As a board member for a 501c(3) recognized non-profit I come in contact with a lot of well meaning folks and volunteers at the various events and meetings I attend, many of which have intentions of forming a new non-profit. To those people, I say please don’t do it. Good intentions are not enough to start and run a successful non-profit organization. In fact, many of the people who either never got this advice or choose to ignore it will end up disillusioned, used, cause more harm to their cause than good, or any combination of these things. My advice to not start a non-profit organization is especially applicable to those who have been affected by or know someone affected by some horrible tragedy or injustice. These people are often in it for the wrong reasons without even knowing (good intentions at work) and do more harm than good. If you’re thinking of creating another non-profit, please read this first, be honest with yourself, and then decide if you really want to do this.
Reason 1: Lack of focus, no clear goals
The non-profit I work for is the Heroin Epidemic Relief Organization (HERO for short). As the name implied we do something with heroin. Specifically, our activities involve educating the public on the topic or drug abuse as it relates to heroin, supporting families affected by the problem, and lobbying local, state, and federal governments to enact policies that will hopefully begin lowering the number arrests, deaths, and cases of addiction across the country. That’s a lot, I know, but we do run successful programs that meet all of those goals.
Soon after I joined the group I almost reconsidered my decision as I didn’t see how we were going to meet these goals. The group was unfocused and there were no concrete plans to tackle any of these problems. There was a lot of hand-waving about how we’re going to “stop the heroin epidemic” but any time I asked how the answers got more and more vague. It feels good to have lofty goals meant to help your fellow citizens. Everyone involved gets a nice dopamine boost after each meeting where the problem is discussed and members say “yeah, we should do XYZ and those damn politicians should do ABC” but beyond rehashing the problem, are you actually implementing plans to solve it?
If you answered yes to the question above, reread the question and answer again, this time focusing on the word implementing. Planning is only the first step toward problem solving. So now let’s assume you believe you can honestly say you are implementing your group’s plans to solve a problem. Great! Now what have you done? Often times groups will do things that could be considered helpful to the cause but are completely ineffectual. You may have held a rally last weekend in the town square but did anyone besides your group members or people you specifically invited attend? Are they supporting you or the group’s cause? When the march is over, what can you say was accomplished? What will be different tomorrow?
Reason 2: You are now a puppet
Did your rally in the town square get some media coverage? Have you been contacted by politicians who support your cause? Wow, well that’s wonderful. You’ve made it now, right? Wrong! What will often happen is that groups who are especially noisy and get attention will start to be contacted by the press, politicians, and government departments. These people will seem to take a genuine interest in your group and ask if they can work with them. Tread lightly because you’re about to get used.
The press love a good human interest story. They’ll call you up, do some interviews and wait for a slow news day to put the piece on the air. Or, a tragedy will happen that’s tangentially related to the mission of your group. A local news station will call you up, ask for an interview and pretend to care about your group. You’ll do a long interview where you get to talk about your group and what you’re doing and then they’ll ask your opinion about the tragedy. Next thing you know, when the nightly news airs you see a story about [Some Tragedy] and your interview ends up being a good 10 seconds worth of B roll for it. You were never the story, they just wanted someone barely related to the story to give an opinion. I know this because it’s happened to me. I’ve been on TV, newspapers, and the radio many times and I have been taken advantage of in this exact way at least once.
Politicians are even worse. They’ll call you up and ask you to do a joint event or attend a media event with them. You’re led to believe they care about this issue and want to use their connections and clout to put you and your issue in the spotlight. Wrong again. They might personally care about the issue but that’s not why they’re calling you. This is all about them and you are a tool to score them political points. You hold an event in conjunction with the politician or government organization and suddenly you find your name is below theirs. Oh, and all those press releases they said they’d help send out using their connections? Yeah, the focus is on them with your group as an afterthought. I’ve even seen government groups not only hog all the credit but make the non-profit foot the bill for most of the event. The reasoning is that their connections and cloud is worth what you’ll spend on the event. These people don’t care about you, they care about votes. If you get involved with them be careful. Partnering with political figures is always a give and take relationship but make sure there’s enough in it for you and watch how they vote like a hawk. Just because they held a rally with you doesn’t mean they voted with you.
Reason 3: You’re too close to the cause, lack of objectivity
I live in an area hit hard by heroin abuse. Chicago is currently the nation’s heroin capital and overdoses are common even in the suburbs. This summer alone we’ve had at least 30 overdose reports with many of those victims dying. What I see happen over and over is that a parent loses their child to a drug overdose and immediately starts a new “Let’s Stop Heroin!” group. We’ve got dozens of them out here and though I feel for their founders, they often don’t do any good and just kind of fizzle and fade away soon after the town gets over the shock of a heroin death in their community.
Founders of non-profits who lack objectivity will often make all of the mistakes I’ve listed so far and more. They believe they’re in it for the right reasons but they’re not. Instead of being for or against something, what they’re really doing is grieving, often in an unhealthy way. The pain of losing their child has made them angry and they are now on a mission to make sure no other child will have to suffer like theirs did. They begin a never-ending crusade, get caught up in all the work and excitement of it, and never realize that their non-profit won’t bring back their lost child. Don’t get me wrong, I feel for these people. Sometimes they end up doing it right like the founder of MADD but usually their new non-profit is just a vehicle for them to avoid grieving.
