NO More Nonprofits! By Tom Wickersham December 19, 2018
No More Nonprofits!
By Tom Wickersham
I recently received a call from Anthony who wanted to talk about a new nonprofit that he’s starting.
Anthony (not his real name) was extremely excited to start working with youth in Waterloo to help
“keep kids off the streets.” I asked him about the programming he would provide.
“We’ll do after-school activities like with the arts and with sports,” he said. “We’ll also focus on
leadership development, and we’ll have stuff on developing healthy habits and good life skills. And,
of course, we’ll focus on tutoring and helping kids with their homework” Anthony said.
“You know the Boys & Girls Club already does this, don’t you?” I asked.
“Oh, no they don’t!” he said, unaware of his inaccuracy. “They don’t do anything with homework.”
This is not the first time I’ve had a conversation with someone who was about to or had already
started a new nonprofit that duplicates services already being provided. In fact, I have these
conversations regularly. In the last 3 years, over 30 nonprofits have started operations in Waterloo
and Cedar Falls. And that’s just what I’m aware of!
This growth mirrors a national trend. “From 2001 to 2011, the number of nonprofits in the United
States grew 25 percent while the number of for-profit businesses rose by half of 1 percent.”
Anthony and others all bring passion and a desire to make our community a better place, which I
applaud. However, almost all of these proposals, if established, would duplicate services already
being provided. I encourage most people who pitch starting new nonprofits to explore alternative
options. Sadly, most proceed with a launch.
A Negative Impact on the Community
To be clear, I’m not saying that new nonprofits aren’t going to make a difference or that they aren’t
filling a need in our community. I’m also not necessarily concerned about duplication of services
(an issue for a future column). My concern is the drain on our community – how much energy it
takes to support a multitude of nonprofits. Consider the competition for limited resources:
- Volunteers (specifically board members)
In addition, consider how many community resources are consumed just to launch – countless
hours spent on designing logos, creating mission statements, building websites, writing bylaws,
making pamphlets, etc. Not to mention job descriptions, finding office space, setting up a checking
account, refurbishing computers, and so on. Think of all the people it took to do that work.
On top of that, once the nonprofit is established, even more energy is consumed to keep the
nonprofit on life support rather than making the community better: “The sad fact is that most
nonprofits never reach the necessary scale to have the impact they desire.”
There are numerous other reasons, including:
- “Underfunded nonprofits may do as much harm as good
- Proper staffing is hard for brand new nonprofits with tiny budgets
- Founders may not be equipped to lead if successful.”
Here is my solution: Rather than adding lots of new small nonprofits every year, let’s channel
those energies and ideas into our existing nonprofit sector, to grow it and expand its reach
If you’re interested in starting a nonprofit, you should be meeting with existing agencies to see how
you can make the impacts you want to through an existing infrastructure. Think of your idea as a
program under the umbrella of an established organization. Or, if you’ve already launched,
consider merging: “Nonprofit mergers and acquisitions are often an effective way to deliver more
and better services at lower cost.”
Existing nonprofits: You need to be on the lookout for start-up nonprofit efforts and harness that
energy to expand your services. Such collaborations will add capacity, expand your volunteer pool,
reach more people, and do more good while eliminating potential competition.
There are many ways that nonprofits and those wanting to start a nonprofit can work together
without having to launch another agency. I’d be happy to help facilitate conversations and support
any efforts to merge missions. The same goes with existing agencies – even if merging isn’t an
option, “joint ventures to share space, back-office functions, or specialized programmatic functions
can also be a way to achieve economies of scale without giving up organizational autonomy or
identity.” Let’s work together to solve problems rather than stretch thin our community’s resources.
Often at the core of the start-up nonprofit is a person with abundant energy, but there’s a
significant drawback to that. Earlier this year I was in a meeting with a new nonprofit founder and
his board chair. During our meeting, the board chair kept reiterating how wonderful the founder
was: “You should see him with the kids!” she repeated frequently.
I finally asked, “What will you do after he’s gone?”
She didn’t have an answer.
Tom Wickersham is the Program Director at the Community Foundation of Northeast Iowa
The items in this series will be marked as editorial/opinion and do not reflect an endorsement or
official position of Cedar Valley Nonprofit Association or its sponsors/investors. We reserve the
right not to publish editorials that are designed be inflammatory or discriminatory.