Why You Shouldn’t Start A Nonprofit

by beckystraw on July 6, 2011

I know. It sounds very ironic, considering I’ve already helped start two.

But here’s the reality. I’ve taken numerous requests for “chats” about starting nonprofits. I want to help, but I’ve noticed I’m telling everyone the same thing. So in an effort to still be a nice person, and the reality that I haven’t slept in four months, I’ve decided to multitask and move all my “chats” online. I will not have all the answers, but I’ll try.

But before launching into the gritty details of starting a nonprofit, I need to preface it with an important piece of advice. “Just Don’t Do It.”

At least without being properly warned. If you haven’t launched a nonprofit, or haven’t worked for one before, here are six things you should prepare for:

 

1. Prepare to be broke.

An important fact usually unknown by the general public.  In truth, most founders and early staff don’t take salaries for at least the first year of the start-ups life-cycle. Sometimes longer.

I’ve heard countless founder war stories about sleeping on couches, or taking calls from our living rooms as we say, “Or… why don’t we meet at your office?” Invisible Children took advantage of being children, and moved back in with their parents. Krochet Kids spent nights crocheting, and waiting tables. Even though I joined charity: water nine months into their life-cycle, I joined the unpaid crew and made ends meet by babysitting at night and occasionally foot modeling (which is an entirely different blog post). Nothing says, “I just got my Masters Degree” like trying on other people’s shoes.

Apparently, you have to become poor to help the poor. You can’t offer equity, take a small business loan, or go after VC funding – so be prepared to eat a lot of mac and cheese, and take deep breaths as your credit card bill creeps passed your savings.

 

2. Prepare for the stress.

If you’re comfortable having your jaw permanently clenched in a state of anxiety, then maybe start-ups are for you.  For many people, it’s the stress kills them.  And it’s usually the stupid stuff. Like why ONE FREAKING PHOTO won’t upload on your website, that makes you want to take a hammer to your iPad.

You will be expected to do more with less, and move mountains to get there. So make a good to-do list.

 

3. Prepare for it to be 1,000 times harder.

“I’ve heard launching a non-profit is 1000 times harder than you think, but 1000 times more rewarding.”  A few people have referenced this myth. My take: Yes, it is 1,000 times harder. But no, it’s not 1,000 times more rewarding. Ok fine. It’s rewarding. But not ONE-THOUSAND TIMES. At least not at the start.

Ask me again in three years, once we’ve helped a million people, and I can sleep through the night without checking our paypal account balance.

 

4. Prepare for the “no.”

This is the biggest ego crusher for most start-ups, and why so many fail.  You start with wide eyes and big dreams and think, “Everyone’s going to want to help me!”  The truth is, nope. In fact, some of your close friends may not help, and that’s ok.

An old intern, Jenny Risch, who now works in nonprofit fundraising, has a good mantra. She says, “I’m prepared for three out of four people to turn me down. But I know eventually someone will say, “yes.” So I just keep asking.”

Don’t let the ‘no’s’ crush you. And don’t be offended when the world doesn’t shift rotations to help you find volunteers for your bingo night. Persistence is key.

 

5. Prepare to be boring.

Should be obvious, but if you’re working 15-hour days without pay, you generally have to give up the excitement and glamor.  Other founders may be able to dodge this one, but I’ve embraced it. A guy asked me a few months ago what I do for fun.  I told him I’m launching a start-up.

He said, “No, besides work.”

I stood stupefied for an awkward ten seconds before responding,  “Drink.  Sometimes I drink. With friends.”  Pretty mortifying that the only thing I could think of made me sound like an alcoholic. But it’s better than what I usually do for fun. Which is go downstairs to the deli, buy the large $3.29 bag of SmartPuff popcorn and eat the entire bag for dinner, while answering emails and watching The Mentalist.

Prepare for 80-hour work weeks and ok with your social life sucking for a few years.

 

6. Prepare for the “why.”

There are approximately 300 million people living in the US and 1 million registered charities. Not sure why we need one charity for every 300 people, but you better have a good reason for why you’re worthwhile.  What do you offer that’s different, and why do you deliver services better than anyone else?

For me, I’ve worked for some of the best orgs in the world,  and spent  years working across Africa. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t – and think Americans can channel their funds into better endeavors. I know, in the bottom of my heart, if we fund the solutions The Adventure Project’s working on, we can save millions more lives each year. If you don’t have the same passion and conviction as I do, then you might not survive your 26th box of mac and cheese.

