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Please, Don’t Start a Nonprofit

As I write this, I’m about to begin writing a new book in collaboration with a partner that’s been a nonprofit leader in the fundraising and donor management space for more than 30 years. I look forward to writing more about it in the coming weeks and months ahead, as this is an exciting partnership.

As I prepare to write the book about growth and sustainability, in my notes, I have a notation about the consolidation of the nonprofit sector. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about addition and subtraction.

I’ll tell you what I mean.

In Central Florida, there are over 45 charities that are focused on cancer or have some sort of funding or program for cancer services. Wouldn’t it be great if we could consolidate these into, say, 10 and get the expert teams into the same organizations to collaborate and bring their knowledge and expertise under fewer roofs? Wouldn’t it be great if instead only a couple of handfuls of teams leveraged the resources of the donors for more significant impact?

Not too long ago I spoke to a guy who told me that he was thinking of starting a nonprofit. I told him that he should carefully consider if that’s really what the industry needs. I told him to think about these questions:

  • What makes you think you have the expertise to be a non-profit CEO? What makes you the expert? (Let’s say you’re starting an education nonprofit. What in your background qualifies you to be the expert? Having an interest in a particular area, is a great start, but how have you developed your skills to understand what makes a good program?)
  • What makes you a leader that people will want to follow? (I know that this may be tougher to answer, but there are a few questions you should ask yourself. Are you someone who enjoys being front and center? Do you like being the high profile person that is ultimately responsible for everything that happens in your organization and setting the path? Are you interested in honing your leadership skills, which are always a work in progress to improve? Do you command respect?)
  • Who would you involve in your organization that would be the experts in the program, fundraising, marketing, and finance areas? (You don’t want to be like the majority of nonprofits that are merely surviving because that drains a lot of energy. Do you know the kind of people that would help your organization succeed success?).
  • What is your vision for the organization? (I know that lots of people speak about vision, but I’ll be candid with you. Not many people have a vision that motivates others to want to be part of their story. I think it’s one of the reasons a lot of folks end up just treading water in the nonprofits they create. I’ve also seen shifting “vision.” Vision doesn’t change depending on the wind. Leaders have to have certitude and clarity of vision.)
  • In those early days of your nonprofit, especially during the first year, how are you going to market yourself and grow your fundraising base? (I know there are many organizations out there that are volunteer-driven, and if that’s how you want to operate your business, that’s your choice. For me, when I grew a non-profit I once established from my kitchen table to a charity with over $74 million in revenue, I knew that the impact I wanted to make was going to take money–and lots of it).

I know there are millions of people out there who want to make a difference. That’s a great thing. It really is. But, before you go to the default position of starting a nonprofit organization, why don’t you think about it long and hard? Does it make sense and for the issues you want to help to create another nonprofit? How would your organization differentiate itself from the competition? Would it be better to start a foundation or perhaps begin a for-profit social enterprise? Or, would it be better to work in close collaboration with an existing nonprofit and, maybe, brainstorm a new area, or help develop a great program that makes a robust impact in the community?

Whatever you do, think long and hard about it before starting a nonprofit.

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