Photo courtesy of Case Foundation.
I’ve heard lots of people fret over the list of issues with my generation - we're unprofessional, we're entitled, we're always online, we're slacktivists...I'm not so worried about those things. I think we'll work that out. But there is something about my generation that actually kind of gets my goat. When a bright, passionate, innovative Millennial sees a problem, I don't think starting a nonprofit should be the default solution. This might not be popular among my nonprofit-starting group of friends and peers, so I should say, not just for them, that sometimes starting your own nonprofit is the right choice...but often it's not.
I know the thought process because I've been through it too. You want to help people. You're good at your current job and sometimes feel underutilized and underappreciated at your organization. You look elsewhere, but you can't get a job doing exactly what you want to do at exactly the level you deserve because turns out lots of other young people with great experience, master's degrees, and fathers with Senate seats and Fortune 500 companies want those same things too. But you don’t need to beg to for permission to make an impact as part of some old person’s nonprofit, you can just start your own – and it will be better. It will focus on the issue you care about most, you'll be the boss, you can set your own office culture and, odds are, you'll even make a name for yourself.
Ok, it's not just that you want to skip ahead to the CEO title. You have some really innovative ideas, you’re frustrated with the way some of the old, bureaucratic nonprofits function and you want to make a difference. Today. And it’s not all our fault. We are being encouraged by Boomers who set up awards and fellowship programs to recognize young people who are starting new organizations. I googled "how to start a nonprofit" and got 44 million returns. You people have to stop.
Before you start designing your new nonprofit’s logo, ask yourself a few questions to determine if that’s the best thing:
- Is another organization already doing something like this?
There are roughly 1.5 million nonprofits today, with about 50,000 new ones created each year. Jack Siegel of Charity Governance Consulting estimates that creating a nonprofit costs roughly $5,000. That means that each year $250 million is spent just creating nonprofits – and that’s before they spend a dime actually helping people. Do a quick landscape assessment and really know your facts on who else is doing something similar.
Late last year, public service expert Paul Light predicted that 100,000 nonprofits will have to close their doors before 2011. Paul Lamb's recent article suggests that with one nonprofit for every 300 people in this country, we don't need more NGOs, just more efficient ones. This is not a new problem. Nonprofits of the same type often replicate services and compete for resources when they should be cooperating, whether it’s five after-school clubs in the same small town or 500 documentaries and studies about how Millennial civic engagement during the Obama campaign was something special. But with an oversaturated market and an economic crisis, your nonprofit will be competing with lots of existing organizations for scarce funds. And without an established track record it's going to be tough to convince new donors you're worth the risk.
What about competition? Shouldn’t the market decide? Sure, and it will. But not before time and money is wasted where it could have been better spent working together.
- If there are others doing something similar, and there almost always are, how would you do it differently?
Take some time examining what they’ve done, and do a quick SWOT analysis of your idea. Start a conversation with them. Learn from their barriers, successes and challenges. Whether you would do it differently or not, this leads me to question #3.
- What can you do to support existing organizations?
If there's not actually much you would do differently, you can get deeply involved by volunteering with them or fundraising for them. You can raise thousands of dollars for a cause you care about through Causes on Facebook by designating a beneficiary you trust.
I went to a small fundraiser this year where a group of Millennials was raising money for a new nonprofit they were starting to help former child soldiers. They were in the early stages of making a documentary about child soldiers, intended to raise awareness and funds to help the children with education and rehabilitation. The thing is, I've already seen this documentary. It's called Invisible Children. I left the fundraiser without giving any money because even though it felt awkward and I am touched by the issue, I could not justify funding a movie just so they could say they've made a documentary. I’m not trying to be Ebenezer Scrooge here, and I love seeing my peers passionate about a cause, but it seems their time and energy could be better spent if they held a fundraiser for Invisible Children or tried to work with UNICEF or another existing organization that addresses the reintroduction of child soldiers and refugees. Reinventing the wheel in this case doesn’t seem to be the best or quickest way to get support for those that really need it.
If a similar organization exists and fits your mission but you have innovative strategies that would benefit them, try talking to them about how you can help. I know this isn't easy, and I would like to take this opportunity to plead with existing organizations to be open to our generation, our ideas and innovations. Kiva didn’t invent microfinance, but they are largely responsible creating a new buzz around it and introducing a lot of average people to the practice. I’m sure there are microfinance organizations who wish the Kiva people had come to them to collaborate. Bringing your project under an existing organization will give you an instant audience and allow you to skip over a lot of hurdles to the core of what you want to do.
If you still insist that your project is too different to fit within an existing organization, try to find an incubator or fiscal sponsor like the Tides Center or the Echoing Green Fellowship, which can provide guidance and backoffice support.
- Do you have a real sense of how hard this is going to be?
Starting a nonprofit is not like starting a band in high school. You're going to need a board, bylaws, a budget, articles of incorporation, all kinds of tax exemptions, and major fundraising. Not everyone has the appetite and skill set required to get a nonprofit up, running and sustainable. If you think filing your taxes every April is confusing, navigating the paperwork for getting a 501(c)3 is going to be a nightmare. Even after you jump through the hoops of setting it up, you’ll have to comply with strict reporting and management procedures to keep it.
Since I’ve only had limited experience with this grueling process, I asked my friend David Smith, who founded Mobilize.org in 2002, for his take. He said, “The entrepreneurial spirit of the Millennial Generation is strong, and this often leads to us starting nonprofit organizations rather than working through existing ones. Although this may be helpful at times and yield greater social innovation for the sector, the sheer paperwork and reporting requirements necessary to start new legal entities often turn social entrepreneurs into desk jockeys. It is important for young, passionate leaders to focus on what excites and fuels them. Spend your time building houses, solving climate change, and making our generation fiscally literate, and leave the IRS Form 1023s and 990s to established organizations with the capacity to manage the legal and financial headaches.” Consider the fact that the actual process of starting a nonprofit could hinder your ability to do the work you're really excited to do.
- Why do you want to do this?
This one is touchy. I understand not wanting to put your blood, sweat and tears into a mission you don't believe in. And I understand wanting to get credit for hard work and innovative ideas you've put in, but the reality is that it doesn't have to be yours to be good. If you're tempted to start a nonprofit, I'm guessing that you see a need in your community or in the world, and you want to use your unique ideas, talents and perspective to do your part and meet the need. I love that about our generation, but starting a nonprofit should not be the default solution. Push your creativity and your humility, and you may just find an even better way to change the world.