This reason applied to any sort of non-profit. Groups whose mission has to do with the sex trade, any sort of drugs, alcohol, smoking, cancer, etc. who have founders personally affected by those same things could be either a blessing or a curse. In most cases putting some distance between themselves and the cause goes a long way toward making the group successful.
Reason 4: Ignorance
This one relates to Reason 3 in a huge way. Again, I’ll use groups fighting drugs as an example because they illustrate the point well and I know many of them but this still applies to all non-profits. Founders of these groups who have a personal connection to the cause often ignore facts and put blinders on when it comes to other sides of the issue. Rarely is any issue black and white. You’d think everyone could be anti-drug but its far more complicated than that.
It’s easy to rail against heroin. It causes addiction, people die, it destroys families. But what about marijuana? In being an anti-drug group you will eventually need to start facing issue related to drugs that aren’t so black and white. In order to address these issues and lead your group effectively you need to be knowledgeable about the topic. This is something I almost never see – someone knowledgeable about drugs despite being part of an anti-drug non-profit, that is. When this happens you become easily marginalized, used by others, and it becomes plainly obvious to outsiders that this is not really about the issue but about the people running the group.
Back to marijuana and nuanced issues. I’ve seen anti-drug groups faced with that issue and easily decide and argue against the legalization and medicinal use of marijuana. The problem is that the facts are not on their side. They argue based on emotion and a lot of myths that they were taught when they were younger. They lump all drugs into one big category with the label “BAD” and never allow themselves to see the complexity or facts surrounding the issue. The fact is that drugs are all different. Caffiene is not equivalent to cocaine and alcohol is not equivalent to heroin. How would you reconcile any of these being legal while the others aren’t? How do you reconcile the fact that heroin, as an opiate, has the same effects and abuse potential as the pain killers you get when you get a tooth pulled. Would you outlaw caffeine and alcohol because they’re both drugs and drugs are bad? Is heroin bad but Vicodin good because one is legal and not the other? Why is only one of them legal despite them doing the exact same thing? These are the types of nuanced questions you’ll need to consider in your work with a non-profit. If your answers are based on ignorance and you are being run by fear then you are not doing this for the right reasons. It’s easy for other groups or politicians to co-opt your message and use it for their gain. This doesn’t apply to just one kind of non-profit either. Organizations trying to push cancer research will have to wrestle with the issue of stem-cell research, for example, or hunger-fighters will have to address the use of GMO crops. The point is that personal experience can only take you so far in your work.
One quick story about a woman I saw at an event I gave a talk at that addresses this very thing. We were on a panel with different doctors, non-profit members, and other experts relating to drug abuse and treatment. A woman asked a question about “Strawberry Quick”. She didn’t mean the actual milk drink. Apparently she had heard that there was a new kind of Meth that looked and tasted like candy so it could be sold to kids. She asked we knew about this. No one on the panel had heard of it and no one was willing to speak to the question without looking into it themselves first. Except for one woman. She wanted to be the expert so badly that she quickly looked it up on her phone and came across this Snopes article about it. She read it quickly, memorized it, and answered the question confidently by saying something to the effect of “Yes, they are now selling flavored and colored versions of methamphetamine to children in order to get them addicted at a young age…”. As she recited this answer something didn’t seem right. What she was saying wasn’t logical. So I quickly looked up the same article as she was answering the question. If you visit that Snopes page you’ll see the first half of the page is the story and the second half is an explanation of its veracity. She only read the first part to her own detriment. It turned out that when you read the full article you’d find that this is a myth and that drug dealers are not selling special kid-friendly version of meth. Police have seized some colored batches of methamphetamine but there’s no evidence to suggest that they were meant for kids. If you think about it logically it makes no sense before you even read the story. If you spend a minute thinking about what the purpose of flavoring a drug that doesn’t get ingested orally is and how addicting young kids could be profitable (kids have no money) your B.S. detector will go off loudly. I personally wanted to blurt out that this was a myth and scare tactic meant to promote ignorance but I couldn’t because I hadn’t looked into it yet. But this woman was perfectly happy to continue this disinformation and I fear that she’ll be invited to give more presentations as we all did that day and that she’ll end up using this bad information in her talks. This is the kind of thing I don’t want to see others do. That woman ended up being someone who was personally affected by a drug overdose death in her family.
What you can do
There are 1.5 million non-profit organizations in the United States. If you really want to make a difference you should consider bringing your ideas to an existing non-profit. There is almost certainly a non-profit operating near you that has either already implemented or is willing to listen to your new ideas. There’s a big problem with too many people wanting to start a non-profit but not enough executing on their goals. In the space HERO works in there are dozens of charity groups trying to get funding and attention for their cause. The problem is that we’re all working for the same cause. Most of these non-profits are started by someone to close to the situation, making all the mistakes above, especially numbers 3 and 4. We shouldn’t have to compete against each other for resources. Our programs should not be competing against each other. Actually, it’s quite rare that we see competing programs because most of the non-profits in our space fall victim to the first thing I talked about; inaction and lack of clear focus. But they still believe they will take action and make it harder for functioning non-profits to get the resources they need to actually do something.
The non-profit space is not all feel-good do-gooding. There’s a lot of work involved. Please think your decision through before starting a non-profit. And after you read this, do a quick Google search for “don’t start a non-profit”. Numerous others have written articles about why you shouldn’t start a non-profit but from a different perspective that anyone serious about this should find useful.