Making Your Nonprofit Mission Work—Start Fresh or Collaborate, Part 1
Years ago, long before I worked in the nonprofit sector, I started my own nonprofit organization collecting and distributing school supplies to kids in need. I had no idea what I was doing; I just knew my nonprofit mission was to accomplish “something good.” It never occurred to me that the need might have already been met by an existing organization—that I could have simply volunteered somewhere established to help the same kids. I’d also never started a company before, so I’m pretty sure I made some mistakes there, too. My little nonprofit did a few small projects, stayed dormant for a few years, then dissolved.
Why am I telling you about an unsuccessful project? To illustrate that sometimes people do things for genuinely good reasons, but don’t always act in the most informed way possible. Now that I’ve worked in the third sector for years, been certified in fundraising and have a Master’s Degree in nonprofit management and leadership, I can see the bigger picture of:
- How nonprofits address community needs
- Many ways in which they must be compliant with regulations
- How they must be funded and ran
- The web of interconnectedness that forms the basis for nonprofit partnerships and resource sharing.
As a consultant and trainer, I also have a bird’s-eye view of the duplication of services that is happening between many nonprofits that are either unaware of one another or believe that they deliver the services better than their counterparts.
We all have a vested interest in the success of nonprofit organizations in our communities. They fill needs that are not handled adequately by the government or for-profit companies. If not for the nonprofits, large pockets of need would go unaddressed. In the interest of having the most efficient and effective third sector possible, let’s take a look at a few steps that caring and motivated people must take before forming a new nonprofit.
Before You Found a Nonprofit Organization
Ask: “Who else is doing it?”
This infographic from GuideStar shows that there are currently more than 2.2 million nonprofit organizations in the U.S. There are five states that each have over 100,000 nonprofits on their own. Given this gargantuan number, chances are good that most topics/programs/needs are being at least partially addressed by someone.
Nonprofit service provider FireSpring suggests asking these questions before embarking on creating a new organization:
“What problem are you trying to solve? The Internet allows almost anyone passionate about a cause to champion it publicly and affect change, both locally and globally. But that means that, unless you’ve somehow stumbled upon an issue nobody else is aware of, several other organizations likely have a mission similar to yours. So ask yourself, what specific problem are you trying to solve? What’s your unique selling proposition, so to speak? Are you trying to do something other nonprofits in your field haven’t accomplished yet? Or coming alongside them to add firepower? It’s crucial for you to know exactly what your mission is—that will drive the rest of your decisions.”
“Your local community foundation can be a great source of information about other organizations with similar missions operating in your geographic area. You might be surprised to learn just how many there are,” says Susie Bowie, executive director of the Manatee Community Foundation in Florida. This community foundation finder from the Council on Foundations can help you locate your local community foundation.
Check Your Ego at the Door
That may sound a bit harsh, but hear me out. Some missions can feel so deeply personal that you may think the best way to bring attention to it is for you to create the perfect organization to support it.
As the executive director of a community foundation that helps individuals invest millions of dollars in hundreds of missions, Bowie offers a bit of perspective:
“In my experience, I have found that many would-be nonprofit founders are motivated by good, but may also have an individual desire to be at the helm of an organization and call the shots. They may not realize that nonprofits are not ‘owned’ or controlled by a single person. A more successful and thoughtful approach can come from working with others who have an equal buy-in, who have studied successful and failed attempts to tackle an issue and who are absolutely clear that the new organization is about the community and not about themselves.”
Having such clarity on the leadership of a prospective organization can help eliminate the danger of Founder’s Syndrome, where the organization becomes synonymous with the founder instead of the mission; in turn giving the founder ultimate authority over what should be group decisions. The equal buy-in that Bowie mentions should exists on any board of directors.
Tracy Vanderneck is president of Phil-Com, a training and consulting company where she works with nonprofits across the U.S. on fundraising, board development and strategic planning. Tracy has more than 25 years of experience in fundraising, business development and sales. She holds a Master of Science in management with a concentration in nonprofit leadership, a graduate certificate in teaching and learning, and a DEI in the Workplace certificate. She is a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE), an Association of Fundraising Professionals Master Trainer, and holds a BoardSource certificate in nonprofit board consulting. Additionally, she designs and delivers online fundraising training classes and serves as a Network for Good Personal Fundraising Coach.