We Don’t Need Yet Another Nonprofit Right Now

Note: Originally posted in 2018, it felt timely to refresh this piece in light of the global pandemic inspiring people to found even more nonprofits.

Several years ago I was teaching a class on fundraising for a local university. Bright kids, good questions. After the session, one student approached with an inquiry, and when I asked her to clarify, she responded: “Because I want to start my own nonprofit.” 


Disappointment, personified.

I’m not (generally) one to crush dreams, though in that moment I felt like The Hulk — smash! The student explained what her new nonprofit would do, which was to provide hyper-specialized care to a hyper-select population of women-in-need. In her words: Kind of like Planned Parenthood, but totally different. In my words: Identical to Planned Parenthood, with a different logo.

We are seeing this a lot right now, in light of COVID-19, much like we often do after natural disasters, economic downturns, and other national or global experiences. On nonprofit whisperer Joan Garry’s Facebook group, Your Thriving Nonprofit, we see dozens of posts about this each week — eager, emerging nonprofiteers who have so much energy, they want to get out and do their own thing. They are everywhere, and truth be told, many of them are great colleagues with reasonably good intentions.

However… there is something to be said for the experience of experience, through which we often learn about doing our best work by being part of something, rather than being our own something. [Aside: If any of you have seen the movie SLC Punk, after years of fighting the legal establishment, the main punk yields, and becomes 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 nearly 30,000 nonprofits. That’s nearly one organization per 160 people — numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole truth. Many of these institutions are doing great work. However, unless the aforementioned student or other NPO founders have the answer to whatever cause they want to support, I feel compelled to encourage them to spend time working within 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 boards for several such organizations, and got involved because of the founders’ passion. These organizations did it the right way by putting together strong teams that play the long game.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, if you must — and I mean absolutely must, lest your soul depart your body — do something, you have options which don’t involve adding to the ~1.6 million nonprofits which already exist in the U.S.:

  • First and foremost, volunteer! So many organizations our there need your help, and sources like VolunteerMatchAllForGood, and Idealist can help you find opportunities nearby.
  • Get some family, friends, colleagues, etc. together and raise/donate funds as part of a giving circle.
  • If neither option above are your speed, you can identify and partner with a fiscal sponsor to help you raise tax-deductible resources for your project or cause.

I suppose that’s the big takeaway. Unlike Paul Rudd from that scene in Forgetting Sarah Marshallmake moves, but first take baby steps.




An Analysis of Why This Will All Probably, Maybe be Sorta Fine for Nonprofits, Based on Science and Facts

Nonprofiteers… we have nothing to worry about. Trust me, I am a thought leader. I have looked at the numbers, and the situation is looking incredibly rosy. In particular, the Dow index on February 13 was well over 29,000. Any reporting on the numbers since then is false news. You can see for yourself, here:


Why is this important? Well of course, the economy is booming. Companies are all roaring and open for business! With more Americans currently at work than ever before, that means they are bringing home significant financial resources, which means they are donating more money to nonprofits. We know this is true, because science. Come 2021, GivingUSA will show this as the most successful philanthropic year in history, period.

I have heard a number of my colleagues in the nonprofit sector arguing signs of caution. Literally there are dozens of hyper-liberal opinion pieces out there trying to instill fear and organizational rioting in our industry. They are all “turning on the news” and “talking to donors” and “seeing the impact of a catastrophic global health crisis” and are, in my opinion, being a bit dramatic. Even if things were rough right now — and I am not saying they are — that’s no reason to start panicking. We need to let the next five to 10 years play out before we make any rash decisions about spending, hiring, strategic planning, programmatic expansion, capital campaigns, etc.

As a point of grace, we should look to the periods of time in our great American history when our economy was strongest, like the late-1920s, 1940s, early 1980s and the late 2000s. What happened during these times? Did we retrench? Did we pause? No. We were America, and we are America. So hear me when I say, we have nothing to worry about, because facts.

UpdateEvidently there is a pretty massive pandemic wreaking havoc on the entirety of the world right now, so please disregard.