BoardSource: Don’t Do It – Don’t Start a Nonprofit

BoardSource, Dahna Goldstein on Jul 14, 2017


Do you want to make a difference? Great. Please do. But don’t start a nonprofit.

Are you concerned about what is currently happening to vulnerable populations, the environment, and media freedom? I am, too. Are you afraid it’s only going to get worse? You’re probably right. But don’t start a nonprofit.

A lot of well-intentioned people are channeling their admirable desire to do good into starting new nonprofit organizations. Nearly 80,000 new nonprofits were created in 2016.

Don’t do it.

Many of the well-intentioned people who start nonprofit organizations are then unable to marshal the necessary resources to effectively deliver on the vision and mission of the organization. There now are 1.8 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. Fewer than 15 percent have operating budgets over $250,000.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that small organizations don’t have an impact. Many of them do. And I’m not saying you shouldn’t run with your great world-changing idea and your desire to do good.

You should.

Just don’t start a nonprofit.

Existing organizations, particularly those that rely on outside funding in the form of donations and grants, are already competing for scarce dollars. Many of them are struggling to survive, let alone to thrive. As we’ve seen in recent years, as funding declines, demand for the services the organizations provide frequently also increases, which further challenges nonprofits that are already resource-constrained. Adding more organizations to the mix risks being counter-productive.

It’s not hard to start a nonprofit. The barriers to entry are pretty low. Find a name, get an EIN, register with your state, file a 1023-EZ. It’ll cost a few hundred dollars and a few hours. But then what? Running a nonprofit and growing it to a size where it can most effectively serve its constituents takes resources. Will you be the only one working for the organization? Will you need to get paid? How will that happen? Where will financial support come from? Will you want to add more people to deliver the great services your organization will provide? How much will they cost? Where will that financial support come from? Of course, these are not the only questions to ask, and any new organization should think through what actually running the organization will look like once it gets started.

There are economies of scale that can be achieved by nonprofits, just as they can be by for-profits, but most nonprofits face significant uphill battles in getting to scale. Many never get there.

This has resulted in a highly fragmented service landscape where many organizations are not as effective as they could be and are competing for very limited resources to support their missions and serve their constituents.

There’s an opportunity cost associated with the multitude of new nonprofits started each year: they draw resources away from other organizations that need them and might be in a better position to thrive.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re looking at the amount of money that’s being raised overnight by organizations that are fighting to protect rights and freedoms threatened in the current political climate. Surely your idea will be worthy of some of these donations. Yes, it’s true that rage donating has become a thing. And it has significantly benefited a handful of organizations. But those organizations have some infrastructure already in place to be able to handle increased demand and an influx of capital. Not necessarily so for a brand-spanking-new organization. And while the rage donating has been a kind of amazing phenomenon, we don’t yet know what sort of impact it will have on fundraising over the course of the rest of the year. Will concerned individuals just increase their giving this year to include both their rage donations and whatever giving they would otherwise normally do? Or will other donations be reduced as a result? Only time will tell. Either way, new organizations are not likely to significantly benefit.

So don’t start a nonprofit.


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