Should I go work for a green nonprofit or start my own?

Advice on how to make the world better.
July 8 2009 9:30 AM

The Environmental Entrepreneur

Should I go work for a green nonprofit or start my own?

Green Peace activist. Click image to expand.
A Green Peace activist

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

I'm a student in my mid-20s studying environmental philosophy. I'm considering heading into nonprofit work and am volunteering a bit right now, though I'm not convinced I'll be able to find a paying job in the field.

My father owns a small business, and I've always felt a pull toward the idea of starting my own business, so I'm thinking about starting an environmental nonprofit—something local that isn't looking to rake in millions and reach around the globe, but an organization that can be effective within modest aims. Is this a good idea? Essentially, is it better to start a new group with a more specific aim related to my interests, or is it better to try to help an existing nonprofit that isn't as aligned with me personally?

—Jordan

Sandy:

Social entrepreneurship is hot right now. From President Obama's call for $50 million to start the Social Innovation Fund to NBC's new show The Philanthropist, it seems that everyone is interested in the social sector, which means a lot of people are asking exactly your question. While I understand the appeal of starting your own nonprofit and applaud your entrepreneurial spirit, it doesn't sound like you have a particularly persuasive reason to do so right now.

A study by the Urban Institute found that the number of registered environmental and conservation organizations grew at an average rate of 4.6 percent per year from 1995 to 2007, or nearly twice the rate of all nonprofits. I'm not going to jump on the "too many nonprofits" bandwagon, but I don't see any point in starting an organization that doesn't bring something new to the sector. The recession has hit foundations and individual donors hard, and even established nonprofits are having trouble staying afloat in this climate.

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Starting even a "local" nonprofit demands a lot of work, money, and time. So why not take some time to learn the field first? Start by asking yourself whether you can address a clear need that isn't met by existing programs or nonprofits. Have you already explored what organizations exist and whether there are opportunities for collaboration? Just as your father wouldn't have started his small business without doing a market analysis and finding a true market need, neither should you.

Since you are a recent graduate, I also urge you to consider how much you could learn from working in the field for a few years. You'll see who's doing what, what's working well, and where there is room for improvement. An Idealist guide to starting your own nonprofit points out that experience in the sector isn't just important to bolster your own background but can also make or break you in the eyes of potential funders, employees, and constituents. Working at a great nonprofit should also give you the opportunity to learn important skills you'll need when you start out on your own: leadership, fundraising, strategic planning, etc.

But all warnings aside, if you do have a compelling vision: Go for it! Many notable organizations were started by young people with big ideas. Wendy Kopp proposed the creation of Teach for America in her undergraduate thesis and managed to raise $2.5 million at age 21. City Year was started more than 20 years ago by Harvard Law School roommates Michael Brown and Alan Khazei. And an organization that I worked with in college, Project HEALTH, was started by Rebecca Onie when she was just a college sophomore.

Where to begin? The Foundation Center has a great list of online resources for starting a nonprofit, as does Idealist. Read the Skoll Foundation's Social Edge, a blog "by social entrepreneurs, for social entrepreneurs," to learn best (and worst) practices. Also explore different funding sources. The Echoing Green Fellowship provides seed funding and mentorship to individuals or teams with innovative solutions to significant social problems. Both Teach for America and City Year received funding from Echoing Green before they launched.

And if I've scared you away from starting your own nonprofit but you still have a burning desire to start a project that matches your exact interests, think about approaching an existing organization with a complementary mission. This can allow you to avoid the red tape of starting your own nonprofit while still pursuing your own idea. See if the organization is interested in incubating your project or acting as a fiscal sponsor. Fiscal sponsorship is usually a formal agreement between an individual or unincorporated group and an existing 501(c)(3). This allows the new project to use the organization's tax-exempt status, and often its back office services (accounting, HR, etc.), while maintaining a certain amount of programmatic autonomy. Ideally, it ends up being a win-win situation for both parties.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Sandy Stonesifer works on issues related to adolescent girls' health at a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.