Rhea Wong Consulting

Blog

 

So you want to start your own nonprofit? Here's some advice: don't.

“To be Jedi is to face the truth, and choose. Give off light, or darkness, Padawan. Be a candle or the night.” Yoda

 

I'm continuously blown away by the energy, optimism and social conscience of Millennials and Generation Z.  When I see people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or the young people of Parkland, I think that we're actually gonna be OK.  But, I wanted to address thing that I'm asked about all the time by young people who want to make a difference: how do I start a nonprofit?

As someone who has spent her entire career in nonprofits, let me first say that there has been no greater privilege.  It has truly been a calling, but much like adopting a puppy, the reality can be less glamorous than the fantasy.  Let's break down the realities.

1) Show me the money, honey. 

I totally understand being driven to create social change because you see a problem.  I applaud that!  But the hard truth is that nonprofits don't run on passion alone and you are about to open a small business.  Small businesses have notorious failure rates and nonprofits are no different--it's been estimated that over half fail within the first five years.  The most common reason is lack of access to capital.  Even if your idea is wonderful and helps a lot of people/animals/unicorns, it doesn't always mean that you'll be able to attract the financial resources to sustain your mission.  Ironically, the more successful you are, the more time you'll probably spend on fundraising.  I would be very careful about starting a brand new nonprofit unless you have a very good idea and a very good network.  It also wouldn't hurt if your last name happened to be Gates, Bezos, Carnegie etc.  It's also much harder to break into traditional foundations so in the early years, I would build a board who can bring in some heavy hitter individual donors to sustain you through the years before you have a fundable track record.

2) There's no I in team!

I love enthusiasm and a dream.  Hats off to the starry-eyed dreamer!  I say go step fearlessly into the unknown!  But, you don't know what you don't know and often what you don't know is how to lead and manage.  I think there is a pretty significant leadership gap in many companies and organizations--nonprofits are no exception.  Most of us lead and manage the way that we were led and managed and, unfortunately, few of us have been led by exceptional managers.  Most nonprofits led by young leaders are poorly managed--not because these leaders are trying to be bad, but because they lack the experience and expertise to do better.  I recommend that young people who want to be Executive Directors spend time learning to manage others and practice before jumping into the top job. 

3) Twinsies.

There is nothing more crushing to the entrepreneurial spirit than to be told that your idea is not good/being done already.  The truth is that most ideas are not the special snowflakes you think they are.  In that regard, I have often counseled people to see if there are organizations that do something similar to what you want to do.  Can you partner?  Work for them and launch a new program?  There's a lot of upside to taking advantage of existing infrastructure and reputation.

Finally, if these dire warnings have put you off then it's probably a good thing--you'll need stores of resilience, grit and toughness that you didn't even know you had.  For those who are still convinced that there is no other option than starting your own nonprofit, welcome to the club.  We need you to walk through the fire.