By Melkis Alvarez-Baez, Acting President, Nonprofit New York
The number one question we get at Nonprofit New York is “I want to start a nonprofit - what do I need to do?” There’s a reason why “So you want to start a nonprofit?” is one of our often-trending resources. We’re passionate people who are sincerely committed to our communities. We want to see change, and we see nonprofits as the way to get there.
But are they, though?
Sometimes starting your own nonprofit is exactly what you need to do. Sometimes it’s not. Here are some questions to help you decide.
Is someone already doing it?
“You are unique. You are one in a million.” Then you take one Buzzfeed quiz and realize that, actually, you think quite a bit like a whole lot of other folks. So take a look around. If you want to start a community garden, google community gardens in your borough. Is there one six blocks away that you can join? Nonprofits are a mighty force for change, but they’re businesses (see below) and they’re made up of people. If each nonprofit is made up of one person we are not working to our full potential on the issue we care the most about.
Do you know how to run a business?
Can’t find an existing flower shop/bookstore/wine bar/pet sanctuary nonprofit? Then maybe you DO need to start that nonprofit! But, it takes more than passion to achieve your mission. Nonprofits are businesses, and require you to know about business models, balance sheets, employment law, staff management, audits, and compliance--the fun stuff, you know? Does this make your heart beat faster? If so, you’re ready to seriously think about starting a nonprofit! But if this isn’t your jam, that’s ok, you just need to be clear-eyed about the actual business work that needs to be done. Our Key Areas of Nonprofit Excellence provide additional food for thought.
Do you have a team?
“You are a super hero. You can move mountains. Leap tall buildings.” But very few people can actually move an entire organization toward a mission-driven solution to a systemic societal problem by themselves. Having a team is critical to nonprofit success - and managing teams requires skill and talent. You can develop these, for sure, but they must be intentionally approached. And remember: nonprofit teams are not just made up of your staff, but also your Board. So do like you would a word search puzzle, and manage up, down, across (and diagonal).
Do you have a network?
Raising a child takes a village. It’s no different with a nonprofit. Changing the world takes a lot of people. At a minimum, a nonprofit requires a Board of Directors. But you also need a team, cheerleaders, friends (some in high places), influencers, coalition partners, supporters, donors, and movements. If you see yourself alone as the champion of the issue you care most about, that may not work. (Although, maybe it can. But generally that will be the exception to the rule.)
Can you ask for money?
You can, but also, you MUST ask for money. Nonprofits need money and money can be hard to raise. You need to know why you’re doing what you’re doing and you need to get all types of people excited about it. You need to know how to speak about your cause in such a way that you can reach different people who may be interested in different facets of your work. If the money doesn’t start coming in right away, be patient. Developing relationships, engaging folks and getting their input are pre-steps for asking for financial support. It takes time. And that’s true for even well-established orgs.
Find joy in race equity!
This isn’t a question. Racial equity work is the only true way to address the systemic issues that underscore all the missions that lead us to want to start nonprofits. This is not just true for organizations who are mission-focused on race, but for all nonprofits. When we start The Flower-Shop-Bookstore-Wine Bar-Animal-Sanctuary.org, we will do it through a race equity lens. That’s because race, and more specifically racism and white supremacy, impact how people see flowers and books and wine and animals.
Need more food for thought?
There are a hundred other questions we could ask you. If you want to see all of the steps that it takes to start a nonprofit (and that’s before you do a single program-related task), here’s our list of what you need to do. If, after going through that list, you are still unabashedly enthusiastic, take this Organizational Health Assessment to see if you have a sense of the issues you’ll work on, and the work that it takes to make a healthy nonprofit.
Still with us? File that 501c3 application, and then join Nonprofit New York. We’re a relentless, collective force for good, too.