(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)
How to Give is a biweekly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers.
This week’s question:
What would be your advice for starting an organization from ground zero for a specific issue?
My advice is simple. Don’t do that.
First of all, competition is fierce. There are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in America. For comparison sake, there are only about 70,000 bars in America, and think about how ubiquitous those feel.
So go out onto the corner and multiply the number of bars you see by 21 and think about what it would feel like to open up a bar on that newly envisioned corner. That’s what you’re up against in the charitable marketplace, because foundations and donors range from local to regional to national, and you’re going to need all of those levels of support to survive.
Let’s make the assumption that your heart is in the right place and you want to start your own nonprofit because there is a cause that you are passionate about, and there is a problem that you think you can solve. You want to fix something.
Why can’t you fix it within an organization that already exists? If you’re currently employed in a different sector, what’s holding you back from making a real commitment of your time and donating some skilled volunteering time with a local nonprofit in your cause area?
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Because if there are 1.5M nonprofits operating in the US, then there must be at least one or two or 70 that are working within your cause area.
Now, will those nonprofits be working in your specific geographic region? Maybe not.
If they are, will they be hiring for someone who has your passion and skill set? Probably not.
Will they be solving the problem the exact way that you think it should be solved? Almost certainly not!
And this gets to the real crux of the challenge: Starting your own nonprofit comes from a place of ego. And that’s okay, as long as you acknowledge it.
Like Apple said, “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.” Starting your own nonprofit is tantamount to saying, “I see a thing that needs to change and I’m the only one in the world that has the chutzpah to change it.”
If that’s how you’re feeling, then let’s drill down on your internal and external resources. Before you start planning for the time-consuming tasks of building a board, applying for nonprofit status and investing in donor relationship software, consider the following:
- What makes you and your ideas unique?
- How is your solution better or more actionable than the current ones in the marketplace?
- Are you 100 percent certain that your ideas have not already been tested out by a currently operating organization?
- Do you have unique financial resources that cannot be deployed within an existing organization?
In other words, have you done your research?
Because starting a nonprofit is easy. Sustaining one is harder.
My advice is to find a nonprofit that works in your cause area, or as close to it as possible, and request a meeting with their programming officer. Explain the specific challenge you’re trying to tackle, and learn about their experience working in the space.
Maybe they already tried what you’re proposing, but didn’t have the peoplepower to make it work. Maybe it is an entirely new idea, and they’re totally jazzed about it. If so, then you move onto the next step …
Your idea will require funding, so you can pitch it to this nonprofit as a “project” under their existing 501(c)3 status, which may help you with getting grants and other funds needed to start a pilot phase. Exempting a few seed money-motivated funders, foundations are much more likely to fund projects under established nonprofits.
So go out there and get the money! Money talks in the nonprofit world. If you can prove that your idea has legs, has funders and has a plan for sustainability, then you’ve got a really good case to start up a new program within an existing organization.
Try that first. It is a more effective way to be the change you want to see in the world. But it won’t have the sparkle and glory surrounding it that “Joshua Smith, Founder and Director of Someplace.org” has and you’ll have to be okay with that.
And if you’ve already tried this tactic and the organizations you approached shut you down, closed you out, or wouldn’t give you the time of day? Then screw ‘em. Bring your idea to your local community foundation, start asking your friends and family for start-up cash, and bootstrap it that way.
Because if there truly isn’t any other partner out there willing to try what you want to try, then heed the words of my favorite, affable, elephant-riding conqueror friend Hannibal: “I shall either find a way, or I shall make one.”
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