More than 7,000 nonprofit organizations call Washington home. That may sound like a crowded field, but it's still possible for a small crew of concerned citizens to launch a charitable group. Here's how to turn a good idea into a professional do-gooder operation.

FILL A NICHE. Make sure other organizations aren't already doing what you want to do, in the way you want to do it. One place that can help you ensure your idea is original: Idealist.org, which has a database of nonprofit groups that you can search for by state. "It's always good for the growth of your group if you can find out what your community needs," said Jason King, founder of Turning the Page, a D.C.-based volunteer organization that helps improve public schools. If it's an old problem that you're trying to solve -- e.g. poverty or hunger -- be sure you have a new and better way of tackling it, says Nicole Lester, co-founder of DC Young Nonprofit Leaders, a group that provides professional development and social networking opportunities to nonprofit employees. "The community's not going to give you money over the Girl Scouts, who've been around for years," she says.

DO THE FORMALITIES. Just like Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits also need people to make strategic decisions. Choose board members who share your vision, whether they are friends or fellow professionals. "We put postings on Craigslist.com and Idealist.org, asking people to send resumes," Lester says. Once you have the seats on your board filled, the group's first task should be setting up rules (aka bylaws) that dictate how your group will be run. If you need bylaw templates, check out www.lectlaw.com. Another good resource: "The Nonprofit Handbook: Everything You Need to Know to Start and Run Your Nonprofit Organization" by Gary M. Grobman (White Hat Communications, $29.95), which can help you navigate the nonprofit sector.

DON'T FORGET THE PAPERWORK. You will need to register your business as a corporation in the locale where you set up shop. If your base is in the District, go to brc.dc.gov/nonprofit/nonprofit.asp. If you live in Virginia, check out the Virginia State Corporation Commission Web site at www.scc.virginia.gov. For Marylanders, incorporation information is at www.dat.state.md.us. You'll also want to file for nonprofit, 501(c)(3) status with the IRS, to avoid paying taxes on the funds that you raise. All of the forms you need to do this can be downloaded from www.irs.gov.

GET THE COMMUNITY BEHIND YOU. Local charities need to know the neighborhood they're trying to help -- meet as many residents, business owners and community leaders as you can. Join your local chamber of commerce and go to the meetings. "You have to establish trust and show people that you do good work," says King. If you are aiming at a wider audience -- say you want to work on a political issue, or overseas development -- find the opinion leaders in your field and seek their counsel.

FIND FUNDING. The best way to raise seed money -- and get the word out about your work -- is to hold a fundraiser, says King. "Our first event was a pool tournament. We sold tickets to our family and friends and raised about $1,000," he says. Asking foundations for funds is the next step. For a membership fee, the Foundation Center (www.fdncenter.org) will let you research groups in your area, and the site offers tutorials on writing effective proposals. Money, of course, isn't the only way people can support you. Many people will offer to donate their services upon hearing about your work. Lester got a local Web designer to do her nonprofit's site, www.dcynl.org, for free. The bottom line is this: If you support your fellow businessmen, they'll often return the favor.

-- Michelle Hainer

Lions and tigers and cheetahs, oh my! D.C. public school students and their families walked with the animals at the National Zoo, thanks to Turning the Page, a local nonprofit that arranged for a guided tour.JASON KING

... organized a pool tourney to jump-start Turning the Page.