What I’ve learned about leaving the house with three children under five is that I have to estimate how much time I think something will take, and then multiply it by three. That’s the real time it will take, because there will be at least one shoe to track down, a potty accident, and cat vomit to clean up.
Starting a nonprofit organization also takes lots more time than you might think. It’s like having another baby, one that’s a demanding, complex, beloved organism in its own right, and one that will devour lots of your time and energy.
There are about 1.5 million nonprofits in the US doing amazing, incredible work, led by dedicated people who want to change the world. Running a nonprofit is hard. It’s not a 9 – 5 job, and it means everything from taking care of the finances to evaluating the impact of programs on the ground. Many of these nonprofit organizations have been founded by parents who were inspired, oftentimes by personal experiences, to change the world. But for every nonprofit that thrives, many more struggle along. One of the biggest challenges? Raising money.
I spent ten years working for a foundation, reviewing requests for funding from organizations doing work from improving literacy skills through the arts and poetry, to providing shelter for homeless women. For every grant request the foundation funded, many more were declined. Some funders only have the dollars to support one in ten, or one in fifty, of the requests received. The odds are not good.
If you’re thinking of starting a nonprofit organization, here are a five tips before you take the leap.
1. See who’s out there
Before you fill out the paperwork with the IRS, doing a very thorough search in your community. If you want to start a food pantry, is there one in your neighborhood already? Can (and should) you work with that organization? All types of funders – individuals, businesses, and foundations – will wonder about duplication (if there’s a food pantry two blocks away, why should they fund yours?) and ask what makes your organization unique. Think about how your nonprofit will meet a need in a different way, or address an issue that no one else is addressing, or add something to the universe of nonprofits. If there’s no one doing the work you want to do in your area, but there’s someone doing that same job in another state, you might then reach out to organizations in other communities to see what you can learn from them: how did their community theater or after school arts program get started? What can you learn from their experience?
2. Ask yourself if you want to wear lots (and lots and lots) of hats
Nonprofit founders and leaders don’t just get to do the fun stuff – the programing in the community. They have to get an entire organization off the ground, which means raising money, building a website, putting together a communications plan, and more. Most nonprofit executive directors spend the majority of their time fundraising, getting in those crucial dollars to make the nonprofit machine run.
If you really just want to do the programmatic work – which in itself would probably be a great benefit to your community – you might see if your idea can become a program of another, existing nonprofit that already has an infrastructure in place. Or, you might explore opportunities like The Pollination Project, an organization offering seed funding of $1000 to individuals with plans to change their communities and the world. No 501(c)3 required!
3) Do it for love, not for money
Google “grants” and millions of hits come up. But all those grants have dozens of other applicants vying for the same, limited dollars. Then there’s the foundation world Catch 22: many foundations want to support organizations with a track record, but it’s hard to get a track record without money. So where does that initial money come from? Oftentimes it’s individual donors who provide an estimated 70% of the revenue for nonprofits. While those individual donations may be small, they’re the life blood of nonprofit operations. For the first few years (or maybe longer), unless you have a generous benefactor and seed money, the nonprofit “staff” will probably be incredibly busy, unpaid volunteers.
4) Find dedicated partners
If you fill out paperwork with the IRS to become a 501(c)3 organization, you’ll need to have people willing to serve as board members. Board members are responsible for governance and financial oversight, and founding board members do even more than that: they’re ambassadors to the community for the nonprofit, helping to raise funds and lay the foundation for the organization’s good work. Ideally, the board members would also bring different kinds of expertise, like accounting smarts or PR wizardry, to the organization, and be passionate about the mission. You might find kindred spirits interested in working with you through your church, in your community, or even online. One things for sure: one person can do great work in the community, but you need partners if you’re ready to start a full-blown nonprofit organization.
5) Do your homework
There’s a wealth of information online about creating a nonprofit organization. Cause Planet and the Chronicle of Philanthropy are regular sources of information and news bout the nonprofit sector. The Foundation Center has a list of start up resources from state to state, as legal requirements can vary, and a helpful post with resources. When you are ready to roll with fundraising, check out Razoo or Indiegogo, two crowdfunding platforms.