strategy & planning

By: Tara Levy

When you’re steeped in the nonprofit sector, you regularly meet people who share their ideas about starting a new nonprofit. It’s easy to respond with a quick soundbite of “there are too many nonprofits” or “follow your passion,” but there’s a deeper conversation that needs to take place.

Starting an organization is not just about doing something important, meaningful, or solving a problem… it’s launching a new business. As with any new business idea, there are important aspects to research and explore. So just like opening up a retail store or a marketing firm, you should do thorough due diligence to evaluate the market, supply, and demand.

In the nonprofit sector, before going into start-up nonprofit mode, it’s important to consider some key questions.

Is there an existing organization that could house your new idea as a program? 

Assuming you’ve already researched to find that there’s no nonprofit just like the one you have in mind, you must now go a step further. If your cause is related to another one in any significant way, you may be better off launching a program inside the existing infrastructure of an established nonprofit. This way you can address the specific issue you’ve identified, but also avoid reinventing the wheel. For example, say you’ve identified a distinct need around getting a specific population of kids engaged in environmental protection. Perhaps this idea could fit within a broader environmental group or as a new component to a youth program. Not having to create financial and data-tracking systems, develop operational policies, or build a name in the community gives you more time to focus on the passion that’s driving you. You can use that extra mental bandwidth to innovate and improve the program!

Even if the need or audience isn’t unique, does the problem require a different approach? 

 There’s more than one way to slice an onion, and there can be more than one way to provide a critical community service. In addition to being sure that your idea is not duplicating the work of an existing organization, you need to understand if there is a true need for a different approach to the service. Innovation can be a wonderful thing, and supporting organizations that are willing re-think existing problems is part of what Nonprofit Elements is about. But often “disruptive innovation” is not what you think it means. Is what you’re trying to address in fact a new problem? Or is your idea a different approach to a problem that others are addressing?  A new nonprofit that tackles a known problem in a new way can be powerful. For example, when a group of community leaders felt there was a need for a new approach to healthcare for HIV prevention and LGBTQ wellness, they founded Texas Health Action and opened the Kind Clinic. Reach out to existing groups to discuss trying a new approach and leverage their existing networks. Learn how and why they operate the way they do and see if there’s room for improvement. But if that isn’t feasible, then take on the task of innovating!

Are there sufficient resources to support your efforts—and can you leverage them? 

A nonprofit organization needs a lot of fuel to start up and keep running: volunteers, staff, board members, clients, community partnerships…and money. You’ll need different amounts of each at different phases of your work. A needs and capacity assessment for each of these key inputs is critical to any organization’s success. Are there local foundations or government contracts available to build and sustain capacity? Is there enough “demand” to keep your organization “in business”? What size staff and volunteer force do you need to launch and maintain services?

Even if you’re a entrepreneurial, self-motivated individual, there are a lot of hurdles in starting a nonprofit organization: from establishing a mission and a board of directors to legally setting up tax-exempt status. You don’t have to go through this process alone. Through the due diligence phase—and if you decide to launch—use and build your network of champions and partners. Reach out to practitioners and leaders in the field for their ideas, camaraderie, and networks. Ask your friends and family for recommendations of board members. Connect with an attorney who specializes in nonprofits and can be a partner in the process. Find people you trust to help you build a business plan to launch and sustain your new organization.

It can be intimidating and risky. And in some ways, start-up nonprofits face more difficult challenges than start-up for-profits. You have to break even and deliver a critical service to the community. You have people counting on you to succeed because they invest in and come to rely on your service. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you decide the circumstances are right to start a new nonprofit, move forward with an open mind, full heart, and a dose of humility.

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