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Thoughts from a nonprofit hopeful

May 30, 2012

This is a guest post by Tessa Tompkins. She recently graduated with a BA in Social Entrepreneurship from Belmont University and this fall will begin a Master’s Degree in Community Planning at Auburn University.


Belmont University is known for its music, business, and music business programs. However, the majority of recent graduates, no matter from which corner of the university they emerged, want to do the same thing: Work at a nonprofit. Even beyond Belmont University and Nashville, Tennessee, it seems that all twenty- and thirty-somethings nowadays aim to relieve some social ailment, such as homelessness, sex trafficking, AIDS, etc. If they can’t find a nonprofit that does exactly what they want to do exactly how they want to do it, they start their own. The rise in grassroots nonprofits based out of homes and garages proves that barriers to entry in the nonprofit sector have practically disappeared and that droves of people want to make a difference, but they want to make a difference their way. As a former nonprofit hopeful, I can attest that it is a powerful dream. But because I chose to major in Social Entrepreneurship, my romantic image of nonprofits—a bunch of do-gooders working eighty hours a week for a meager salary—was shattered. To all those thinking about starting a nonprofit of some sort, my only advice is—don’t.

Within my graduating class at Belmont, there were nine Social Entrepreneurship students with nine missions and nine ideas about nonprofits to start. We began at Belmont convinced that we could meet unmet needs around the world better than organizations that were currently trying to do so. We took entrepreneurship, accounting, political science, and sociology classes in order to understand the worlds of business and human interaction and encourage collaboration and innovation within both. Now, freshly graduated, not one of us plans to start the nonprofit we dreamed about freshman year. How did such bright-eyed, well-intentioned goals become, in retrospect, proof of our idealistic naiveté? Throughout our four years at Belmont, we discovered that two major issues within the nonprofit sector today are disorganization and self-glorification. One simple way to help both problems is greater collaboration among existing nonprofits and a halt to the influx of newcomers. Collaboration would decrease the vast number of nonprofits as they combined resources to make a greater impact. At the same time, the spotlight would not be on one agency or one person, and making a difference would involve and require many people. These lessons were all too real when we got out into the nonprofit world.

I completed an internship junior year at a small, grassroots missions agency that worked out of the founder’s garage. The romance of the experience evaporated as I learned how small, grassroots agencies really work. It all starts with a person or group of people who have a burden on their hearts—some social problem or ailment—and a vision of how to fix it. Without researching what is already being done or what is the most sustainable way to meet the need, they start a ministry or a nonprofit, ask everyone they know for money, and move in blindly. When I traveled overseas with my internship organization, I realized that good intentions turn bitter when a business model treats communities like incapable charity cases. The first thing a Social Entrepreneurship professor teaches is that the mission, and of course the passion that drives that mission, is the core of the social venture. However, I learned during my internship that the mission cannot be the only thing within the organization. A nonprofit is a business that needs a detailed plan for staffing, marketing, operations, and funding; it also needs to understand its customers and how best to empower them, so solutions are sustainable beyond the organization’s reach. It’s one thing for a bunch of do-gooders to want to change the world and meet everyone’s needs, but it is quite another when they all start nonprofits, most of them uninformed and poorly run.

The other red flag in the nonprofit sector emerged when I mentioned that a friend of mine was interning at an organization that did similar work to what we were doing. My internship supervisor told me not to share the news with the founder because she considered that organization our “enemy.” I thought to myself, shouldn’t we do whatever we can to further our mission, even if it means making partners and taking ourselves out of the spotlight? If an agency provides shelter for homeless families and another provides career training for homeless adults, they would be so much more valuable to their customers if they joined together and served both needs in one building. Like I said, the mission cannot be all there is to an organization, but it can certainly be a common starting point and a door to strategic alliances. Unfortunately, viewing nonprofit work as a competition and a means to self-glorification is all too common within the industry. When similar organizations join together, share resources, and stop competing, they are much more effective than when they work alone.

Despite these flaws, the nonprofit sector isn’t doomed yet. The nine of us Social Entrepreneurship graduates did not lose our passion for this industry and our desire to make the world a better place. We just realized the best, most effective way to do it. All nine of us want to enhance the impact of existing organizations and are hoping to consult, find jobs at struggling nonprofits, or continue our education at graduate school. If nothing else, we learned that Social Entrepreneurship is more of a way of life than a single action, and it doesn’t require starting anything. It’s about looking at business as an opportunity for sustainable change; looking at victims as a chance for empowerment; looking at competitors as teammates against the bullies and tribulations of the world; and looking at ourselves as minuscule pieces of a well-planned, cosmic puzzle.

To all those nonprofit hopefuls out there (and there are many of you), do your research. The world doesn’t need another nonprofit that is only slightly different than an existing organization. If we all flood the existing market, we can take a sector in crisis and transform it into a formidable force for good. Let’s take direction from model nonprofits and transform the shambles of unsuccessful ones. Let’s stop littering mailboxes with monthly newsletters and donation cards. Let’s admit that we don’t have it all figured out, our way may not be the best, and we need other people in order to truly make a difference.

It’s interesting that those of us who majored in starting nonprofits will be the first to discourage it and instead call for a different way to help, serve, and meet the needs of the world. But I guess someone’s got to.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012 8:09 pm

    Thanks for sharing this post. Two things that might be of interest: 1) As you embark on your career, is a great way to learn from the best, and 2) I just ran across this research that’s going on to understand the phenomenon of “Voluntrepreneurs” in international development:
    Once I read this sentence, “Let’s admit that we don’t have it all figured out, our way may not be the best, and we need other people in order to truly make a difference” I knew our “industry” was lucky to have Tessa.

  2. May 31, 2012 2:55 am

    This is a great post. Very pleased to see more wannabes (like myself) in the dev blogosphere – keep it up!


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