 

Here’s my main point. Think long and hard before jumping in. 90% of all start-ups fail within the first few years. So make sure you have the energy, tenacity, and wisdom necessary for sustaining a start-up. Don’t launch a nonprofit for the glory or because you want to “help people.”   The real heroes are the 300 people who donate to that one nonprofit.  They have the brains to know that their dollars have the most impact by investing in visionaries crazy enough to start nonprofits.

….

 

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  • http://www.shedforbread.com/ Amy Peterson

    What can I say? That was quite the rant. I appreciate the honesty.

  • Chris Ray

    Disagree at ” The real heroes are the 300 people who donate to that one nonprofit.” No the real heroes are the ones who’s lives are changed for the non-profit reason you did it in the first place.

    For the reality non-profit, is that is it! Its not for becoming rich or becoming famous (and becoming rich), the whole reason for non-profitable is for a insane reason, like love to help someone who cannot help themselves. You might be lucky one day and get a thank you, then again, you might do it for your whole life and have a army of people ask you why? If you don’t become rich, why do it????? Your right, you need boundless energy, insane confidence, and a spark of something most people will struggle with, that is love for what you do!

    Without love, what is life?

  • Amir

    Thanks for the information. It was very informative and eye opening.

  • Malissa

    So while googling “how to start a nonprofit” and seeing tons of articles, yours is the one that stood and and made sense. Today, while washing dishes and trying to thinking about how to navigate this next “big chapter” in my life, the energy, crazy excitement, and sheer insanity of starting a not-for-profit arrested and pimp-slapped my brain. It was ALL I COULD THINK ABOUT. I felt like not only will everyone I ask for to help me WANT to help, but it’s going to do amazing in the 1st year. Yeah, I know. Your article (and this is a compliment) help bring me back down to earth, so that I can practically move ahead…anyway. :-) When I make all big and stuff in the “Org Hall of Fame”, I’m totally giving you a shoutout…which basically means that this is the shoutout. Right here. There will not be an “Org Hall of Fame”. What am I thinking? It’s the start-up adrenaline rush I think…anywho, MAJOR THANKS.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Hoorah – Malissa! Looking forward to seeing you succeed! Go for it.

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  • older-woman

    I really don’t see how this is any different from the stresses associated with any start-up. It’s hard work. Some people are best as employees. Some people are good at start-ups. But to unilaterally advise people to “not do it” is ill advice. It’s better to communicate what personality types are best suited for any start-up work. Interestingly enough, what you have written is exactly what I wish employees would understand when they begin clamoring for more, more, more. It’s the owner, the founder that takes both the financial and emotional risks.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      I feel the same way! I think there’s some who think a nonprofit is easier.

  • Mr. Nobody Special

    Oh so right on! We are a year and a half into our non-profit adventure and have gone through my entire 401k and all our savings and have yet to complete the 501(c)3 application because every time we get close to that $850 fee saved up another bill comes due. But (crosses fingers) by this time next month we will have it. We even have businesses waiting to give us pallets of materials as soon as we have a letter of determination to show them. Everybody in the town loves us and we are networking with multiple other non-profits to help spread the word. Although you’re right it’s not a thousand times more rewarding, Its A Million!

    Mr. Nobody Special
    Art of Recycle
    http://www.artofrecycle.org

  • Krissy

    Great Article! I almost didn’t click on the link because I thought “Why do I need to read this, it probably just some cynical person who is burned out” hahaha. Well I am so glad that I read it. After all, if I anticipate this being the worst reality check I will get creating a start up, then I need MUCH thicker skin. I think it is important for people to realize they are entering a struggle and that they need to be willing to struggle for what they believe in. Thank you for your insight.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Krissy, that is so nice of you!! Wishing you luck and glad you clicked!

  • elle

    Hi Becky,

    I stumbled on your blog, when searching for how to start a non-profit. Do you have any articles/blogs on how to start a non-profit or any reference material that can help guide me to get started. At least this helped prepare me to some level for the struggle.

    Thanks
    Elle

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Hi Elle, you know, I do, but it’s the irony of starting something – there just isn’t enough hours in the day to get it all done. Going to try and be better about sharing things I find. Thanks for saying hi and good luck!!

  • Cathi

    Has anyone read the book “Toxic Charity” by Robert D. Lipton? Anyone care to comment? I think it is an eye and mind opening book with many valid points to consider before starting a non-profit or begining mission/charitable work.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Going to order it on Amazon. Thanks for sharing!

  • Anna

    Two years later, I find it incredibly ironic that the website that you link to reference that 90% of start-ups fail is no longer online.

