Having been a non-profit executive for over 15 years, I am always encouraged and amazed at the number of people who tell me they have, or want to start a non-profit organization. With enthusiasm they excitedly tell me their dreams of helping others and making a difference in society. They go on to regale me with stories of the people they’ve helped, or dream of helping and the important work their non-profit will do in their area of concern.
In today’s world of SLA, status liking activism (liking a status or social media post in fulfilling your duty as a change agent) there are too many people who complain about a situation, without offering any viable solutions that doesn’t consist of what “they” need to do to fix it. For that reason, I applaud those nonprofit hopefuls who are willing to actually do something to address an issue in their community. However, after being in the trenches for a large part of my professional career, I think there needs to be a clearer understanding of what makes a nonprofit organization viable, and what doesn’t.
Hence, SO WHAT, You started a non-profit.
I get that you want to see the kids in your neighborhood have a safe recreational facility after school. I get that you want to advocate and be a voice for domestic violence survivors. I get that you recognize the benefits of artistic expression in developing young minds. I get that helping build sustainable food systems through box gardens speaks to your inner farmer. HOWEVER, I don’t get why so many people believe that starting a non-profit is no more than getting a business card, creating a Facebook page then inundating everyone’s timeline with posts about the one afterschool event they hosted two year’s prior.
Unfortunately, for as many people as I’ve met who have legitimate non-profit ideas and the commitment to see them through, I’ve met just as many who think starting a non-profit is a means to 1. Make a come up, (translation, see themselves in a higher position than they currently are.) 2. Put a few dollars in their pockets, at the expense of those they are serving. (This burns me to NO end) 3. As not a real job, therefore there is no need to create a non-profit that has structure, accountability and results. Whew, now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, let’s get to the meat of this.
If you want to start a results oriented non-profit, here are three essential questions you need to ask yourself BEFORE you take the plunge.
- Do I have what it takes for the long haul? I know this seems like a no brainer. However, far too many people start a non-profit without asking themselves this simple question. This means, at your core, do you have what it takes to invest the time, energy, financial resources (often those of your own) and personal commitment needed to at times see only incremental change? More often than not, people start a nonprofit only to find out that making any real impact takes a lot of time, patience and hard work, much more than they had envisioned. Furthermore, when they engage the community of concern in their “great idea,” without the foresight, stamina and resources to see it through, they reignite a cycle of disillusionment for people who time and time again have been sold a “great story” about how an organization wants to help them, yet at the first sign of trouble, usually financial, throw in the towel and close shop without so much as a goodbye.
- Are you willing to gain the experience and expertise necessary to become the solution to the problem you want to address? This too seems like a no brainer. However, there are many nonprofit organizations that are not functional because the person at its helm has a vision but no experience, nor understanding of the complexities of addressing the issue they want to be solution to. Just because you’ve read that box gardening is an excellent way to engage communities and feed the poor, doesn’t mean you have the ability to execute that strategy within your non-profit. Now here’s a caveat, just because you don’t have the ability now, there is nothing stopping you from connecting with those who do, learning from them and then partnering with them to help you do the same thing. The point is, you do need qualify yourself first, before you try to help someone else.
- Would it make more sense to collaborate with another organization rather than starting your own? I am a firm believer in collaboration. Too often nonprofits are started from the rationale, “no one is doing anything about this,” yet they haven’t done the necessary research to find out what really is happening, past what they’ve read on social media. When this occurs, you find organizations that would be a better fit as a program within an organization, rather than a standalone. I know you want to start your own nonprofit; however, the first sign of organizational immaturity is an unwillingness to allow the mission to be more important than the vehicle that drives it.
In short, the desire to start a nonprofit organization is commendable. A willingness to become a change agent in a society that has increasingly left the real work of change to others is a characteristic that is needed and should be encouraged. As you ponder next steps in developing your nonprofit organization, I ask that you ask yourself the aforementioned questions and if you can realistically answer yes to each one, you have 3 important components in creating an impactful nonprofit organization that will truly be a viable resource for those in need.
Kareemah El-Amin is a critically acclaimed non-profit professional/expert, speaker, psalmist, and author of the soon to be released book, The Two Became One. Her most recent endeavor, Rhema Word Publishing, is a book publishing company specializing in helping people write books with what they already know. You can reach her at www.kareemahelamin.com – www.facebook.com/kareemah.elamin.