It’s not easy to be a lone wolf, and it can be crucial to your success to find a team of advocates to back your cause. How do you find like-minded people to join your team? How can you find a nonprofit to work with that’s already doing similar work? And why you should not start your own nonprofit unless there is a serious gap in the space.
Teens Unite for Change
It’s March 2018, one month since a shooter gunned down 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL. My second-grade student joined his peers at his K-8 school for a 17-minute walkout, synchronized with students at schools all across America. And it’s a small group of students, not much older than he, who have quickly mobilized into a movement that’s already changing the national conversation about guns.
Galvanized and motivated through frustration and grief, these Florida high school students quickly took on the legislature, the National Rifle Association, and the president, appearing with televised speeches, marches, and calls to action.
In one month’s time, their activism led to a new Florida gun safety bill raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21, creating a three-day waiting period for most firearm purchases, and banning bump stocks. Oregon signed a bill expanding a law that prevents domestic abusers from owning guns. Major U.S. corporations including Delta and United airlines and major rental car companies cut ties with the NRA. And, perhaps most poignant, the conversation around gun control has taken on a veracity many of us thought could never be mustered after the shocking dearth of action following the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.
At anti-gun violence community meetings across the country, attendance skyrocketed.
The students appeared everywhere from CNN to The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and managed to keep the public’s attention focused on gun control far beyond the typical cycle of “thoughts and prayers,” anger, despair, and acceptance.
One month ago, these students weren’t looking to form a tribe and start a revolution. Their partnership was formed out of necessity, and their voices were amplified by dozens of organizations and thousands of individuals already doing the work. It was success through synchronicity.
Before you start anything, see if something already exists
One day back in 2014 I came upon an article about the Buy Nothing Project, a collection of independent Facebook groups across the country where members can give and receive where they live. The idea is to facilitate local gift economies around the world, communities that take care of their local members while conserving the carbon footprint of our giving.
I searched for a local group, but, alas, there was nothing remotely near Philadelphia – though there were plenty in Allentown and Cleveland! So, naturally, I wanted to see what it would take to start my own.
It took a few days to get permission from Buy Nothing Headquarters, who worked with me to narrow down my hyperlocal area to essentially my zipcode. The members poured in – more than 100 in less than 24 hours. I just had to deal with the issue of weeding out folks who truly weren’t local enough and encourage them to start their own group.
Within a few months the group branched into dozens of local chapters, and soon I was ready to relinquish admin responsibilities and ask other volunteers to take over the day-to-day management. But the beauty of this group was that it already had its own systems and protocols in place – all I had to do was put the wheels in motion for a local chapter.
But I Want to Create Something New
Think your first step is starting a nonprofit? Not so fast says Tivoni Devor, Senior Partnership Manager at Urban Affairs Coalition.
“Don’t let starting a 501c3 get in the way of you changing the world or just your block,” he says. “In fact getting your 501c3 should only be something you do as a last resort.”
Launching a new nonprofit is complicated, expensive, and generally avoidable. Getting the money you need to do the work you want to do should be your priority, but getting the money the fastest and easiest way possible so that you can actually change the world should be your focus.
Filing with and waiting for the IRS should only be done if there is no other way to get access to the funding you need. In fact, he says, the only true reason to launch a formal independent 501c3 is if is no other way to get the money you need to do the work you want to do.
If you end up getting your own 501c3, that is only the first step; you will need to insure it, manage it, and more, most independent nonprofits spend 20-30% of every dollar they raise on “overhead” the costs to manage and administer their nonprofit.
Also consider that there is no “grant fairy” waiting for you – grants are highly competitive, especially for startups, and most grants of any real size will ask for three years of audited financials. As a startup with no money or history, you are simply cut out of access a bulk of the available grants that are out there.
Devor recommends asking yourself the following questions before determining that starting an individual nonprofit is your next move:
Is there an existing organization with a similar mission I can volunteer or fundraise for? You are not starting a nonprofit because you want to spend time administering and managing a new nonprofit – you want to fix something. So see if there is already an organization with a nonprofit administration that will allow you to contribute through fundraising, volunteering, or even helping expand its mission.
Can I get the funding I need without a formal organization or formal 501c3? Many people will give small amounts to a worthy cause without caring if it is tax deductible – especially with the recent changes to the standard deduction. For instance, you don’t need to be a formal nonprofit to raise funds through a GoFundMe.
Is there another nonprofit in your area that could act as a fiscal sponsor or umbrella organization for you? An organization that will let you fundraise and do what you want to do? Anyone with a nonprofit can support anyone who wants to do a nonprofit activity. They will accept donations for you and you can write grants for your program in their name. They may charge a small fee, but it’s cheaper and faster than getting your own 501c3. Devor calls this casual fiscal sponsorship, and it’s generally done as a favor.
Can I find a professional fiscal sponsor? If you want to quickly setup an organization with a staff, you may want to engage an organization that focuses on providing fiscal sponsorship. Fiscal Sponsorship organizations use their scale to greatly reduce overhead costs, meaning you can expect to pay between 5-15% but much more money back into your mission. Also, if you are part of a fiscal sponsor, you get to use their audited financials, their reputation and history to build your program, and access those funds you could not get as a startup org. These organizations have robust back office fiscal and HR services that you can plug into. Check out fiscalsponsors.org.
If You Have Five Minutes:
Set up a recurring donation to a nonprofit that does proven advocacy on behalf of the causes you care most about. Check out charitynavigator.org for full and transparent ratings and reports on nonprofit organizations. Remember, it’s more effective to give larger donations to one or two organizations than to spread your donations too thin. Tiny donations are often canceled out by the administrative costs of sustaining very small donors.
If You Have An Hour:
Volunteer for an existing organization doing the work you believe in.
If You Have More Time:
Organizations are often looking for board members and volunteer leaders. See if you can take the next step to get involved with a cause you are passionate about to support meaningful change.
This post is part of my Budget Activist series. Thank you for reading and sharing!