    I’m planning on starting an arts nonprofit and googled “how to start a nonprofit”…your article was on the first page. You bring up some great points, and I’m glad to get other opinions. And also glad the nonprofit will be our side job for the first however many years! Being broke sucks (says a graduate student). Thanks for your ideas.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Thanks Anna! Being broke does suck – hopefully you will get out of that rut after grad school. Appreciate you saying hello and the nice words.

  • Thomas Smith

    Hi Becky, Ive just read your article, I do appreciate it, however; I still plan to persue the non-profir avenue. My reasoning is that there is a problem in the U.S that no one is addressing. Abandoned infants. Right now across the U.S we have approximately 6 infants abandoned and left to die every week. It’s becomming so previlent that in the last month in the small town that I live in an infant was left on a door step less than 1/4 mile from my house. It’s not for the glory that I am doing this but for the laying awake at night thinking about the next infant that is left. right I am paying for every thing out of pocket but with Gods help I think things will work out.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Love that you have a calling, Thomas! Wishing you the best of lucky.

      • Zachary Riggs

        Thomas, you may be interested in an organization called “Garden of Innocence”. They started in San Diego, but they are moving towards going national.

        • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

          Will check it out, thanks Zachary!

  • http://www.grandparentsrocktoo.com Tonya

    Hi Becky, thanks for this article. I have worked for nonprofits for the more than 20 years. I am starting my own nonprofit but I am going into with the mindset of collaborating and partnerships. I have reviewed and research my target area and I feel I can help the most in areas that are not currently offering help but very much needed. I try to give advice to new startups so the realize that it’s very competitive to get grants and grantors are looking for outputs but even more, you outcomes. Evaluation is key and documentation is important. It is not enough to start and offer services anymore.

  • http://Www.thebdayproject.com Robyn Bomar

    Hi Becky! Thanks for this article. I found it my online searching for info on non-profit vs for-profit. I am not any clearer on whether I should or shouldn’t but at least it was som excellent information for me to add to the decision! :)

    Robyn

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Hey Robyn, thanks so much! Happy to help you with any questions along the way!

  • andrea jackson

    Hi there,
    I totally understand with all that you are saying…but what qualifies you to be the one to tell others to not to ‘launch a nonprofit for the glory or because you want to “help people.”
    Clearly this is what you have done -and arguably for the betterment of society.
    I have worked overseas for years in fundraising, advocacy, capacity building training…you name it. It is the easy to judge the efforts of the nice, well-meaning westerner…but why do that when that is you? I don’t mean to be snarky…but, really, you are just like every ether well-meaning westerner looking to ‘help people.’ Keep doing what you are doing – but, please, keep on open mind for the others just like you…trying to accomplish the seemingly audacious and inconceivable. Best, Andrea

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Hi Andrea,

      You’re right, I’m a total white girl trying to help. My comment was geared toward an important point that I am passionate about, “glory or/and wanting to help” are not enough. You have to be so passionate about it that it keeps you up at night, yearning to learn more about the best ways and methods to great impact and a desire to be great. In my opinion, this is a job where good is not good enough. You shouldn’t launch a nonprofit because you think it would be “cool”. It’s a lot of work. And as you know, those you are trying to help deserve absolute greatness. Sounds like you are doing that.

      Best and thanks for writing!

      Becky

  • Toby

    Beck, great post,

    Many of the pains you have identified are to do with the unsustainable nature of the non-profit model. A model, which to be fair, has not evolved much in recent year’s.

    What role does for-profit play here? Social entrepreneurship combines the passion, desire, drive and determination of someone who wants to change the world and make a difference with mainstream business sensibilities. It’s not a perfect solution, but TOMS have proven that this has potential.

    We can’t save the world, if we’re feeding our best and brightest minds on Mac n Cheese.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Agree 100% Toby! Jody, my co-founder, and I wavered back and forth about which model to embrace. In the end, we chose non-profit for the tax status and the potential foundational support. But I still waver quite a bit about what’s really best, and if we can help more people if we ditch the outdated model and instead focus on impact. Thanks for reading, TD! Really flattered you did.

  • http://www.bridgettegilchrist.blogspot.com Bridgette

    Becky-

    Hey- I just wanted to say that I admire you for answering all your blog comments! You get extra bonus points for that!!

    You’re a rock star Becky : )

    Am now working for a counseling center for pregnant teenage moms….I go back and forth….pregnant teens, Zambia, starving Chicago children, exchanges students (one living with me right now), old people……pregnant teens, Zambia, starving children in Chicago, exchange students, old people……. pregnant teens, Zambia, etc. etc. etc……oh where to start, where to stop, I just love them all…

    Did I say you’re a rock star Becky?

