One of the first things I learned during a brief foray into charity work is that everyone wants to start his or her own nonprofit. Job candidates said it, volunteers said it, friends and strangers said it.
Usually the conversation unfolded like this:
Me: I’m working for a great nonprofit now. It’s called Helping Hands of Vegas Valley. (Shameless plug! Help senior citizens at HHOVV.org!)
Altruist: That’s great. I want to start my own nonprofit someday.
Me: Really? What kind?
Altruist: Oh, I’m not sure. Maybe something to do with (animals, kids, disease-fighting, whatever).
Here’s where I should’ve followed up with: “Why not work with an existing nonprofit?”
But the strange thing about the reaction to the word “nonprofit” is that it conjures up more than altruism; it conjures up a desire to be in charge.
Maybe it’s the ego-tinged duality of do-goodism: There’s charity, and then there’s being known for one’s charity. Or maybe it’s an extension of managing one’s money well: If I’m going to give money to a cause, I want to be super sure that every penny goes exactly where I want it to go, not wasted on unnecessary office supplies or staff outings.
Or maybe it really is mostly about our cultural need to brand ourselves, to fill out our public personas like Facebook profiles. By starting our own nonprofits, we’re envisioning our names in the foundation title, or predicting an appearance on Piers Morgan Tonight to discuss the far-reaching effects of our own generosity. It’s as if the needs of the downtrodden provide more than just an opportunity to serve—it’s also an opportunity to serve oneself. Not that I’m saying there’s anything intrinsically wrong with self-promotion, lest I turn in my membership card to the 21st century.
But the truth is, as in any other profession, workers benefit from the experience and expertise of others. Causes benefit from cooperation, and balance sheets benefit from shared overhead. It’s easy enough to apply for tax-exempt status and make up a charity name and appoint oneself chief, but if the point is to meet unmet needs, why not consider joining ongoing efforts?
There are 1,574,674 nonprofit organizations in the United States (959,698 are public charities; the rest are religious organizations or other tax-exempt businesses).
That total grew 25 percent from 2001-11 in the United States—but the number of adults volunteering remained nearly constant: 26.3 percent of Americans over the age of 16 volunteered in 2009-10, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.
Similarly, the number of nonprofits grew 50 percent in Nevada in the last decade, from 5,405 in 1999 to 8,142 in 2009, while volunteering remained fairly steady.
From the consumer side, seeking help can be challenging when multiple agencies duplicate certain services and no one provides other services. It’s not uncommon to find charities with similar missions that are each only marginally effective because they’re struggling with small budgets and limited manpower. If they worked together, some of that could be ironed out.
And some nonprofits do just that—they network in an attempt to cover the community’s needs. For example, coalitions of Las Vegas agencies such as Helping Hands, Jewish Family Services Agency and Three Square food bank joined researchers at UNLV in 2010 to develop Senior Share to provide nutritious food to indigent seniors. Similarly, agencies that help homeless veterans come together each year for Stand Down for the Homeless to provide one-stop resources of all kinds: help with ID cards, food and housing, haircuts and health care.
But nonprofits often work in their own bubble, leaving the consumer to navigate a web of community services that can be as bureaucratic as any government agency.
So when those who call for replacing government agencies with private-sector charities say it would cut down on red tape, they’re being willfully ignorant—just ask someone who’s spent weeks making phone calls and taking buses and filling out forms and standing in lines trying to get help from an archipelago of private charities. Some public agencies serve as reference points from which to begin the search for private help. For example, you can go to the Nevada Division for Aging Services (Aging.State.nv.us) to get a list of nonprofits that help the elderly; but you may not find that list at each of those nonprofits.
Plus, as more inexperienced nonprofits appear on the scene, regulators are stretched further. What we end up with is too many nonprofits, some of which are sketchy, and yet still not enough services for those in need.
Funders also complain about the onslaught of small nonprofits. In some cases, granting foundations report that there are plenty of nonprofits competing for grants, but few that are established and reputable enough to meet qualifications.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have diversity, or that every idea for a new organization is bad—monolithic organizations have their own problems. But when your altruism bubbles up, the idea of starting another nonprofit is not necessarily the best expression of it. Look around. Talk to existing care organizations. Contribute time and money to help ongoing efforts or expand them. If there’s nothing serving the needs of your area of interest, great—start your organization and address them. But the point of a community-service organization is community, not personal branding.