The world as we have it is full of problems. In fact, there are a thousand and one problems about anything you can possibly look at or think of. So there is every justification for you to start a nonprofit, right? Think of all the good you can do. The way I see it is that despite what you think you can accomplish, don’t do it! Yes, don’t if you have not answered these four solid questions.
Disappointed? Maybe but I feel we should have an honest conversation if you want to avoid some common mistakes many founders make. Don’t we all love that fancy title, “founder”? Anyways, away from the titles and stuff, let us look closely at nonprofits and what they stand for, then we can explore the four questions you want to answer to help you make the best of your “founder” experience.
What is a nonprofit?
Nonprofits are business entities that are designed to solve problems in a given community. Business entities? Yes, they are but unfortunately they are supposed to channel all their earnings towards their cause and cannot declare profits, have investors or shareholders. So typically you can’t make money running a nonprofit, at least, you shouldn’t except if you are insincere. Typically, nonprofits raise funds using many business models including funds-for-goods, funds-for-services or even working as subcontractors for large multinational entities who give them grants and in return nonprofits implement their projects in predetermined communities. Hope this is not surprising to you at all. Technically, grants are not free funds and nonprofits projects don’t belong to implementing organisations. Nonprofits are conduits for donors. Your projects are not yours, the funds are not yours and your results definitely are not. Nonprofits will always indefinitely contribute to other people’s work and that’s why it’s humanitarian, selfless and not- profitable. If you find my opinions non-conforming to the flowery expressions that typically describe nonprofits, well, you are welcome.
What do nonprofits stand for?
Many founders I have spoken to struggle to describe in a convincing manner what drives their organisations. When you conduct a simple organisational assessment, many organisations crumble like a pack of cards. So let me break this down briefly if you have the time.
Nonprofits respond to a global agenda for a better world built around human rights principles. I have run into many nonprofits that have s poor concept of what human rights are. Some don’t understand that you cannot choose some rights and not others. Human Rights are interconnected and inalienable. We cannot choose one and reject another because the denial of one right is a denial of all rights.
I know what you are probably thinking. ‘No single organisation can work on all issues?’ and you are right about that. But then, you cannot take a stand against another human right. Forgive my bluntness but you have to think really carefully about these things. We have seen many people in the nonprofits who lost the value of their life’s work because they neglected onentiny little detail. A popular example is the OXFAM scandal in 2018. Oxfam had worked in Haiti for many years helping victims of displacement from the earthquakes. Some of their staff were accused of sexual exploitation of rightsholders. The consequences were massive, heads rolled, funding dropped and the organisation would spend some years trying to restore their image. Most organisations are not as lucky.
To have a good understanding of how nonprofits pursue human rights in their communities, you have to pay attention to global development goals like the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and now the Sustainable development goals (SDGs). Every nonprofit contributes to one or more of these goals. Well, now that we have cleared that, let’s talk about the big four questions you have to answer if you really want to start a nonprofit.
What problem are you interested in solving?
This seems like a dumb question but this is where your success or failure begins. Most problems are complex and cannot be taken at face value. In fact, many problems facing modern society are considered wicked problems. I didn’t make that up, it’s a real thing and you can read up about wicked problems here. The reason so much is happening and we are achieving less results all the time is because we often address a northern problem and expect a solution in the south. To learn more about understanding problems, click here.
When it comes to choosing problems to focus on, less is always better. Trust me. If you have many problems you want to solve, you may be setting yourself up for failure. Admit it, you are not the government and should not aspire to be one. Think of one of the biggest nonprofits in the world – the International Red Cross Society. What problem are they solving? “Health crisis in disaster situations” and they have done that for over 150 years. Notice how they are not interested in solving all the health problems. To learn more about how to identify your problem of interest, here’s a resource you might like.
Do you have the resources you need?
There’s a myth that when you found a nonprofit, you will start receiving grants. Myth? Well, kinda. It’s not automatic and yes, no one owes you any support. So you can start a nonprofit and run it for 20 years and never receive a dime. Unfortunately you can’t take loans or investor funds to startup with hopes of repaying. That will not work in the long run if your intentions are true. But there’s a way out. You see, you don’t need a lot of funds to start and you don’t need to help a lot of people either. A person at a time is a good place to start. You don’t need fancy stuff either. You can start simple and scale. The good news is that you can always find ways to mobilise resources if you innovate enough but be sure not to rely on false hopes and rack up debt. That will not be solving any problems. You will most definitely be creating more problems than you are solving.
Do you have a community?
Who do you think you want to work with? It’s easy to say youth, women and all what not. But do you know the community? Their dynamics, their problems and do they accept you as a part of the community. Yes and that is a big part of the whole thing. If you belong to the community and have a lived experience of the issues they face, then you are definitely very qualified to proffer solutions to the issues. As an outsider, it is very difficult to work anything out. Many organisations have resources but are often forced to conjure up solutions to the perceived problems a community may have. These actions often driven by tokenism only give superficial, maybe cosmetic relief to the community but may never address the root causes of their problems. So you may be passionate about a cause but you don’t belong to the community affected. Should you rather start a nonprofit or support one that has the right community?
Now one may argue that this position on Communities may not always be true. Well let’s see about that with a simple illustration. Let’s say that I am a builder and I am passionate about housing. Since I don’t belong to a homeless community and have never been homeless at any point in my life, am I unqualified to build free homes for the homeless? Well I am definitely qualified to build houses but to imagine that housing is the problem of homeless people is like imagining that food is the problem of the hungry. Is the problem of the homeless a building, income or mindset, or a complex including these three and more? Since I am not homeless, I will probably not know but I know certainly that building will not solve their problems. If anything at all, it might make it worse. Think bills? The greatest cost to living in a home is not rent. Now read that again.
So sometimes, passion is not what you need. What you need is a community that you are a part of and understand. Then your passion can fuel your work.
Do you have the knowledge, skills and experience to run a nonprofit?
It’s one thing to start a nonprofit and entirely different thing to run one successfully. Anyone can take a title but most people will never live up to the lofty titles they take on themselves. Nonprofits operate like businesses but have structures like government entities. They are complex and oftentimes, easily misunderstood. Many leaders in the nonprofit space have to endure many years of training and certification to become proficient in their work. They are patient and always ready to learn. So it is often intriguing when young, relatively inexperienced people and sometimes politicians emerge heads of their own nonprofit and expect to perform wonders. See it is not surprising that many nonprofits do not survive the first five years of their existence and some after they have accessed some grant funding.Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong in aspiring to lead a cause someday. My honest opinion is that if you check all the other boxes and fail at this consideration, better let someone more experienced take the oars and you give yourself the time you need to grow. Should you rather have a thriving nonprofit that you are not directly running or run a dying organisation?
I bet that it will be such a great experience when you finally start that nonprofit. There will be so much to do and that unforgettable feeling of being part of a positive social change. To watch peoples’ lives change for the better is one of the reasons I love working in the nonprofit space and I guess it might be the same for you. So now that you know what it takes to get started, you would want to ask yourself, “Am I ready to start that nonprofit?”