Go Ahead, Start that Nonprofit Organization!

In my last post, I men­tioned that I dis­agreed with a recent post by San­dra Simms titled, “7 Rea­sons NOT to Start a New Non­profit Orga­ni­za­tion”.

Unfor­tu­nately, I ran at the mouth about why I cre­ated Where’s Your Heart? as a non-profit, so never really shared my thoughts about Sandra’s article.

Let’s just take a look at Sandra’s 7 points in order:

1. There is already an orga­ni­za­tion fill­ing that need.

Yeah. I’d tell Steve Jobs the same thing. There were already other com­pa­nies mak­ing MP3 play­ers. Or smart­phones. No need for another one. Go do some­thing no-one else is doing. Sorry about the sar­casm, but no one orga­ni­za­tion will fill every market’s needs… whether for-profit or not. Do you have the pas­sion and energy to run your own com­pany? Want to have that excite­ment and feel good about what you’re doing? Think you might even (gasp!) be able to do it bet­ter than the estab­lish­ment? Go for it! Com­pe­ti­tion is good. And, you’ll feel great.

2. You do not have other peo­ple “on board” yet.

Uh, so get them on board? It takes one per­son to start. Ideas, they’re easy. Exe­cu­tion. Mak­ing some­thing hap­pen. That’s hard. And, one per­son alone can make a huge dif­fer­ence. Show some results, and you’ll have all the peo­ple “on board” (what’s with those quotes?) that you want.

There’s even a non­profit who helps other non­prof­its that can’t afford help and don’t have peo­ple “on board”. It’s called Grassroots.org. Check them out.

3. Your idea is bet­ter suited for a for-profit enterprise.

This is def­i­nitely one to think about, but take a look at what I’m doing. There’s a busi­ness model (and that includes things I’ve not shared, because I believe in com­pe­ti­tion and don’t want to give it all away just yet) for my orga­ni­za­tion. I made an explicit choice, per­haps against the advice of oth­ers, to make Where’s Your Heart? non­profit to empha­sis my focus.

Maybe you should do the same? What is your organization’s pur­pose? Will it be char­i­ta­ble first, then it deserves a non­profit head­ing… oth­er­wise it’ll be com­mer­cial. There’s noth­ing wrong with that, but either one can suit your pur­poses equally well. Remem­ber, it’s your company!

4. Start­ing up takes time.

You bet. Almost a year for me, and I’ve not yet run an event.

No one said it’d be easy.

If you want to do some­thing quick and easy, read a book. Watch TV.

Want to do some­thing ful­fill­ing? Some­thing that will make a dif­fer­ence? That takes com­mit­ment. Be decided and do it. If you believe in your cause, it’s worth your time.

Of course, as San­dra points out, if you want to react to an imme­di­ate need (like dis­as­ter response) you’re much bet­ter off work­ing through an exist­ing orga­ni­za­tion… Maybe you’ll find your wish to help tran­scends a sin­gle dis­as­ter, and you want to start your own orga­ni­za­tion to help pro­vide rapid response to dis­as­ter relief around the world? (Actu­ally, that’s not a bad idea! I can see build­ing infra­struc­ture and using mod­ern tech­nol­ogy to enable grass­roots rapid-response efforts around dis­as­ter relief. Of course, it could be com­mer­cial, but pos­si­ble to be nonprofit.)

5. OK — San­dra acci­den­tally missed this one. I do that all the time.

6. You’d like to plan a one-time fundraiser.

With all my non­profit expe­ri­ence (tongue in cheek there, I’m a new­bie) I agree with San­dra on this one. For a one-time thing, no rea­son to start up a com­pany and go through the expense and effort. Bet­ter to work within another orga­ni­za­tion. Even if you want to have a yearly event, you could always do it through one (or more) exist­ing non­prof­its. And, you’d prob­a­bly get some help work­ing with another orga­ni­za­tion as well. Much eas­ier not to have to fig­ure it out on your own (though, that’s not a rea­son not to start!).

7. Your type of cause makes it dif­fi­cult to secure long term funding.

Sure. I can re-write this one as “don’t start your busi­ness before you fig­ure out how it’s not going to fail.” It might be dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to do cer­tain things under the non­profit umbrella or IRS restric­tions. I’ve run into some real seri­ous lim­i­ta­tions myself. In my case, I’ve just shelved cer­tain plans/ideas until I get more expe­ri­ence and fund­ing to han­dle the challenges.

Another sug­ges­tion is to rethink your approach, to see if tak­ing a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive might make it less dif­fi­cult to secure fund­ing. In my case, I’m fund­ing it myself, and my approach includes stay­ing at my “real job” so that I can keep doing so. It means my work at Where’s Your Heart? some­times is slower than I’d like, but the trade­off is that I can keep at it.

And, with that, I’ll just add that I don’t know San­dra, but I’ve been enjoy­ing her thoughts on twit­ter and her blog, because she offers good advice on fundrais­ing and other top­ics of inter­est to the non-profit community.

