Have you started a successful non-profit organization or worked for one?
April 21, 2012 8:09 PM   Subscribe

Have you started a successful non-profit organization or worked for one?

I would like to gather some basic resources regarding starting a non-profit. Mostly out of curiosity. Does the world really need more non-profit organizations? Is it better to work for existing ones?

Any and all thoughts and resources (books, links, experience) are welcome.

posted by DeltaForce to Grab Bag (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
First, find a cause you are passionate about. Go work for an organization that deals with that cause. See what gaps in service there are in addressing the issues related to your case. Then decide if you need to start up a new organization or just take on a new project at the existing one.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:23 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

That should read "cause" not "case". Anyway, you should also learn about board governance, and proposal writing.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 8:32 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would like to gather some basic resources regarding starting a non-profit.

They are abundant on the internet. Google "start[ing] a nonprofit."

Does the world really need more non-profit organizations?

This question is too broad. It's an enormous sector with many different kinds of organizations in it. The world probably does need more of some kinds of them, perhaps kinds which have not been invented yet or which are not distributed evenly enough across categories, geographies, classes, or topics. And it probably could use less of some kinds of them.

Is it better to work for existing ones?

Again, this is too broad to usefully answer. It's better if your idea for doing something the private sector doesn't do is an excellent one that fills a previously unmet need in a particular area or field of service. It might not be better if you have a new or unique idea that no one else is doing, or if no one else is active in the space you are hoping to be active in.

I would suggest doing some general reading in order to narrow your question - it's just not helpfully answerable when posed so broadly.
posted by Miko at 9:09 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The most basic resource of them all, for US organizations: the instructions to form 1023, the form you fill out to be recognized as a non-profit on the federal level. [Actual form here]. There'll be a separate one for state-level incorporation, though possibly not in all states (my experience is just in Illinois). Reading through these instructions will give you a headache (there's a glossary at the back, at least!) but also a grasp of what being a nonprofit actually means.

Also, do you have a specific field/cause in mind? Knowing the general kind of thing you're thinking of would be helpful, because "nonprofit" is really just a description of a type of business/organizational model — questions about "starting a nonprofit" and "does the world really need more of them?" etc are very difficult to answer because they are literally as general as asking "I would like to gather some basic resources regarding starting a commercial business.... does the world really need more of them? Is it better to work for existing ones?" — hard to say, unless there's some idea of scale or aim attached!

That said...

A little over a year ago, I started a nonprofit organization because I (and the people I founded the organization with) didn't see anyone else in our field doing the work we wanted to do in the way we wanted to do it, and we thought that starting our own thing would be more immediately useful if we did it NOW rather than waiting to have the chance to do it somewhere else. If that's how you feel about your field/cause — I think that's a very good reason to consider starting your own thing.


We knew that we had the skills and experience to do the basics of what we wanted to do already (source motion picture prints from commercial, archival, and private sources; access the spaces to screen them in; inspect the films competently; run the projectors; do the research to present them with historical context; contact the press so that we'd have an audience; and - of course - organize meetings and keep books and all of the other things you need to do behind the scenes to allow an organization to exist). We'd done all of these things before in other contexts to one degree or another. We also had another big asset: we knew we'd be inheriting the audience of another, recently deceased organization (one we'd all worked for before) — so we were fairly certain starting out that our programs would generate enough revenue to be sustainable without having to raise a lot of money externally right away. The preexisting skills and the preexisting audience were pretty huge assets — you should think hard about whether you have anything similar at your disposal. If you don't, it probably isn't worth the effort right now, especially since funding is in pretty scarce supply these days.

But if that's the case, don't give up. Keep thinking about whatever that thing is that has you thinking about this right now. Figure out what skills and connections you might develop to give you a leg up in your future engagement with that thing. Volunteer for other groups to get a feel for how organizations work. If you're still in school, get involved with student groups on the governing level — they're just another type of voluntary association, and you can learn a lot from helping to run a good one.

