I believe that we need to ask ourselves the hard questions, such as the one that we’re posing today, which is: “Should nonprofits exist?” or “Should your nonprofit exist?” I would reframe it in such a way that we’d say: “Should my nonprofit exist?”
A lot of times in a nonprofit you’re starting at square one by yourself, with probably not very much experience in the nonprofit space — not a lot of ideas around development and fundraising and strategic planning and those kinds of things. And there’s probably a 95% chance there’s an organization out there that at least has some of that skill set that’s already functioning and already operating… that a person would be better aligned to give their time and talent to.
“Nonprofit” is a word that almost mischaracterizes what a lot of these organizations are, because the word nonprofit almost makes you think, “Well, they’re not making money, therefore, they’re not as valuable.” But I think the value really is in investing in the community and the people. So the profits are long term, and they’re these intangible things.
Nonprofits need to start being accountable to showing what that return on investment is. At the same time, the donors need to understand that if they trust this organization, they invest in them with an expectation they have a return on their investment.
That is the biggest question: “Is there really a need there or is another group serving it? And can I contribute my skills to that group in a meaningful way?”
Ultimately, there’s a discernment process that I need to go through as a leader, or my organization needs to go through, in order to determine that, because we know best what we’re good at. Ideally, we’ve investigated in the community what the community needs, and then we can answer that question well.
If you’re having to ask “should you exist,” you haven’t done your homework yet to find out whether or not maybe your idea already exists.
Instead of that top down approach, it’s sort of living within the community and then seeing where there might be some injustices or there might be some barriers or there might be a way to help people flourish that right now is preventing them.
The barrier to entry for a nonprofit is pretty low. I mean, you need a name and an EIN number… you need to file some tax paperwork. And so that’s a couple of hours and a few hundred dollars and you’ve got yourself a nonprofit.
I think it usually starts with seeing a need, or it comes from a personal experience. I think more and more, we’re seeing a lot more intentionality because there are actually programs and educational opportunities to train individuals about what it means to establish a nonprofit. I think that wasn’t necessarily the case 20-30 years ago. And so you have a lot of executive directors that were so passionate about the program, but maybe didn’t have any idea what to do about building a board and fundraising and budgeting.
We do want to acknowledge the sacrifice and the love and the excitement that a community has with strong nonprofits and that the nonprofits have investing in the community. They are their assets in this community, whether or not they’re structured quite right, or they’re serving in quite the right way, but they’ll figure that out over time with good advisers and counselors and directors and leaders. They’ll figure that out. But we want to make sure that they have the opportunity to grow and to figure those things out as they go, giving themselves grace to mess up, but also to continue to serve because we need their investment.
See more from the People Matter series here.