A non-profit organization is, at its core, a group of individuals united in their work towards a particular mission. Tax-exempt status, tax deductible registration and incorporation are common steps in starting a non-profit. However, each of these legal statuses run up fees for applications, accountants and lawyers. The best way to avoid these fees and start a non-profit organization for free is to limit what types of legal status you seek.
Draft a mission statement. This is the basis of all further documentation and activities of your organization. Write no more than two sentences, but try to stick to one. Mission statements should be broad enough that they will not need to change in the future; more an expression of overarching values than exact goals. Begin with an infinitive verb -- to preserve, to protect, to encourage, to support -- that widely depicts what your group will do. Include the constituents your organization will serve and where these efforts will be focused.
Research other non-profits with a similar purpose or that operate in your chosen geographic area. Determine how many board members oversee each group and what their areas of specialty are. Look for patterns in the type of individuals that serve on these boards. Obtain copies of other organizations' by-laws.
Determine how many and what type of individual will make up your non-profit's board based on your research. Include general, function-related positions, such as president, treasurer and secretary, as well as other specific positions, such as volunteer director, public relations coordinator, or fundraising director. Approach individuals in your own network or who you have discovered in your research until your board membership is complete.
Convene your board to draft the organization's by-laws, which dictate the structure of your board and the operations of your organization. Schedule the meeting for two to four hours. Compile examples you have gathered in your research and find additional examples online. Read each set of by-laws and compile a preliminary list of language you find appropriate and sections you would like to include in the by-laws. Print a copy of these materials for each board member and bring them to your board meeting. Work with the other board members to settle upon a set of by-laws and obtain a two-third majority vote to approve them.