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  1. says

    Hi David, thanks for the com­ments and kudos for my work on Step by Step Fundrais­ing and Twit­ter. I enjoy shar­ing and talk­ing about ideas, espe­cially when it’s about mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.

    You have an inter­est­ing point about com­pe­ti­tion. In the busi­ness world there’s a sweet spot between too much com­pe­ti­tion and too little.

    When there are too many com­peti­tors in the mar­ket­place there may be a steep uphill bat­tle to get mar­ket share, espe­cially with­out a truly unique offer­ing. Sure Microsoft and Apple are com­peti­tors and will con­tin­u­ally face new com­pe­ti­tion. But a com­pany would have to be well funded, have a unique niche and a solid busi­ness plan to compete.

    A good exam­ple of a good rea­son to found a new non­profit in the same space is the dif­fer­ence between Habi­tat for Human­ity and Homes for Our Troops. Both build houses for low income or dis­abled peo­ple. How­ever the lat­ter focuses on mil­i­tary who have been wounded in ser­vice. Because of this unique focus and pas­sion for the cause, the group has flour­ished, attracted loyal sup­port­ers and helped many people.

    How­ever, I talk to a lot of peo­ple who really have a great cause, but would be wise to first part­ner with an exist­ing nonprofit.

  2. says


    I appre­ci­ate your per­spec­tive… you’ve got tons more expe­ri­ence than I do.

    I agree fully with your exam­ple, and it’s a great one. Also, though I don’t have any non-profit expe­ri­ence, I do have other expe­ri­ence that gives me some con­fi­dence (false or not, time will tell!). How­ever, some­one who’s a bit ear­lier in their career might do well to part­ner with an exist­ing com­pany to “fig­ure things out”. What do they do well, not so well. How do they serve their mar­ket, and what are they missing?

    This is where I really believe purpose-based orga­ni­za­tions can apply profit-based tech­niques to be suc­cess­ful. And, by suc­cess­ful, I mean serve their cus­tomers, achieve “going con­cern” sta­tus, and meet their cor­po­rate mission.

    Thank you for your thought­ful response (and article)!


  3. says

    Inter­est­ing exchange between you two. I think the truth is in the mid­dle. Here’s my per­spec­tive as some­one who has con­sulted with NPOs for nearly 20 years…

    Sandra’s points are dead-on for most peo­ple con­sid­er­ing start­ing a non­profit. I know, given that my com­pany has helped set up nearly 12,000 of them. The per­spec­tive of her post is aimed at the aver­age per­son who has a dream or idea of doing this.

    As a long-time busi­ness owner/entrepreneur, I know the aver­age per­son is bet­ter off with Sandra’s coun­sel on this one. The funny thing is, David, I agree with your points com­pletely. Your per­spec­tive speak to an above-average, risk-taking, outside-the-box kinda person…something most peo­ple are just not wired to be. It is the very peo­ple your arti­cle really addresses who are the most likely to cre­ate an orga­ni­za­tion that accom­plishes big things.

    Great point-counterpoint. There is good advice in there for all types.

    • says


      Thank you for the well thought out response. I agree, and am glad to know there are eas­ier ways for peo­ple to get involved!


  4. Sterling says

    I just texted this to my best friend. This pretty much sums up my response:

    I just read an arti­cle called “6 Rea­sons NOT to start a Non-Profit Org” and got dis­cour­aged THEN i read a reply called “Go Ahead, Start that Non­profit Orga­ni­za­tion!” and got re-focused and inspired. It’s true that other peo­ple affect us. It’s impor­tant to fol­low your heart.”

    Susan’s arti­cle pro­vides impor­tant infor­ma­tion and, I under­stand, was not intended to be dis­cour­ag­ing. It may have left me feel­ing dis­cour­aged, but it would not have put out my fire.

    So thanks to both of you, Susan for point­ing out some very real options and chal­lenges and to you, David for press­ing me onward and help­ing me con­quer some self-doubt.


    • says

      My plea­sure. Glad you enjoyed it.

      My non-profit work has had its up and downs, but has been a big ben­e­fit to me per­son­ally, and to those we have helped.

  5. Jon says

    I’m look­ing at start­ing a reli­gious (chris­t­ian) non profit either as a cor­po­ra­tion or an unin­cor­po­rated non profit asso­ci­a­tion. Is it true that it would auto­mat­i­cally be tax exempt and the only rea­son to apply would be for recog­ni­tion, assur­ance to donors and for pos­si­ble fund­ing from grants? I’ve read numer­ous arti­cles that say this. Any thoughts? Thanks!

    • says

      Hi Jon,

      Unfor­tu­nately, I can’t help you. I don’t know the details of what has to hap­pen. I had a lawyer take care of it for me, just wanted to make sure it was done right.

      Good luck!


  6. Jon says

    No wor­ries. Thank you for the reply David. I enjoyed and gained a lot from your posts and replies. Take care, Jon

    • says

      I used a lawyer. One that is here in NYC. It was very help­ful because I was doing some­thing inno­v­a­tive (which is not some­thing eas­ily digested by the IRS).


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