Friday, February 18, 2011

“Should I Start My Own Nonprofit?” Another Idealist Asks

People have called me over the years, asking me for my sage advice on whether or not I think they should start their own nonprofit. I’m always happy to share my experience with anyone who is interested, for two reasons: people were really generous with me when I first got started, telling me how they did it, so I consider taking the time to do the same for others as a “pay it forward” kind of thing, and I’m always happy to meet anyone who is passionate, dedicated, and willing enough to try and make the world a better place by starting a nonprofit organization of their own.

All of the information I have collected over the years, all of the knowledge that I have acquired through my own successes and failures, and the psychological hurdles I have managed to jump over (dealing with lots of different people, politics, stress, and my own personal growing pangs from developing as a leader), are good, juicy stuff that should be put down in one single book. I think I’ll write that book.

There are plenty of books out there that cover the logistical aspects of starting and running a nonprofit organization, fundraising, board development, leadership, managing volunteers, marketing, strategic planning, and operating a business. I have read a whole bunch of them. But I have yet to come across a book that alerts you of the challenges that come from going from being “The Mom” (or “Dad”) of an organization, to a mature community leader.......all of the stuff that the experts don’t tell you, or are written down in any “how-to” books you seek out when you first get started, when you’re all starry eyed and ready to right the wrongs of the world.

Like the time it actually takes to get a new nonprofit off the ground. Or how much money you will spend out of pocket. It’s like giving birth to a new child – you have to prepare for its birth, and then when it gets here you have to take care of it, twenty four hours a day. And, just like with raising kids, the job of being “mom” to a nonprofit is a pretty thankless one. You worry about it. You love it. You guide it. You protect it. You wear yourself out taking care of it. But then in return, you get the satisfaction of birthing, loving and guiding your baby out into the world, where it will hopefully make a positive difference.

When I started working on putting my nonprofit organization together twelve years ago, I didn’t know the first thing about starting a corporation, forming a board of directors, or fundraising. All I knew was that the kids of my community needed and deserved to have the arts in their schools right away. Whatever I had to do to make that happen, well, I would just do it. I was determined to right that wrong. I put one foot in front of the other, getting advice, reading, and taking classes along the way as I ascended the mountain. I was wise (more like na├»ve) to never look up to see how much further I needed to go or how high I would need to keep climbing. Instead, I was focused on each step. When I reached the summit, I thought of two things. If I had looked up and known how far I would have had to climb in the beginning, I may have passed on the whole idea (which most people end up doing). Once I was at the top of that mountain I could really appreciate all of the hard work that it took getting there. It was worth it, I thought, just like raising kids. It’s a lot of hard work. It wipes you out, but you wouldn’t have it any other way.

The first thing I like to ask people when they inquire about whether or not I think they should start a nonprofit is “How pissed off are you?” You need to be pissed off and you need to stay pissed off about the injustice that has inspired you to start a nonprofit in the first place. You’ll need to really believe in your idea, full heartedly, because you will be challenged, non stop, every step of the way, as you climb that mountain. Your anger and passion are what will keep you focused and pointed in the right direction as you continue to climb. Stay angry. Hold on to the passion. If you love what you are doing, really believe in the cause, and are pissed off and passionate enough, then hell ya, do it!