Nonprofits are amazing. They make a difference in the lives of people who cannot afford services provided by the for-profit sector. They catch the people who slip through the cracks of government programs and initiatives. Without nonprofits, a chunk of society would not be able to have a meal, access health care, spay or neuter their pets, or benefit from other services.
That being said, they are A LOT of work to run. If 10 years of working in the nonprofit sector have taught me anything, its that starting a nonprofit should be the last thing you do after exhausting all other options to improve your community.
I wrote this list because running a nonprofit is f$%&ing difficult! Many people don’t realize that a nonprofit is a business and needs to be run like one. Not only that but there are weird regulations around how a nonprofit gets its funding, what it has to report, and what you are and aren’t allowed to solicit. Nonprofits are complex organizations working with beneficiaries who rely heavily on their services and that is a huge responsibility to take on. I have worked with a few nonprofits that did not take this fact seriously and, as a result, the organization and their beneficiaries suffered.
If you stop reading right here, know this: running a nonprofit is a HUGE commitment and that commitment should not be taken lightly.
So, what can you do improve your community instead of starting a nonprofit?
Make a donation to an already existing nonprofit
Do you want to make a difference in the lives of kids/parents/animals/others in your community? The best way to do that is to support a nonprofit already operating there. There are many more nonprofits than you think there are and they can all use extra help.
Nonprofits always could use more support, they never have enough time in the day to get everything done, and they usually are understaffed, underpaid and undersupported. But they show up to work every day and make a difference because they took on that responsibility.
One of the best things you can do to make a difference in the lives of people living in your community is to make sure existing nonprofits can adequately support them.
Join another nonprofit board as a board member or committee member
Maybe there are nonprofits in your area but they are not addressing the needs that you see. Instead of starting a nonprofit that will compete with existing organizations for resources, you can join one of their boards or committees instead.
A board of directors guides the organization and decides where and how it will use donated funds to achieve its mission. A board of directors benefits from a new person joining because they bring a renewed energy and excitement to the management as well as new ideas, expertise and opinions.
A committee is like a board of directors but they are designed to address a specific area within the nonprofit. Take the example of a homeless shelter. There may be a committee dedicated to assisting the homeless to become self-sustaining rather than just providing shelter. In this way, you could suggest a committee dedicated to an issue you see instead of creating a new organization.
Joining an existing organization is great because it means that you don’t have to go through the process of creating an organization from scratch. It is a huge responsibility to write nonprofit bylaws, policies, mission and vision statements, put together a board, do marketing, find initial funding, etc. It may take you months before you even can start thinking about serving your community. Joining an existing organization gives you access to their funds, their networks and their tax exemption, saving you time, energy and cash.
Join Your Local Lions/Kiwanis/Rotary/Community Organization
If no nonprofits exist in your community, you can instead join a community organization like the Lions or Rotary club. These are community groups that get together and make a difference in their community and surrounding communities. You typically see signs for these organizations when you enter a new city. They tend to be heavily involved in the community and are always interested in getting new members!
These organizations are run like nonprofits except their missions tend to be less specific. They will support everything from local boy scout troops to making donations to local hospitals. These social groups are full of people who want to give back and make a difference while having a good time doing so. I was a Lion for a few years and I really enjoyed the work that we did from encouraging children to volunteer to helping transport eye tissue across the country for transplant patients.
Start a Voluntary Association
If you don’t have a local community organization, you can instead start your own. Let people in your local area know that you want to make a difference and invite them to join you. Lots of people don’t make the connection that you can help people without having to report to the government. If you and a bunch of your friends get together and decide you want to clean up trash in your community, you don’t need to be registered with anyone to do so. You can just do it!
Having nonprofit status helps with providing an incentive and legitimacy for people and organizations to donate to what you do. That said, if you are doing good in the community and you are seen doing it, people will help you regardless of nonprofit status.
Many nonprofits start out as community groups or as volunteer associations. They start as a group of dedicated people making a small difference and then, as the group grows, it becomes necessary to become a nonprofit to attract bigger donations to support itself.
In terms of actually making a difference, I think this option is one of the best. You can start making a difference right away, you don’t have to worry about mountains of paperwork, and you get a feeling for running a nonprofit. If you do decide to start a nonprofit after giving the volunteer association a try, you can easily do that. You already have community backing, a track record for support and you aren’t starting entirely from scratch.
If you try the voluntary association and find it too much of a commitment, there is less pressure for you to stop. You may also find that the community actually doesn’t want the support you offer, or you simply get burnt out. And that is okay. Burn out is a huge issue in the nonprofit sector and is why I recommend helping other nonprofits first. They need the support and positive energy!
If you start a nonprofit and then want to disband it, there are legal requirements you must take to do so. This includes paying debts, distributing remaining assets and more.
Check back soon for my upcoming post about voluntary associations!
Long Story Short: Don’t Start A Nonprofit As A First Option!
It is so much work to start a nonprofit, and that is just to start one! Remember that a nonprofit is a business and it needs to be run like one. If you don’t know how to run a business or simply don’t have the time or energy to do so, you shouldn’t. There are many ways to make a difference in your community and all are way easier than running a nonprofit yourself.
If you have gone through all of these options and still think that starting a nonprofit is the best course of action to serve the people/animals/etc. you serve, then you need to set it up the right way. Remember, the decision to start a nonprofit isn’t about you, it is about what the community needs. It is a commitment to the people you serve and commitment toward making your community a better place. Starting a nonprofit means you are dedicating yourself to the service of others and you are taking their potentially vulnerable lives into your hands. That is a HUGE responsibility. Remember the Life Esidimeni Case.
How do you set a nonprofit up the right way? Make sure you are signed up for email updates on when the next blog post comes out!
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Founder at Reed Community Consulting and NPO.lib
Brandon helps people help other people. He has over 10 years experience working with small and medium-sized nonprofits in two countries in many different sectors. He has worked at all levels of organization from entry-level service delivery up to the executive director and board president. This experience affords him insight for whole level management of an organization, which he transfers to his clients. In his free time, he likes to play volleyball and spend time gardening with his wife and dog.