    You are – really : )

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      No, you’ve proven yourself wrong – you’re the rockstar, Bridgette! You’re the social worker that moves this world ’round. If everyone only knew how much social workers give, share and love – they’d be the ones with the wall street salaries. It’s a true calling, and you are the backbone of society. Keep rockin’ it, and moving us forward. Thanks for the bonus points – but the joy is mine!

  • Julia Schipper

    Becky! You did not convince me! I am still committed to starting my own and guess why?? Because we care. You care. You would not be doing this if it was not worth it and you realize that other people think its worth it too! When I quit my job I gave my colleagues one message to interpret as they wished: do what you love and love what you do. And then I quit! Ha ha so obviously they got the point. I hope :)

    I also wanted to pitch a next program to highlight. Should I email you my idea/contacts?

    Julia

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Well, you know what I told you – you can do it! You have the masters degree, the experience, and the drive! So I have full faith, girl! Yes – email me your idea!!! Would love it. Thanks Julia!

  • http://thesweetestthing-family.blogspot.com Cindy

    I very recently started helping with a very new organization and so much of this rang true! I am sending it to the founder who has taken extra jobs and not had a vacation in 5 years. She will appreciate it.
    Thanks for the great post!

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Thanks Cindy! Tell your founder she’s not alone.

  • http://www.augustadwyer.wordpress.com Augusta Dwyer

    So I guess my main questions is this: why do altruistic people want to start up new non-profit start-ups? Why not join already existing organizations that engage in the kind of projects you think are doing great work?
    (I can’t help think of the fiasco of Madonna setting up a charity and wasting millions in the process when probably Oxfam could have built a thousand schools in Malawi for half that amount.)

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Augusta – exactly! Being a supporter, donor or fundraiser is an important and much needed role! Thanks for reading and leaving a note.

    • Laura

      Augusta,

      As someone who is seriously considering starting my own nonprofit in a few years, I feel I can speak to your question. While I have fundraised for some well-known nonprofits, and I think they do still need to be supported by the public, perhaps people want to start up new nonprofits because they feel the need isn’t currently being addressed in the community (by the government, private business or other nonprofits).

      I had a personal experience in my family that caused me to see the huge gap of services present in today’s society. This passion to solve the problem is what is driving me to create a better world and making sure no one else goes through what my family did.

  • http://www.cherokeegivesback.org Lyston Peebles

    I am 65 years old, started many non-profit ventures. Yes most of what you say is true, but not a compelling enough reason not to start them. I have loved every day I have worked ( almost), felt energized, and did what I felt was right. Sure there are hard days that is why they call it work! You sound a bit like a martyr and you are too young for that. I plan to help the poor until I drop dead, not because of some arrogant idea that they need me, but I NEED them in my life, especially being from America.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Lyston, that’s fantastic! What I was trying to convey is that you don’t need to start one to make an impact. There’s already a ton of nonprofits out there that can use your help.

  • http://www.bre.ad Alan Chan

    Way to keep it real.

    You had one thing wrong though. You’re not boring. You’re FASCINATING.

    A+

  • http://survivingmunchkinland.blogspot.com Shelly

    We are not even close to being in the league of a nonprofit, but every point was exactly what I’ve experienced this last month! (Thank you! I am not loosing it!) My husband went on a STM to Hackleburg AL to help with clean up efforts–our boys wanted to help, so we had a lemonade stand and raised over $200. Soooo, we decided to go big or go home. Right now I’ve baked over 100 doz cookies and they’ve raised almost $800 and we’re still selling!

    I can’t wait for a full night sleep, where I’m not dreaming about cookies or signage or whatever else pops in my head! And drink..I totally understand that..and hammering your ipad over a picture..yep! Would I ever do this full time–Heck No! But, maybe one day our boys will be remember our efforts and take up a cause of their own :)

    Thanks for going through all this on a regular basis!!! Your efforts are appreciated and you are making a difference! I love The Adventure Project–it’s next on our list :)

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Thanks Shelly. Your post made me laugh. Love how you are encouraging your kids to take action, and show them they can make a big impact! Get some sleep soon!

  • http://www.globalfast.org Jonathan Bell

    Becky, such a great article and obviously heart felt and very transparent. I concur with everything you wrote. At some point i’d love to draw out the “why” element. I feel so many people skip the value creation, differentiation and defensibility components in the charity space. It’s easy to forget that a charity is actually a business, just minus the profits which cause keep to overlook the felt need of the client (which is actually the donor first and formost). As you mentioned the charity is simply the agent of those 300 to execute on the charitable mission.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Totally agree Jonathan! Thanks for reading and the kind words.

