While I often get questions about finding careers in the non profit sector, for some people, a career in the sector means starting a non profit.   There are tons of resources to help you with the nitty gritty of building an organization (including this handy checklist).  However, before you get started, consider these three questions:

Is anyone else doing what you want to do well?

The advice given against starting a non profit is that there are simply too many organizations trying to solve the same problems.  However, there is a difference between a large number of organizations with 501c3 status versus a large number of high-performing organizations with 501c3 status that are effectively tackling an issue. Therefore, instead of looking to see if an organization already exists with a mission to address the issue you are concerned about, try to gauge their effectiveness and impact.   Do they have data demonstrating their results?  How are these organizations perceived by the communities they serve?  Who are their big supporters and how are they supported?  What are their growth plans (if any)?

By focusing on impact you’ll get a sense of what success looks like, what challenges there are in becoming successful, and who the stakeholders in your field are in terms of people served, organizations, and supporters.   You’ll also see where the gaps are and where you could fit in, either as an individual or as an organization.

Is creating a non profit the best way to address this issue?

Regardless of the performance of other organizations, sometimes the issue you want to address and how you want to address it don’t call for the creation of another organization.  Consider these six alternatives to starting a non profit, including giving circles, intrapreneurship, and fiscal sponsorship.  If you decide that you DO want to create another organization, research the legal requirements to starting a non profit to get a sense of whether that particular structure is suitable for the work you want to do.  With the rise of B Corporations and for profit companies with triple bottom lines,  there are multiple ways to do good; however this also requires you to be even more deliberate about what kind of organization you start and why.

Are you ready to start an organization?

No matter what kind of organization you start, at the beginning the key question is: do you have the time, talent, and funds required to build an organization from scratch?  While the legal structure of a non profit may differ from the structure of its for profit peers, the demands are similar.   You need to be critically self aware and honest with yourself about your reasons for starting an organization (word of caution: savior syndrome is a poor reason to start an organization); be realistic about your limitations in terms of time you can contribute and skills you have (or don’t have) to move your vision forward; and be prepared to use your own money for required start-up funds as it can be difficult for new non profits to land grants.  Think through what you will have to give in order to for your organization to thrive.

When someone mentions they want to start a non profit, my concern is less about the number of organizations that exist and more about the motivation and expectations a person has when making the decision to start a non profit.  A desire to do good shouldn’t stop you from doing research and reflecting on the sector, the cause you are passionate about, and the best way you can leverage your talents to make a difference.

This is the third post in a series I am having where I address five common questions about careers in the nonprofit sector. Read the introduction here. And be sure to subscribe to my blog so you never miss a post!

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Want to Start a Non profit? Ask Yourself these Three Questions.