The odds of success are overwhelming, but that is not the biggest reason to NOT start a nonprofit. There is so much more involved than meets the eye, so let’s see if it makes sense.

Recently I have spoken with three different people about starting a nonprofit and with each of them I advised they not do it. Here’s why.

Bad idea #1:

She had all the passion in the world and wanted to start a nonprofit to teach dance to inner city kids and those with no place to go after school. Dance is a hot topic right now and it’s on TV from the “Dancing with the Stars”, and “So you think you can Dance” programs, and of course in every club in every city. Dancing is good and kids have always liked doing it.

I asked her if she had a background in dance. The answer was “no.” I asked her if she had ever started a nonprofit or run any type of business. The answer again was “no.” ”So why are you motivated to do this” I asked? “Because I have a friend that used to teach dance and I’d like to provide him with a job.”

My jaw dropped and I created The First Law of Nonprofit Formation:

Do not start a nonprofit to create a job for yourself, your family or your friends. You motives must be true and pure.


Bad idea #2:

She had a relative in county jail and was a great supporter of her blood. She went there weekly and saw the same people week after week and wanted to create some type of support structure for THEM, the relatives and friends of the incarcerated prisoners.

The goal was to help everyone understand their roles and responsibilities, how to interact with those in jail and what they could and should do when they get released. She actually went so far as to start a nonprofit, spent over $1000 to do so and then was stuck. When I spoke with her I asked about bylaws and board development and grants and all the things nonprofits need to understand to operate like a business, but she had no knowledge of any of that. I told her that if she wanted to get all these people together and develop a support structure there were easier ways and to find a church or school or some local venue where they could share a room and counsel and ministry with each other.

After that conversation I created The Second Law of Nonprofit Formation:

It is good to have a personal motive and mission, but first see if you can provide the same benefits without having to develop an entire business that you are not prepared to do and goes nowhere.

Bad idea #3:

This young man was in the radio field as an engineer and has spent 10 years doing all the behind the scenes work to produce a successful radio show. His heart was pure and his intentions were good and he asked whether I thought he should start a nonprofit to teach young adults about how radio works and about jobs that they can prepare for in that field. I loved this idea and since I spent seven years in radio I got the picture. I also told him not to start a nonprofit, especially since he knew nothing about it and recommended other ways.

I suggested that he develop a program from start to finish, an outline- a course- that teaches someone with ZERO knowledge of radio, and trains them about radio. A class that is easy to understand and THEN offer that course to other nonprofits that are looking for programs. He could offer a program from several weeks to several months long and take it to a currently operational nonprofit to see if they would let him run it. He could offer field trips to radio stations so students could get a real life feel for what goes on. He flipped over that idea. I also suggested he speak with his supervisors at his station to see if THEY had any foundation or nonprofit that might be interested in offering this program. The odds are good.

From there I developed The Third Law of Nonprofit Formation:

Don’t reinvent something that already exists. Before you start a nonprofit, see if there are ones currently running that will appreciate and accept the programs that you may be able to offer. It is better to offer the same program to many, rather than do it yourself unprepared.

Some other ways to get involved:

Instead of starting a brand new organization:

  • Volunteer! There is probably NO nonprofit that has enough support or help and they welcome any and all- and you.
  • Get on the Board. This involves more work, more commitment and credentials that you should have to bring true value to the organization. This is not a play for ego, but for benefits.

So take these points for what they are worth. Be passionate, make a difference, but smart about helping the most that is within your means. Don’t be one of the high number of nonprofits that are being shut down by the IRS or running on fumes with no money to help anyone.