A few years ago, while riding the 1 train in New York City, I overheard three people in their mid-twenties chatting about being unfulfilled in their jobs and wanting to do something different. 

This was nothing new, I hear many people complain about their job on the train.

What was different about this conversation was that one man in the group thought the solution to his career unhappiness was starting a nonprofit organization.  Another person in the group seemed impressed by his declaration and asked what his nonprofit would do.  He replied, “something with the arts.” 

I cringed in my seat when I heard his response.  It was obvious that he had not put a lot of thought into what type of organization he wanted to establish or he had trouble articulating his future organization’s mission.  Before I could decide which theory was true, he and his friends exited the train at 86th Street.  I continued my journey to 50th Street wondering why he had not considered working for a nonprofit that did “something with the arts.”

Later that month, I attended a workshop and two people in the room mentioned they wanted to start a nonprofit organization in the next few years.  Both of them worked in the corporate sector and thought starting a nonprofit was a way to give back to their communities.  I am thrilled to meet people who want to do work that satisfies a social need or drives social change; however, it is not always necessary to create a new nonprofit organization to fulfill a desire to make a difference.

According to the 2012 Nonprofit Almanac, there are 1.6 million nonprofit organizations registered with the IRS.  I’m sure many of these organizations are already doing work similar to what the man on the train and the individuals at the workshop aspired to do with their future nonprofits.  However, these people mentioned in the article are not alone; there are thousands of other people just like them who believe the only way to improve their neighborhood, region, state, or even the world is to start a nonprofit organization.

If you are one of the thousands interested in starting a nonprofit, there are a few things you should keep in mind before making your final decision:

Find out if there are other nonprofit organizations in your area that do similar work

Before you start a nonprofit, you should answer the following questions:

Is there a need for my organization?

What do I hope to accomplish through my organization?

What type of services will my organization provide?

Are there other organizations doing what I want to do?  If so, how will I compete with them for clients and funding?

If another organization is providing similar services, make sure there is something different about your approach before starting another nonprofit.  Your organization will compete with more established organizations for funds to support your work; clients to serve; volunteers to help your organization; etc.  Nonprofit organizations are competing for the same limited funds from foundations, major donors, and corporations.  In the last few years, the competition for funding has increased and most funders want to see measurable proof that your organization is making an impact before they fund new programs and projects.

Consider working for an organization that does work you are passionate about

After you do some research, you may find there are organizations in your area doing the type of work that interests you.  At that point, you should consider working at the organization to help them fulfill their mission.  If you want to test the waters before making a full-time commitment, you can volunteer or serve on the board of directors to see if the organization is a good fit for you.

Consider collaborating with an established nonprofit

Collaborating with an organization that works in the same issue area is an alternative to starting a new nonprofit.  Meet with established organizations to discuss the possibility of partnering on a special project or initiative.  Additionally, research national nonprofit organizations in your interest area and determine if a local affiliate is needed in your community.  If your community could benefit from a local branch, contact the national headquarters to discuss the idea of bringing the organization to your region.

Move forward with starting a nonprofit organization only after you conduct thorough market research to determine your organization will address a social need that is not being confronted by an existing nonprofit.

Photography: Leah Beilhart

Charmaine Simpson Avatar

Charmaine Simpson is a nonprofit professional helping organizations increase their capacity to make lasting social change.