OK, everyone, sit down, we need to have a talk. Every once in a while, someone—usually from outside the sector—mentions their goal of forming their own nonprofit. “It has been my life-long dream to quit the rat race and start a possum therapy organization. It’s kind of like one of those equine therapy programs, but with possums instead of horses.”
From the online discussions I’ve seen, the response from us is often, “Hiss! How dare they want to start a nonprofit! Let’s burn their barn down! Let’s pour salt in their field so it shall remain fallow for seven generations! Let’s mix up the labels on their spinning spice rack so that nothing they make will taste good again!”
I understand where this anger might be coming from. Running a nonprofit is one of the most complex things ever, what with the funding restrictions, and the entrenched societal issues stemming from systemic injustice, and the galas—so many galas. As wonderful and meaningful the work is, we make a lot of sacrifice to do it. So it is insulting for people who have little or no experience in what we do to think it’s so easy. The cluelessness is infuriating. I nearly drop-kicked one undergrad who wanted to send teddy bears to poor kids overseas or something (this may explain why no one asks me to be a mentor).
And then there’s also the fact that all of us are scrambling for funding in the daily Nonprofit Hunger Games, and we do not need more competition. Especially from bright-eyed neophytes who probably never thought to do any research to see if similar organizations already exist that likely have had lots of success running possum-based therapy programs. Neophytes!
So, if you find your blood pressure rising whenever you hear someone plans to start a nonprofit, it is understandable. However, we need to lighten up a bit. Although there are lots of articles and blog posts discouraging people from starting nonprofits (here’s a good one), the reality is that we are always going to be facing well-intentioned individuals who feel that burning desire to found their own nonprofit. Persuading them to not do it may work in a few instances, but if we want systemic change, we need to look at this holistically. Here are some things for us all to think about:
- People usually mean well. They may want to start a nonprofit, but they’re still human beings! Human beings! They want to make the world better, and with the current state of things, we need as much of that idealism as we can get. Let’s back off and stop treating people who want to start a nonprofit as if they personally spit in our hummus. We can help and guide them and channel their passion or even discourage them without crushing their spirits.
- We don’t subject for-profits to this level of irritation. Are there really too many nonprofits? Maybe. It is certainly not hard to start one. But have we thought about how no one ever says, “Hey, there are too many dang cafés around! Why don’t they all just merge into one giant café? Also, what’s with all these new cupcake and poke places cropping up like mushrooms?! Let’s burn the barn of whoever dares to start up another small business!”
- Some of our advice is limited and not feasible. Let’s face it, even though we give people advice like “Find an existing nonprofit and see if you can open a program under them instead of forming your own org,” the reality is that most of us would get really annoyed if anyone comes up to us and be all like, “Hey, I have a great idea for a program! It’s called Unicycles for Veterans!” We have our strategic plans set usually, and most of us have no time nor patience to help anyone start any new stuff within our own orgs.
- Nonprofits led by marginalized communities often form as a direct response to the lack of organizations effectively addressing their needs. While there are many good mainstream organizations, there are also many that claim to serve communities of color, communities of disabilities, LGBTQIA communities, rural communities, etc., while tokenizing them and absorbing all the credit and funding. Instead of being quick to dismiss new nonprofits that form, let’s examine why they formed and who is leading them. If they are led by communities most affected by injustice, we need to be supportive before being dismissive.
- Funders must own their role in proliferating nonprofits. Stop prioritizing shiny new programs and organizations. The fact that you fund programs that are new and “innovative” instead of ones that are proven to work is a big reason why new nonprofits form. Find the balance. Also, some of you still refuse to fund organizations that are fiscally sponsored. If you punish nonprofits who are fiscally sponsored by not funding them, which encourages them to all go out there and get legal status, then stop whining about all the nonprofits popping up.
- We need to explore different models: As I wrote in “Star-Trek and the future of the nonprofit sector,” alliances of nonprofits can be effective ways for groups to organize. Instead of every org having their own legal status, they can band together under a support organization and more effectively and efficiently share back-office and fundraising tasks. As more alliances form, we can encourage people who want to form their own orgs to look into joining an existing alliance instead of getting their own legal status.
- Capacity builders, provide more education: Many of you provide workshops teaching people how to form nonprofits, including teaching them about all the complexity of running one, which may help to discourage people who really shouldn’t form nonprofits from starting them. Encourage people to look into alternative models, such as fiscal sponsorship. Also, provide assistance in dissolving nonprofits.
- We need to advocate with the IRS. Right now, anyone or their pet gerbil can file a 1023-EZ, pay some money, and within a few months be a legit nonprofit in the US. The IRS doesn’t have incentive to stop; after all, it’s getting revenues from all these filings. We as a sector need to do a better job advocating for and protecting our sector. I’m not really sure what would be most effective right now. Maybe our state nonprofit associations can shed some light.
- Society has to pay more taxes. The horrible new tax code, which disproportionately benefits the extremely wealthy while cutting down funding for critical services will likely lead to more nonprofits being formed. If we don’t want this, then let’s fight for fairer tax laws so that our government can take care of its people and put many of us nonprofits out of business. Then some of us can pursue our life-long dreams of starting a tech company!
Next time someone mentions wanting to start a nonprofit, let’s put down the pitchforks and take a deep breath. Yeah, their idea may be terrible and they may not have any clue about what they are getting into and they will likely regret it as the years go by and they look in the mirror and see the haunted, sallow face that will inevitably result from too many grant rejections and galas. But let’s be kind, because they too are trying to make the world better, and maybe, just maybe, someone out there could really benefit from structured interactions with possums.
Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears monthly in the GuideStar Blog. The preceding is a cross-post of a February 25, 2018, article from his blog, Nonprofit ... And Fearless (formerly Nonprofit with Balls). Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.