The Rise of the Starry-Eyed Nonprofit Entrepreneur


I’ve called generation Y an entire generation of entrepreneurs, and I was relieved to read recently that the Gen Y entrepreneurial mentality has finally seeped into the nonprofit sector- and it’s about time! After reading so many articles about the struggles of connecting Gen Y to Baby Boomers in nonprofit organizations and the alleged increasing disengagement that Millennials feel toward nonprofit organizations due to long hours and low pay, it’s downright refreshing to see a spike in interest in the nonprofit sector.

Recently, Kristin Ivie wrote a thought-provoking post on the Social Citizens blog encouraging members of Generation Y to “think again” before they start their own nonprofit organizations. The article features five heartbreakingly practical reasons why starting your own nonprofit may be a bad idea. She writes, “I googled “how to start a nonprofit” and got 44 million returns. You people have to stop.”

I disagree. Please, please do not stop.

I’m not saying it’s a good idea to start up nonprofit organizations left and right without having a good idea of what you’re getting yourself into (and Kristin’s article makes many excellent points that interested folks should fully take into account). I am glad, though, that the excitement and innovation of the entrepreneurial spirit is now finally linking up with nonprofit organizations after it has been long aligned with newly-founded corporations. Just as many young corporate entrepreneurs fail when they don’t carefully weigh the situation they are getting themselves into, nonprofit entrepreneurs will also fail when they don’t adequately consider the environment of the nonprofit sector before gaining their 501(c)(3) status.

If it is a trend for members of generation Y (or any folks) to start up their own nonprofit organizations as the article suggests, then there’s at least one outstanding reason for my fellow nonprofiteers to celebrate: this trend could be grooming the next generation of leaders through incredible hands-on experience in the face of the forecasted leadership deficit.

I’ve mentioned this study before, but I think it’s a powerful one: according to a 2006 study by The Bridgespan Group, the nonprofit industry will need to attract and develop an estimated 640,000 new senior managers over the next decade in order to fill the upcoming leadership deficit in nonprofit organizations. Though many of the folks who attempt to start their own nonprofit organization will fail, the experience that they gain will be substantial and it will help them to become better nonprofit leaders in the long-run.

How is that not a good thing?!

Let them try, I argue. Lets be supportive of these new nonprofits and their starry-eyed leaders. They just may be onto something; and, if this trend continues (if it is a trend), then it may be the start of something interesting and perhaps great.

If you are considering starting a nonprofit organization, please think about these five, very sensible and useful, questions that Kristin poses:

  1. Is another organization already doing something like this?
  2. If there are others doing something similar, and there almost always are, how would you do it differently?
  3. What can you do to support existing organizations?
  4. Do you have a real sense of how hard this is going to be?
  5. Why do you want to do this?

You might think by reading these five points that the glass is permanently half-empty when it comes to nonprofit organizations. That is– though they are important– these questions aren’t worded in a way that is particularly encouraging. But what is to become of the nonprofit sector if (we) nonprofiteers shoot down the dreams of budding nonprofit entrepreneurs whose experiments may be ultimately strengthening our workforce? Yes, starting a nonprofit is (very) hard, but starting your own company is hard, too, and members of generation Y continue to fight that battle.

As I mentioned, Kristin does have some excellent points– especially under questions three and four so check them out. It is true that the nonprofit sector would be stronger if talent were to join and strengthen existing nonprofits rather than create several, unstable and competing organizations of their own.

In sum, yes- for your own benefit and for the benefit of your family members who will make the initial contributions to your perhaps-transient newly-created nonprofit organization- please be aware of what you are getting yourself into. But also please keep generally supporting the missions of nonprofit organizations, and keep thinking of ways to be innovative and contribute to the sector.

…Keep thinking you can change the world (you can!), and please keep writing about it so it shows up on google. Keep summoning friends to support socially conscious causes and keep pursuing larger-than-life goals. I may be a starry-eyed nonprofit optimist myself, but hey–  that’s just how we entrepreneurial Gen Yers are wired, right?