Good luck! Feel free to get in touch with me on MeMail if you feel like it.
posted by bubukaba at 9:27 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that this question is answerable the way it's written. There are many different kinds of non-profits and how you go about starting one depends on what you want out of it. And the two actual questions - the ones with question marks - they're very broad. If there's something you're really interested in, take the time to narrow the question you're asking. You'll get better and more helpful answers that way.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:34 PM on April 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

You should work at one that is well-run before you try to start one.
posted by salvia at 10:53 PM on April 21, 2012 [4 favorites]

The world doesn't need a new non profit. The world needs things to happen that make peoples lives better. A non profit might be the best way to do that, or it might not. The first question should be about what you want to do, not organisational structure. That said the Charity Commission has great UK (England and Wales only as Scotland is different) specific information. I also think that CES has really good governance and evaluation information and training.
posted by Gilgongo at 12:00 AM on April 22, 2012

I want to add — I'm giving this question a fair shake (though I agree with all the concerns others have mentioned about the broadness of your question and the inexperience betrayed by that broadness) for this reason:

I think that creating nonprofit organizations — or any other sort of organization or business — does not absolutely require the specialized knowledge about "running a nonprofit organization" that one might assume doing these things require, at least at the beginning. If you're hoping to start an organization on a small, specific, local scale — perhaps a local historical society? a non-church-hosted group that makes and brings sandwiches to homeless people? — and you want a formal structure for managing the finances of that group, creating a nonprofit of some type might be a great way of doing that, and not prohibitively difficult. There are even groups that offer workshops on how to create that sort of nonprofit on your own, like this one in Chicago. If your goals are loftier, of course, that's a different story... but I think it's really important not to give people the impression that participating in the public sphere in this powerful way — by starting something — is beyond them simply because they lack experience. Getting lots of advice from experienced people along the way is absolutely crucial, as is being realistic! — but you can do things yourself as well.

(And one of the things you can and should do right away is more research, especially on the taxonomy of organizations. I'm writing all this thinking of my own experiences, driven in part by imagining that you're at somewhere like where I was just a couple of years ago. I'm half-forgetting that we don't even know whether you're daydreaming about starting some small group like the sort I mention or something crazily, globally ambitious! Everything I'm saying here applies to my own case — but it might not apply to whatever you have in mind, if it's something very different! But your initial question does imply that you're hoping to hear about personal experiences — at the very least I'm giving you that.)

On preview:

As Gilgongo says, be sure to think of 'starting a nonprofit' as simply one possible means to whatever end you have in mind. Deciding to start one should be determined by what you need to accomplish whatever your goals are. If glomming on to an existing organization will accomplish the goal you want to accomplish more efficiently and usefully than trying to do it yourself — don't be afraid to volunteer yourself and your ideas. If for whatever reason you want to do something that might work as a for-profit (even if public spirited) business — consider that route! Don't feel like creating a nonprofit is the only way to go for doing something that's good for society or the world.

At the same time, don't let yourself be restricted by preconceptions about any of the possibilities. Being young and inexperienced doesn't automatically mean that you can't start something of your own. Being driven by public-spirited or benevolent goals doesn't mean that the something that you start has to be a nonprofit. Working for or starting a non-nonprofit doesn't mean that the work you do won't benefit people. Working for or starting a nonprofit doesn't necessarily mean that the work you do will benefit people. Doing work for someone else doesn't mean you have to put the things that are important to you aside. Creating, running, or working for a nonprofit isn't, in many ways, all that different from creating, running, or working for any other kind of business.

I hope these reflections help answer your questions and don't just read as up-too-late ramblings.
posted by bubukaba at 1:07 AM on April 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

The thing about non-profit organizations is that each one, ideally, adresses a specific need within the community that would otherwise be neglected by the public or private sectors. Very large and successful NPOs include Amnesty International, Mercy Corps, Oxfam, and so on, whose successes derive in part from the basic, universal needs they address (human rights, development issues, food security, and so on). Smaller NPOs can get very, very small, and can address a need as targeted as supplying clean drug needles to the gay latino community in X city. Others can lobby for things like comprehensive immigration reform.

