Whether I am talking with colleagues, clients, or people who take my workshops and classes, conversations frequently focus on what is wrong with our sector. Note the “our” there—it is important. We have these conversations because we care, passionately, about the work that our nonprofit clients and others do. We think it is important. We want to help make it better. And often we despair.
We despair about the hamster wheel that too many nonprofits are stuck in. The fact that no matter how hard they run, donor attrition still is above 60%. The fact that no matter how much we try to make the numbers look better, donations to nonprofits still hover around 2% of the GDP. And the fact that as in all areas of life, the rich seem to get richer while the poor continue sliding downward.
Dismal. Dismaying. Easy to fall into the trap of ranting about what is wrong without doing anything constructive. Most of the time, after a good whine, we talk about the things that are working; the things we can do or advocate for that might change the sector.
One thing is, I truly believe, to raise the barriers of setting up a 501(c)3 organization.
I teach four online classes (Get Grants!, Introduction to Nonprofit Management, Marketing Your Nonprofit, Fundamentals of Fundraising) that are available through variety of places including libraries, community college and university extension programs, or the company itself. New classes launch every month and over the year, I’ll have hundreds of students. Many of them, alas, are taking the class because “I’ve never worked in a nonprofit and I want to start my own.”
My usual response is “please don’t.” But there is more to it than that. The first is the idea that they nonprofit will “belong” to them. One of the things about nonprofits is that they are NOT owned by the person who started it or even by the board of directors (who are responsible for governing it) but rather, nonprofits belong to the public-at-large. If ownership is what you want, start a for-profit business.
The second is that it is expensive to run a nonprofit and to be effective, a nonprofit must be well resourced. Me and my friend care a lot about….fill in the blank with whatever and want to start a nonprofit to do things for/with/about this group or this issue, sounds wonderful and altruistic. But if you really want to help this cause, that population, look to see who is in your area already doing at least some of what you think you want to do and see if you can form an alliance. That might mean bringing your program over, becoming a staff member, joining their board or simply donating so they can become better resourced.
If you feel that you must start your own, consider forming a strategic alliance with another organization. That might mean co-working space, partnering up for back office support, creating co-supported programs. It could mean finding a fiscal agent.
Of course, not all the problems of the nonprofit sector happen because there are too many nonprofits and too many of them are too small to really make the kind of difference they hope to make. Working to help the sector resolve some of these issues–board development, strategic planning, fund development—is what I and my colleagues try to do.
So after the whining, and after the despair, we roll up our sleeves and take a lesson from all of you who are in the sector as staff, board or volunteers, and get to work.