Posted on by Colleen Dilenschneider in Millennials, Trends 5 Comments

About the author

Colleen Dilenschneider

MPA. Chief Market Engagement Officer at IMPACTS Research & Development. Nonprofit marketer, Generation Y museum, zoo & aquarium writer/speaker, web engagement geek, data nerd, marathoner, nomad, herbivore

5 Responses to The Rise of the Starry-Eyed Nonprofit Entrepreneur

  1. Dwight

    One of the big questions not being asked enough of starry eyed entrepreneurs is whether their enterprise is remarkable. Or are we doing the same old thing? Non profits and social entrepreneurs alike, can’t afford mediocrity. We need to be creating enterprises that hit the gaps in coverage of existing organizations and attract and train other passionate individuals. Non profits are changing. We not only have to create new leaders in a changing arena, but push them to raise the bar for all social change advocates.

  2. Caroline "Cici"

    I respectfully disagree with you about this. I think that the nonprofit arts world especially suffers from oversaturation, and at some point starry-eyed idealism must be replaced with practicality and responsibility. This economy especially has illuminated the fact that there are too many people doing similar things and competing for the same funds to do it, funds that are rapidly depleting and, in many cases, disappearing.

    At one point in your post, you state, “Though many of the folks who attempt to start their own nonprofit organization will fail, the experience that they gain will be substantial and it will help them to become better nonprofit leaders in the long-run. How is that not a good thing?!”

    It’s not a good thing because we’re not talking about a for-profit venture that wastes only one or two people’s time and money. By their very nature, nonprofits are public institutions that survive on funds coming from sources that expect their money will help provide successful long-term results, which will not come from a nonprofit that’s around for 1-2 years.

    Sure, maybe some good work experience has been gained from those who start these organizations, but I think judging the issue just on that is very selfish because it only takes into account the individual and their professional goals. At some point, it’s essential to realize that more isn’t better and that the best way to enact long-term positive change is to strengthen and innovate the organizations that already have the infrastructure, history, donor base and administrative capabilities to do the job effectively, instead of starting from ground zero.

    This reminds me of a discussion we had in an ELNYA book club once. New York is filled with nonprofit dance companies started by individual choreographers to support their unique artistic vision; however, once that choreographer dies, what is left is a company left to administratively and financially support a static repertory. Inevitably, the cultural market becomes saturated with similarly-sized dance companies all competing for the same limited grant opportunities. An employee of one of these companies came up with the idea that, wouldn’t it be great if there were one company that held the rights to choreography of all deceased choreographers and was able to present it all in repertory? That way, the work still survives but it eases the strain on entities that believe in supporting dance but don’t have the resources to donate to every single niche choreographer’s company. It makes so much sense.

    Anyway, I guess my bottom line is that the economy has affected nonprofits in the same way it’s affected for-profits: only those with really solid infrastructure, utilization of strategic planning and good business practices, and a realistic grasp of where the funds will come from will survive, and unfortunately I don’t think many “pie in the sky” nonprofits will make the cut. I think in the long-term it’s much more useful to innovate from within and make sure that more solid nonprofits are really adapting to fit the times instead of starting from scratch.

  3. Elizabeth Sheppard

    Is it my imagination or does every movie star or famous personality want to start their own nonprofit lately? I am thinking that they like the control of it, and enjoy being in charge too. A smaller percentage may like the publicity. Is this taking away from the worthwhile groups that are already there? I don’t know. They may be tapping new income sources.

    But we do have loads of existing nonprofits that are having a hard time right now (or at least some are). The money donated from people that can afford it only goes so far.

    I agree with Caroline – sometimes people should take a hard look at what is already there. That and they should consider maybe taking a class in grantwriting. And Dwight also has a point about steering clear of mediocrity. We can always use more great ideas!

  4. eclawson

    Colleen- this is the best argument I’ve heard yet for supporting a bloom of new nonprofits. In my most recent job, we followed the “Are there too many nonprofits?” debate closely, leaning toward the side of “Yes, so stop founding them already.” But you’re right that when the boomer leaders of today leave a gaping hole for the millennial leaders of tomorrow to fill, how prepared will we be? There are those of us who will have risen through the ranks, and there will be those of us who will have created their own ranks, and I bet the latter will bring crucial experiences and viewpoints to the table. Thanks for helping change my mind!

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