So to say that the world simply doesn't need more non-profit organizations is, in my estimation, wildly inaccurate. It is, at this point, impossible to quantify what sorts of needs exist in what places and under what circumstances. Assuming each NPO that comes into existence is serving a viable, mission-oriented purpose (which is not always the case), then yes, I'd say we need more of them! But as others have alluded to, partnership and collaboration in the non-profit sector is healthy; outright redundancy often isn't.

Helmut K. Anheier produced an excellent text that I think will go a long way towards answering the questions that you may have at this point. He's pretty well-regarded as far as NPO scholarship is concerned. You might call him a baller.
posted by Chutzler at 1:16 AM on April 22, 2012

Things I learned when I started a non-profit:
  • You might not need non-profit-specific skills, but you will need business skills. If you have them, flex them. If you don't, find them. Get the right people in your camp from the get-go and you'll always have resources when you need advice.
  • Don't be afraid to talk to other non-profits and find out what they're doing and how they did it.
  • This will evolve over time, but root yourself in a mission and a vision from the get-go. This helps make decisions easier; the binary of "does (or doesn't) this fit into the vision of this organization" can separate the wheat from the chaff and save a lot of time and energy.
  • Don't let the word "non-profit" steer your organization away from business goals. Be ready to document your processes, set boundaries, manage your money.
  • If you rely on volunteers, treat them well. People volunteer because they get something of value out of it. That value might not be monetary, but it will have everything to do with whether you get good people on your team or not. Thank, pamper, and most importantly LISTEN TO your volunteers.
  • It might be a bit early in the game, but Google the term "founder's syndrome." It exists not to scare the shit out of you, but to illustrate a time-tested issue that almost every non-profit faces. Know that founder's syndrome is normal and that every leader runs his or her course. Be ready to bow out if and when your personal vision is impeding your organization's progress.
Best of luck to you as you start your non-profit!
posted by mynameisluka at 6:54 PM on April 22, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the feedback everyone! Yes, I am aware that it was broad. That is because I was trying to get a wide variety of information, not just about the issue in which I am interested (spaying/neutering/rehoming cats) for those interested. There are TNL programs in my area, but nothing that really focuses on rehoming the ones who would make good companion animals. I've personally been rescuing animals for as long as I can remember, and last year I rehabilitated many, several of which were saved from death. I've just come across a whole new bunch of them, and I know this will keep happening (I don't look for them, I just keep coming across cats, and cats who've just had litters, etc) and I don't have infinite resources. So the goal is very specific (to help raise funds so I can spay/neuter/vaccinate/treat all of the cats that I find and then find them homes.)

though I agree with all the concerns others have mentioned about the broadness of your question and the inexperience betrayed by that broadness

Well yes I am very inexperienced, nothing betrayed there!
posted by DeltaForce at 8:06 PM on April 22, 2012

There are TNL programs in my area, but nothing that really focuses on rehoming the ones who would make good companion animals... So the goal is very specific (to help raise funds so I can spay/neuter/vaccinate/treat all of the cats that I find and then find them homes.)

Ah, in that case, you should just talk to the best TNL organization out there about starting a rehoming program if you helped them raise funds for that purpose. Writing grant proposals and holding fundraisers will be good practice and will help you develop relationships with foundations and donors. This experience will help you if you do later decide to start your own organization.
posted by salvia at 8:16 PM on April 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Great advice from salvia - I absolutely agree that piloting a program with an existing nonprofit with aligned goals is by far the smartest way to demonstrate proof of concept and show that you have a workable and needed model.
posted by Miko at 8:21 PM on April 22, 2012

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