About a year ago I was teaching a class on fundraising for a local university. Bright kids, good questions. After the session, they worked on an assignment, and I lingered to help out. Not after too long, one student approached with a question that didn’t really fit the scope of the class. When I asked her to clarify, she responded: “Because I want to start my own nonprofit.”
I’m not one to crush dreams, though in that moment I felt like the Hulk (smash). She went on to explain what her nonprofit would do, which was to provide super-specialized care to a hyper-select population of women-in-need. Essentially, Planned Parenthood with a different logo.
We see this a lot in the field. Eager, emerging nonprofiteers who have so much energy, they just want to get out and do their own thing. They’re everywhere, and truth be told, many of them are great, energizing colleagues. BUT. I believe wholly in the process of experience, through which we often learn about doing our best work by being part of something, rather than being our own something. [Aside: At the end of the movie SLC Punk, after years of fighting the establishment, the main punk yields and decides to become a lawyer, noting: “We can do a hell of a lot more damage in the system than outside of it.”]
In Houston (Harris County) where I live, there are over 26,000 nonprofits. That’s nearly one organization per 175 people — numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole truth. Many of these institutions are doing fine work, great work. However, unless this student herself had the answer to all women’s reproductive issues — and I doubt she did — I felt compelled to encourage her to spend some time working in and around the field. You know, before making the leap to incorporating, identifying a board, filing with the state/IRS, putting together an inaugural fundraising plan, crafting a marketing/branding strategy, etc., etc., etc.
There are some great, new nonprofits out there. Some have found a niche, aren’t duplicative in their efforts and have traction — I volunteer on the board for one such organization, and got involved because of the founder’s passion. We did it the right way by putting together a strong team that is playing the long game. I suppose that’s my takeaway: make moves, but first take baby steps.