Friday, January 15, 2016

Four things you need to hear before you start a non-profit.

People will challenge your idea.
Investigate, move on, and work harder. 
I originally wanted to write a post saying “Start a non profit. It’s not that hard.” That would have had a lot of shock value.  It's true, too. If you have a good idea, three people who are on your side, and $1000, you can file all the paperwork and get your non-profit started. No joke. If your non-profit fails, as long as you don’t have any liabilities, you can close it down without too much trouble. 

The real hard work is gaining momentum and strength to pursue your mission. You might have a vision, but people will get in your way. Your work will never be enough. I'd like to offer four things to consider, or at least to prepare yourself for, if you're starting a 501c3:

  1. If you think it’s too much work, it probably is. In my first job in the sphere, I was starting a center for art in music West-Africa. My boss-funder, who was a millionaire, never wanted to start a non-profit. “They’re too much work,” she would say, “taxes and all that.” So instead, she funneled our money through another non-profit. I did all the work and they took 7% just for the privilege of passing us the money.  The fiscal sponsor had a lock on how we were able to fundraise. The organization, though stable, wasn't set to grow. Ultimately, though, she got what she wanted - a small center doing the same things every year. That was great for her. I moved on.
  2. People will challenge you.  “Have you talked to xxxx?” “Are you sure xxxx isn’t already doing that?” “No one will pay for that.”  Some of the brightest and best in the community will make you feel useless and incapable. They’ll have horror stories about non-profits gone wrong and discourage you from pursuing your dreams. Wade through the crap. About 50% of the time their questions are valid and their points are smart. The other 50%, they'll send you in the wrong direction.  Don’t dwell too much on the challenge and don't be too discouraged by the questions. Investigate, move on and work harder.
  3. The time is now.  People want to fund living, breathing projects.  If you want to start a youth program, do a once-a-week workshop.  Show that there is a need through your work, and prove that you can’t meet that need without community support.  Don’t wait for money, and definitely don’t wait for your 501c3 status. Don't have 20 meetings. Spend your time doing the work you want your non-profit to do as best you can. Have something to show for yourself when you go begging.
  4. Shut up about yourself.  I’ll never forget when I sat in a community meeting, and someone stood up and said, “I left a job working with Michael Jackson and Prince because God called me to come home and serve my community, and now, here I am. I’m not getting any respect or support from anyone in my project.” No one left that day wanting to help him out.  No kidding.  Self-inflation happens a lot in the nonprofit world.  "I sacrifice a great deal for my organization." "I deserve more." Even personally, I have to silence myself. It’s not about me. It’s not about me. It’s not about me. Get off your high horse and get over your sacrifice. Be excited and motivated about what you want to do. Be classy. Don't beg for attention. Create something that demands it.

If you can get through these hurdles, it’s worth getting the wheels turning. If you can't deal with challenging questions, getting stuff done, and dousing your ego, you should bail Or better yet, find a partner in crime that can take some of the guff that you don’t want to deal with.  
When I first went to work on this project in West-Africa, they were just painting the building.
There was no staff, no programs. We even had to order furniture.  It was a lot of work. 

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