental curriculum. 

ABCs of Ecology: An Educator’s Guide to Learning Outside
A 230-page book geared primarily toward upper elementary school students, includes hands on activities organized into lessons, experimental activities, and reproducible worksheets.

The following links will provide you with information on where to assemble supplies and materials for environmental programs. 

Acorn Naturalists
Offers trailside and classroom resources and materials for teachers, naturalists, interpreters, parents, and their children. Topics covered include botany, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fresh water and marine ecosystems, art, literature, and gardening.
Phone: (800) 422-8886
E-mail: emailacorn@aol.com

Fundraising & Grants

Money is an overarching major internal concern for groups. Money is needed to obtain dedicated staff, pay the bills, and implement programs that will protect the rivers we dedicate our lives to stewarding. Fundraising is vital to securing the financial needs for the organization, but there are benefits beyond the monetary aspects. Fundraising is a communication, outreach and relationship tool for organizations.

An annual appeal is a special fundraising effort done each year. Its purpose is to raise funds above and beyond any membership and grant funds you may receive.

In addition to raising funds for your organization, an appeal can help in cultivating and enhancing the loyalty of your membership and increasing the number of individuals interested in your cause. For example, an annual appeal provides the opportunity to:

  • Communicate your group’s accomplishments over the previous year.
  • Inform members of new initiatives in the coming year.
  • Upgrade current members’ giving levels.
  • Provide important facts about the watershed where your members live

Watershed groups perform a wide range of valuable services to the community. They work to promote the protection of local waterways and forests, restore polluted or eroded sites and habitats, testify against suburban sprawl, offer environmental education programs, and/or develop eco-tourism in their areas. Despite these inspiring aspirations, most nonprofits have extremely small budgets to implement these activities.

Nonprofits often rely on grant funding to carry out their missions and provide a financial base of support. A strong grant management program, which identifies potential projects and funding sources, clearly states needs and offers solutions, and properly manages their grants, can reap the monetary rewards of grants.

Governance

There is continual struggle to balance energies for completing programs and governing the organization. Therefore, well-structured governance is important to charting a course for the organization. Governance allows a group to identify individuals to serve on the Board of Trustees to oversee and develop the plans and policies for the organization. When new organizations start as completely voluntary, the Board often carries the entire weight of the organization. 

Capturing Your Responsibilities & Organization’s History

Feeling overwhelmed with your organization’s paperwork? Financials are in one pile. The strategic plan is in the blue folder. There are five years worth of meeting minutes. This information needs to be maintained to facilitate the oversight of the organization you care passionately about. Being a board member feels like full time work in addition to your professional and personal life. Board binders are one way to collect the information generated from your nonprofit. In addition to organizing information for yourself, a well designed board binder can serve as a consolidated resource for new board members.

After gaining board approval of your budget, you have a green light to spend and allocate funds throughout your organization. As you spend, keep records of how much money is used for each program or activity. This is essential for preparing financial reports at the end of the year in accordance with the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).

Whether large or small, it is in the best interest of all nonprofits to develop a budget. A budget is a financial plan. A budget is an approved plan for raising funds and spending that provides the financial support to achieve the organization’s annual goals. It is important to itemize how much money is needed to accomplish goal oriented tasks and from where this money will come.

Your Organization’s Backbone

Think of your nonprofit’s work as a journey down a river. A person traveling down a river uses a boat, such as a kayak. For the kayak to operate properly, it needs a strong framework. Your organization needs a strong framework to complete its journey as well. Just as nails hold your kayak’s wood together, Bylaws are the glue that hold your organization together. They provide the framework for the everyday operations of your group, establishing your organization’s internal operating rules and procedures. Just as a boat needs a captain and crew, your organization needs trustees, officers, and staff to accomplish its mission. Bylaws define items such as the term length for your organization’s trustees and the powers and responsibilities of your group’s officers. Bylaws are a basic document necessary to start your nonprofit on its journey.

In addition to establishing terms and responsibilities for trustees and officers, Bylaws define a host of other procedures for your organization, such as whether or not you will have a formal membership. They also restate items from your Certificate of Incorporation, such as your organization’s location and purpose.

