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.”
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 VolunteerMatch, AllForGood, 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 Marshall: make moves, but first take baby steps.