Do Not Start a Nonprofit in 2024

13 March 2024

Robin Heller is the Founder and President of The Athena Advisors Consulting. Here, Robin talks us through why starting a nonprofit, despite our best intentions, really might not be the best thing to do in 2024, or any year for that matter and instead suggests 10 things we might consider doing first

On your list of 2024 new year’s resolutions might have been a noble, valiant, bold plan: “I will start a charity this year!” Perhaps you work for a corporation, and you want to do the righteous, caring work of a charity. Perhaps you work for a nonprofit, and you see a big problem. You know you have it in yourself to solve that big problem that comes up again and again at staff meetings. Perhaps you’ve just returned from a trip to the Global South, and, returning to the Global North, you want to return and open a school. Or perhaps you are retiring, and you are ready to take on the Big Bet of changing the world. “You got this!” you whisper to yourself at night.

Stop.

As someone who has worked her entire career in nonprofits and now consults with nonprofits, I strongly urge you to hold back on starting that new charity or nonprofit.

The most recent information available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of this writing, is that in 2022, there are 1.48 million 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations in the US. Some of these are nonprofits such as Harvard University’s endowment, with holdings of $6.1 billion, according to its 2023 report. Or it might be a charity such as my local food bank in Takoma Park, Maryland which saw a 30% increase in food distribution in autumn 2023. From a common-sense point of view—and not just a regulatory or legal point of view—perhaps you agree with me: There are a lot of charities in the U.S. alone.

And that’s why I want to propose ten things that you can do before starting that paperwork to launch a charity in 2024:

1. Fall in love with a charity.

Think about what subjects and issues interest you and begin to read about the top charities in that sector. See how charities are organized, who supports them, and who is on the board. Read their strategic plan. Find a charity you love and ask a board member to lunch. (Pick up the tab). Listen well to what they need. Be humble about what a charity can teach you. Be open to loving what you see—or find one you do.

2. Ask people to give money to your nonprofit

for your birthday, retirement, or other milestone. Put your request on Facebook and LinkedIn and share the request with your family. You’ll ensure funds go to the charity of your choice, but you might also bring others to fall in love with your charity.

3. Get curious and smart about what really matters to charities.

If you are one of the dinosaurs who says, “I only want my contributions to go to programming,” it’s time to read the decade-old letter by the CEOs of Guidestar, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and Charity Navigator about the myth that overhead is the only indicator of quality in a nonprofit. Programming is fueled by overhead—having excellence in HR, investing in fundraising, and paying staff (including the CEO) very well leads to a sustainable workforce and quality outcomes. Be on the right side of history and be vocal when the subject comes up at a dinner party about how much the head of your local youth mentoring organization is making.

4. Get curious about the sector of philanthropy and nonprofits.

Subscribe to (and pay for) the Chronicle of Philanthropy or Alliance, two outstanding publications that cover the sector with excellent journalism and investigative rigor.

5. Host a charity leader

at your law firm, fraternity or sorority, your house of worship, or your civic organization. Make it easy on everyone by handling the publicity and refreshments. Extra credit: Give that person an honorarium because their time is worth money just like yours.

6. Join a board of directors of a charity.

Now that you’re getting smarter about the World of Nonprofits, you can choose one that speaks to your interest. Maybe you bring your talents (finance, marketing, fundraising) or maybe you want to learn something new (finance, marketing, fundraising). If you are chosen for the honor of being on a board, recognize it’s a three to five year commitment. For most US boards, there is also a request/requirement to make a contribution annually. Go through the onboarding. Stay clear of the staff and let them do the operational and programming work. Do what you’re asked to do (often it’s to open doors). Support the CEO to be successful. Make this volunteer commitment

7. Support a young person to be on a board.

Maybe you’re at the point in your career where you are invited to be on a board again and again. Now is your chance to say, “let’s find someone earlier in their career and have that person join your board.” Be available to coach the person about boards, but have the confidence in someone of a different generation. (And if the nonprofit says, “We want someone who can make a contribution if they are going to be on the board,” that’s your chance to say, “I’ll handle their give-and-get if they aren’t ready for that”).

8. Tell others what nonprofits you support.

Use your social media to share what about great nonprofits, including the ones who receive your donations. People will follow your example.

9. Share your love of philanthropy and nonprofits with the young people in your lives.

Help your children put aside funds of their very own. Help them decide which nonprofits they want to support. There’s a custom at Passover to keep kids

engaged with the long ritual meal: hiding the afikomen, a piece of matzah, and sending the kids through the house to find it. (Think Easter Egg hunts, but for Jews). The usual custom is that the child who finds the afikomen receives a gift of a little money. In my household, the children know that the one who finds the afikomen chooses which charity gets a contribution in their honor. Depending on the child’s age, developmental stage, and interests, you can lead children in conversations about ethics, mission drift, and a livable wage for nonprofit staff.

10. Finally, make a meaningful contribution to the charity of your choice.

If you’re wealthy enough to think about founding a new nonprofit, you are wealthy enough to give a contribution. Great causes are waiting for people like you to be a hero.