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The Rise of the Starry-Eyed Nonprofit Entrepreneur

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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