Charting Your Organization’s Course

As you set out on a river paddling trip, how do you know which path to take? Where do you launch your boat, stop for rests, or turn down a tributary? Water trail maps help you to make these decisions. A strategic plan is the water trail map for your organization. Developing a strategic plan encourages your organization to evaluate where it is and create a vision for where it’s headed, while also considering external factors that may influence your work. The plan itself tells you how to get from the present to the vision, from your boat launch point to your take-out point. It is a tool to energize and unify your board and staff, open up the channels of communication, encourage creativity in thinking and strategizing, improve your competitive position by demonstrating to funders that you are evaluating your organization, and enhance accountability and demonstrate results.

Program Development

Watershed groups are innovators and regularly form new ideas to best attain and achieve your organization’s mission. Newly formed groups are eager to change the world and have an approach that often involves multiple strategies that they would like to undertake simultaneously. Each day groups strive to find the answers that turn ideas into goals. There is a struggle to nurture environmental stewardship transforming these ideas into sustainable programs. How can we leverage the personnel and financial resources to place the organization and its programs on the map?

Tapping Into Others’ Expertise

Watershed associations work on a variety of projects to protect the health of their watershed. These projects may involve water quality monitoring, streambank restoration, assessing the health of the watershed as a whole, or working with municipalities on local environmental ordinances. As your organization takes on new projects, someone involved in the project should consider assembling and communicating with a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC).

A TAC is a group of outside advisors with relevant expertise that can help you throughout the entire process of a project. The role of the TAC is to provide outside, expert guidance and feedback on the scientific basis, methodology, and results of your project. Their participation will not only help you in the actual execution of your work, but will also lend credibility to your results.

Managing Your Workload

Just as spring sets into motion various activities in nature, it also jump starts the number of activities for watershed groups. From community day events to monitoring stormwater runoff, you hit the ground running to try and accomplish everything that needs to be completed. The high pace of your work, however, continues throughout the year. Grant deadlines, maintenance of membership, and education programs are just a few of the projects that can easily escape your attention until the deadlines rapidly approach. Work plans take a proactive approach, “keeping an eye on the goal,” to manage resources, identify needs, and delegate tasks to ensure activities are successfully completed. Such a document is a valuable tool for efficient and effective program implementation and should be used regularly and consistently as a monitoring tool for projects.

Visibility

Watershed groups cannot achieve their mission without the support of the community. In order to obtain that support, people in the community need to know the organization and understand its mission and programs. When the organization writes an editorial for the local newspaper or distributes educational pamphlets a particular topic/subject the group is increasing its visibility in the region. How the organization packages the information directly affects how the public views the group. 

Increasing Your Organization’s Visibility

Your nonprofit formed to accomplish a set of goals, fulfill its mission, and make a difference on local issues. One of the keys to accomplishing your goals is community support. To keep your organization on a successful course, you need to maintain strong visibility and advertise your organization’s success. Effectively promoting your organization’s achievements will help the public view your group as a leader in the community working on their behalf. Without strong publicity to promote your work, your organization will have more difficulty achieving its goals and reaching its full potential.

Power of Public Participation on Land Use Decisions

A new development proposal was recently submitted to your town’s planning board. The development is along the river and plans to create 60 acres of impervious land cover. The proposal triggers almost every local and state regulation: stream encroachment, wetlands, soil suitability, steep slopes, and endangered species.

Land use changes do not happen randomly. They are planned and outlined according to specific rules in your community and may involve state regulation approvals. If you have concerns about development issues in your community get involved! Depending on the issue, your concerns may be addressed through a few phone calls. However, for more complex projects, your participation may be more lengthy and valuable!

Giving Voice to Your Organization

Communicating who you are and what you do is one of the most important skills a nonprofit organization can learn. New Jersey’s environmental nonprofit world is populated with small and large groups like yours doing the important work of protecting, preserving, maintaining and monitoring our natural resources. Often, the viability of these groups depends on communicating their success stories to members, funders, and partners.

An organizational newsletter can be a great communication tool, but be sure to plan yours well.
A bad newsletter may be worse than no newsletter!