  • E Stowe

    Nice job articulating it, Becky. I recall two full time jobs when I got started- one in the day to pay bills and the other stretching long into the night and morning after my family went to sleep. Tough first, second, and honestly third and fourth years- but incredible nevertheless. Keep on rockin’ sister. You are admired from the other coast and we look forward to seeing you soon, E & ACR

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Thanks Eric! So thankful to have your support and guidance. Keep rocking the world.

  • http://Www.beyondwater.org.au Sharon Crean

    Hi Becky, your comments put a smile on my dial. I’m sending it to all my board members. It’s priceless but so true. Keep up thegood work now I’m off to work on my laptop for the next10 hours.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Love you Sharon! Thanks for your support.

  • http://www.samo4prez.com Ty Clark

    Thanks Becky great post. A lot of those resons are why we ditched non-profit early and decided to be a for-profit that invest, supports and empowers through non-profits with experience and years of sustainable projects under their belts. Keep pushing and much love!

  • John Bayer

    We did not experience any of those things… We used http://simplenonprofit.com/start-a-nonprofit and had the 501c3 in 4 weeks. Then they guided us step-by-step through fundraising and grantwriting. We were instantly paying salaries and helping people with good funding in the bank. It must be tough to do the above.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Um. Jealous. Sounds like you are doing things right.

  • http://norristowncommunity.webs.com Becky

    We started a new ministry last August, and this is sooo true! Thanks for being honest. It’s nice to know we’re normal!

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  • http://www.100cameras.org elly

    Becky,

    I remember you early days at C:W with Anglea Bullock. Somehow even after watching yall we decided to get 100cameras off the ground. I could “hell yes” to most of you statements in this post. I will surely be directing people to this post. After two years of a full staff of unpaid workers who work full time “real jobs” we know your pain. It can be a blessing and a curse but yes make a plan a big plan before you jump into it.

    God Speed to you all,

    Elly

    All the Best

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Thanks Kelly! Keep at it and tell Angela hello!

  • http://DVQstudio.tumblr.com Emily Stoddard Furrow

    Definitely agree with this thinking, especially on the issue of knowing why your organization is needed in the first place and having a distinct explanation of how it makes change happen. Plus, these days, more people are starting to wake up to the fact that “nonprofit” is just a description of a particular tax status. Social change can come in many forms — having nonprofit status doesn’t guarantee you’re making effective change, just like being a for-profit venture doesn’t mean you’re only in it for the money. I’m part of a shop that works exclusively with nonprofits and businesses with a social purpose. We’re an S-corp and far more effective because of it. We can more safely have an opinion and experiment (e.g., no board members or donors to convince), have access to more/different capital, and invest in our work with more freedom and creativity. It is totally possible to have a social purpose without doing the heavy (and like you say, not always rewarding) lifting of starting a nonprofit.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Emily – exactly. Think that’s completely true. I think there’s several times a week I say, “If we weren’t a nonprofit, we’d be able to do x,y,z one hundred times faster.”

  • http://Waterisbasic.org Steve Roese

    Hmmm having to think through your post. It’s all true but part of me says so what! It’s hard to do anything important or new or out of the box. We are surrounded by people for whom hard is a nasty word. It’s damn hard to raise kids, it’s hard to be married, it’s hard to love up on your neighbors it’s hard to enter into another culture and make a difference with out seizing control because you have the money or “solution”. I think the reason we should “not start a non profit” is because it’s flat out not needed. Unless we have something truly unique and potentially life changing, I say partner with someone who is already doing well and get on with it.

  • http://www.deidox.com BrentG

    Yeah, well said Becky. Couldn’t agree more. And as I know you know, it doesn’t necessarily get easier as a NGO gets more established. Even if it’s 100 years old. The stress and worry over getting enough money to do the work will still be there, if not get enhanced by the pressure to do more.

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      True. And so the worrying continues, and organizations get hung up on raising enough money to stay afloat. Instead of worrying about how to solve the problem and put themselves out of business.

  • Bill Buchanan

    Hi Becky

    You do have great insight and thanks for sharing so openly and honestly. I know it’s hard work, but it’s good work that makes a difference in the lives of people. I know you know that . . . I just wanted you to hear it from an admirer of your passion, your sweat, your tears and your dedication.

    Bill

    • http://www.beckystraw.com beckystraw

      Thanks Bill! Appreciate all your encouragement.

  • http://www.terrainfirma.co.uk/blog.html Gareth Kane

    Well said!

    I’ve found that many social enterprises are too heavy on the social and too light on the enterprise. People think non-profit is easy, but I agree with you that it is usually more difficult than for profit.

    Gareth

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