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Home > The Gateways Network > Tools > Water Trail Toolbox > Planning a Water Trail > Water Trail Toolbox: Formalizing the Organization
Water Trail Toolbox: Formalizing the Organization

As your work proceeds from planning into implementation and long-term management, you will need a more formal and durable organizational structure to manage the organization. Implementing plans, raising and spending funds, generating and managing volunteers and staff members—all require day-to-day and long-term managerial skills.

First, decide what the real work of your group is going to be. Is your group really a coalition or alliance of partners? Could one partner serve as coordinator and another as the fiscal agent and fundraiser?

Will a state, regional, or local agency eventually become responsible for managing the trail? If so, will your group focus primarily on support, such as organizing volunteers, inviting public involvement, and raising money for special projects? That type of venture might be called a “friends group,” a nonprofit organization called a 509 (a) organization by the Internal Revenue Service that is closely associated with a public agency and can accept charitable donations. Friends groups often form later in the whole process, after a trail has already been established.

Here are two options to consider:

1. Partner with an Existing Organization

Using an existing nonprofit organization, such as a land trust or another trail group, to build and manage your water trail is not uncommon. An agreement could allow both organizations to share such resources as office space, equipment, and administrative services. You also could obtain many nonprofit advantages without the need to apply for your own 501c3.

Many successful nonprofit organizations begin as a project of another organization. Before agreeing to a joint venture, however, make sure the partner organization is one whose mission and interests are sufficiently supportive of water trails. Be sure there is a clear understanding of the roles of each entity. Talk with local and state agencies and conservation organizations--and seek legal advice.

2. Establish a New Nonprofit Organization

Creating a newly chartered nonprofit organization with a board of directors and an executive director and staff has several advantages, especially in raising funds. An uncomplicated, single-named organization enhances public recognition when you approach landowners, public agencies, other organizations, and potential donors. Get legal assistance to make sure your organization has met all of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and state requirements to qualify as a tax-exempt 501c3 entity.

Roles and Responsibilities

Whether you decide to become a friends group, part of a coalition, or a project of an existing nonprofit organization, the board of directors or executive committee will be accountable for overseeing the organization's budget, planning, operating policies, personnel matters, projects, and financial stability.

Be careful to recruit board members who have the skills and enthusiasm to pursue the organization's mission. Look for water trail enthusiasts who are also accountants, public relations professionals, engineers, planners, attorneys, or community leaders.

The evolution of most boards of directors follows a three-step pattern:

1. Steering Committee

Sometimes the people who are most helpful initiating the water trail effort do not want to be involved in building and managing the trail. Public officials and business leaders, for example, might be willing to serve on the steering committee during the trail's formative stages, but they might not have the time to serve on the board of directors.

2. Working Board

Most young water trail organizations have few or no staff members. The board of directors has to tackle everything from answering the mail to writing newsletters, from keeping the books to choosing access sites along the trail. At this point, board members must have the time, energy, and interest to keep the project moving forward.

3. Governing Board and Staff

At some point in their development process, many trail organizations become staff-led operations. This does not mean that the board is absolved of responsibility. It means the role of the board changes. The board delegates program implementation and decision-making authority to an executive director and staff. The board now focuses its attention on planning, fundraising, and governance of staff activities.

The executive director hires, fires, and directs all staff members. Board members approve budgets and employment polices, adopt strategic and operating plans, and accompany staff members at meetings with potential donors.

How Boards Work

One of the most convenient ways for boards to work is to form permanent committees responsible for management policies, finances, and personnel and to form temporary committees to oversee special projects and studies.

Other Sites of Interest:

  • IRS Publication #557, “Tax Exempt Status for Your Organization
  • Center for Non-Profit Management
  • Institute for Conservation Leadership
  • Compass Point Non-Profit Services
  • Internet Non Profit Center
  • Support Center for Non Profit Nourishment

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