Should you start your own nonprofit?

The March 5 Time Magazine addresses a question from the "Didja ever notice?" category of nonprofit management, namely why people seem so ready to start new nonprofits instead of cooperating with existing ones.  (One example: Mayme Clayton Agnew’s private library of black history, which her son is now warehousing in Los Angeles as he seeks structure and funding for its preservation and display.  Isn’t that precisely what public libraries are for?  Doesn’t Los Angeles have one?  If not, wouldn’t New York’s be happy to step in, given its own extensive collections in the field?  Does there really have to be a separate museum?)  Author Dan Kadlec includes pertinent questions for prospective founders–is my idea different?  is a start-up necessary?–and references to the Foundation Center and other Websites (what, not the Nonprofiteer?) for management advice. 

Kadlec puts the proliferation of institutions down to Baby Boomers (the answer to the lazy reporter’s prayer!) for their/our unwillingness to do things anyone else’s way.  There is, of course, at least one alternative interpretation, offered by scholar Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone: that civic life requires the creation of appropriate voluntary groups; that most of the major voluntary structures of today arose in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and that it’s time for another spasm of institution-invention of the sort that spawned the YMCA, the Boy Scouts and the settlement houses.  Or, as it is written, everything old is new again.  This is great, provided the newcomers review history instead of repeating it; the Saguaro Seminar’s site on fostering civic engagement is one place to start.

Interestingly, the Time article seems to see "starting a nonprofit" as one of the options available to retiring Boomers, right next to "lowering golf handicap."  If that attitude gets adopted generally, we could be spending the next 35 years in tugs-of-war over helpful-sounding names (Lock up your intellectual property now!) or engineering mergers for the final few groups left standing.


6 Responses to “Should you start your own nonprofit?”

  1. Elie Says:

    I agree but don’t think you go far enough. I think that there should be non-profit consolidation. For example, if I want to donate to help reduce poverty in Africa, I easily find more than 100 organizations all with similar missions, operating in similar locations. It seems much smarter to agree on what works, pool our resources, and as you said, “start helping” instead of starting over again and again.

  2. Vicki Says:

    Here, here!

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    I have no doubt the institutional funders will share Elie’s enthusiasm for consolidation–and there’s no doubt that we have redundancy in the sector–but I want to remain alert to the virtues of nimbleness and freshness that new people/institutions bring to the sector.

  4. Albert Ruesga Says:

    After 20 years in the “biz,” I think the honest answer to your question is “Generally, no, but it depends.” Check out alternative models (e.g., the Tides Center) first. If you do decide to start a nonprofit, consider your outsourcing options.

  5. Amy Kincaid Says:

    Wow. I could have written the last response. Seems like lately I’m also getting a wave of “hey, kids, let’s start a nonprofit.” Only it’s more like, “Hey, Grantwriter, can you get me some money to do the do-good project I thought of. Don’t worry, I already have the 501c3 status. And, BTW, I’ve already had a successful career in the technology biz.” But what I haven’t seen much writing on (except here, thank you!) is __should__ they be starting these groups. And yes, the nimble-ness and the diversity of approach and the small-scale focused work of many different groups has value. But starting a full-out new nonprofit is not the only way to do good work and make change. And in many cases, it’s probably not the best.

  6. Nonprofiteer Says:

    If you haven’t yet, you should check out the posting on this subject on The Agitator: It’s kidding on the square–the kind of humor that tells the truth.

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