Is Starting a Nonprofit for You?

“This dream of theirs is just that. Most of them don’t even have anything written down that they can present to me. They don’t have even a starting point yet. But they have the passion. They have the dream.”

Jim Maltry, SCORE Cincinnati

And many times the people who have the dream do not wind up creating a nonprofit. I agree with the article–that’s not necessarily a bad thing–but it’s important to understand why that is and how you can go from dream to functional organization.

Is the nonprofit itself a good idea?

Starting and running a nonprofit organization is a lot of work, and I think it makes sense at the beginning to decide whether or not what you want to do will work. If you’re thinking about it, I recommend asking yourself these questions:

1. Do you do something unique compared to the other organizations around you?

Often, people think of non-profits as somehow separate from the world of business. I don’t see it that way. Nonprofits have to deal with many of the same issues for-profits do, and one of those issues is competition. If you duplicate something that an already-established organization does, you might be better off working with them instead. Duplicate organizations compete with each other for donors and grant dollars, and that may lead to each organization being less effective than it could be without its competitors.

2. Is this organization aimed at a recent disaster or tragedy?

Sometimes a tragic event can cause an outpouring of support and assistance. There are others who disagree with me on this, but I’m generally not a fan of creating an organization in response to a specific event. Here’s why:

  • Other relief organizations already have assets in place to assist; if the disaster spurred you to create an organization, odds are you probably don’t.
  • Putting together an organization takes time. Governance structures, legal entity creation, and tax-exemption application are all important steps, and it really can’t (and even if it can, it shouldn’t) be done overnight.
  • Organizations that appear in response to a disaster are more likely to be scammers. Obviously, not everyone falls into that category, but that perception can hinder your efforts.

Short version: when a disaster or tragedy occurs, help through reputable, established organizations.

 

3. Do you have a plan?

I think that business plans can be helpful for a new (or established) business. It’s not so much that I think you need to have this pretty report with cool charts and graphs, but rather that putting together the business plan is serious work. It forces you to think about your business, and seriously answer questions like:

  • What is my business going to do?
  • Who will my business help?
  • Who is going to buy my product?
  • How will my customers know I exist?
  • How much money does the business need to keep running?
  • Who is going to run the business?
  • What competition does my business face?

Those questions, with minor modifications, can be asked of non-profits quite easily:

  • What is my organization’s mission?
  • Who will my organization help?
  • Who will donate to support my organization’s mission?
  • How will my organization’s potential donors and potential clients know I exist?
  • How much money does the organization need to accomplish its mission?
  • Who will be responsible for leading the organization?
  • What other organizations are doing the same thing my organization is doing?

I think that even if you don’t put together a pretty report with cool charts and graphs, I recommend writing your answers out. Putting the answers in writing focuses and clarifies your answers.

Is starting a nonprofit a good idea for you?

Also, starting a nonprofit organization isn’t for everyone. If you’re going to lead the organization, here’s what you should be asking yourself:

1. What skills do you and the other people involved bring to the organization?

In the early days of an organization, the people running the organization are usually the people that are working directly on doing the work. Later on, you might have people that manage the organization, staff, and volunteers, but in my experience, it usually doesn’t start that way. However, the startup phase is where a lot of the groundwork is laid–so the skills of you and your team are very important.

What kind of skills should you be looking for?

  • Management: At the board level, you want to have someone who can make high-level management decisions. In the beginning, those same people might also need to be able to lead others, both staff and volunteers.
  • Fundraising: Almost every mission requires some money to be accomplished. Without money, an organization is bound to fail. People with connections throughout the community and the ability to raise funds are vital to almost every organization’s success.
  • Finance: That money you need to bring in needs to be tracked. Even if you need help creating financial reports, it’s important to have people that can understand them on board.
  • Legal: Organizations can run into a variety of legal issues. It’s great to have your very own expert on board, or at least someone who may be able to recommend outside lawyers.

2. Have you (or at least someone involved in your organization) done work in the area you want to serve already?

If your organization wants to complete a certain mission, it’s reasonable to expect someone in the organization to have some experience executing the mission. This will help you understand what resources you need, the logistical issues you face, and the challenges of completing that mission. If the answer to this question is “no,” maybe now isn’t the time. If you don’t have this, you might be better off volunteering for a similar organization to learn about how to better fulfill your mission.

3. How will you support yourself during the start-up phase?

When you start a for-profit business, money doesn’t just appear out of nowhere; you need customers who want to trade money for whatever you sell. It’s a similar idea for a non-profit; money won’t just appear. You’ll have to get people to donate, and to do that, they have to believe that you will handle their donation wisely. That requires trust, and that doesn’t appear overnight either. I’d suggest to you that’s even harder than starting a business, because when you accept a donation, you have nothing to give in return. Money may be hard to come by early on in the organization’s life, and if you plan to work full-time for the organization and be paid, you may find life very difficult in the early stages.

Starting a nonprofit organization is not impossible, but it does require an honest assessment of your chances of creating something successful. If you’re gone through this assessment and you are confident in your project, then you likely have a good foundation for success. If not, you may need to make some adjustments before going forward.

Note: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on my firm’s website, attorneykevinkelly.com. I have updated the post for posting here. Enjoy!

Photo credit, Tim Gouw, via Unsplash.com, licensed under CC-0

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