Three things you can do instead of founding a nonprofit
Some years ago I was teaching an undergraduate class on fundraising at a local university. Courses like that didn’t exist when I was a student. That would’ve been game-changing, considering that I had to cobble together learnings from macroeconomics, microeconomics, accounting, and business pedagogy for a senior project intended to translate those learnings into the nonprofit sector.
The students were bright and asked great questions. After one session, a student approached with an inquiry, and when I asked him to clarify, he responded with enthusiasm: “Because I want to start my own nonprofit.” He explained that this new nonprofit would provide hyper-specialized care to a hyper-select population of women in need.
In his words: Kind of like Planned Parenthood, but totally different. In my words: Identical to Planned Parenthood, with a different logo.
We see a lot of this energy for something new right now—in light of the pandemic, ongoing reckoning with and efforts to address racial injustice and inequity, and all the residual traumas of the past few years —much like we often do after natural disasters, economic downturns, and other national or global experiences. But “new” isn’t always “improved,” and there is something to be said for the experience of experience.
Through experience, we often learn that we can do our best work by being part of something, rather than being our own something.
“It’s never been easier to start a business. That is true,” entrepreneur Greg Hartle said over a decade ago. “But, no one ever tells you the rest of that statement. It’s also never been harder to succeed.” Hartle was talking specifically about the challenges of new startup businesses, especially in an already-crowded field. In the U.S. social sector, there are roughly 1.8 million nonprofits—that’s roughly one organization per 183 Americans.
Numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole truth. Many of these institutions are doing fine work. However, unless the aforementioned student—or any future nonprofit leader—has the solution for the specific cause, it’s best to spend time working within the field before making the leap to incorporating, identifying a board, filing with the state agency and the IRS, putting together an inaugural fundraising plan, crafting a marketing/branding strategy, and so on.
To be sure, there are some fabulous new nonprofits out there. Some have found a niche, aren’t duplicative in their efforts, and have gained traction. I volunteer on the boards of several such organizations because of the founders’ passions. These businesses did it the right way by putting together strong teams that play the long game. Yes, I said businesses. A dangerous number of nonprofit founders don’t fully realize (or choose not to realize) that their burgeoning organization is a business and not simply a weekend passion project. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about half of new businesses survive for five years; just 36 percent make it a decade.
The reasons why so many organizations fail are myriad, such as offering services that overlap with other nonprofits, being slow to leverage technology and sustainable systems, or failing to stay focused on the original impetus for the organization (mission creep).
There are a few alternative options for well-meaning go-getters, and these can be as fulfilling as starting your own organization—without adding to the millions of nonprofits that already exist.
First, volunteer. So many organizations out there need your help and support, and sources like VolunteerMatch, AllForGood, and Idealist can help you find opportunities in your neighborhood. Volunteering is a really great way to learn about what it actually takes to make an organization run, and run well—things like budgeting, internal/external communication, and fostering an inclusive organizational culture.
Then, consider group giving. Get some family, friends, colleagues, and others together and donate funds as part of a giving circle. Sometimes one way we can change the world is not by injecting a new business into the environment but by corralling people—and their financial resources—together to invest in change.
Finally, raise resources as a guest. If neither of the options above are for you, you might consider partnering with a fiscal sponsor that can help you raise tax-deductible resources for your project or cause. Fiscal sponsors can accept donations on your behalf (for a small fee) and get those funds to you without your having to go through the arduous process of founding a nonprofit.
Our sector is crowded and growing—there were 40 percent fewer organizations only a decade ago. And although it’s inspiring to see so many do-gooders committing to social good, competition is real. “As more and more organizations enter the nonprofit arena,” Spencer Creal mused, “attention from donors and volunteers becomes increasingly precious.”
There are many ways to focus and contribute our energy that doesn’t distract and dilute the good work of our sector. And for those who wish to dive further, there are plenty of great resources to help you assess where you are in your process and learn about what makes for an effective nonprofit.