[This is the first installment in a series about the dos and don’ts of non-profit organizations. From making the decision whether to form one or not, to making the best decisions if you do form an organization, this series is designed to provide a basic overview to put readers on the right track]
Military spouses are a crusading bunch in the best sense of the phrase. Hard-working and determined, with near-limitless initiative—we want to make our community better, and we can absolutely do it. Sometimes the most difficult part is simply charting a path for execution of our goals.
Typically, when a person wants to see real change on an issue, the first thing they do is get other people on board with their mission. Collaboration is a great place to start—more man-power translates into more impact. But organizing does not have to mean forming an organization. And while the idea of creating something new is an exciting one, sometimes the way to make the most impact is by utilizing existing resources strategically.
When it comes to achieving our goals to improve the community, the world-changers among us have to start by determining which of two paths is the best one to take—starting a new non-profit, or getting plugged into existing organizations, projects or programs in the right way. Selecting the best course of action typically starts with answering these five questions:
- Can you articulate your mission?
Going through the exercise of writing down exactly what you want to accomplish is a great way to focus all of those great ideas. Think through them, write them down in a list. Consider how your ideas relate to one another, and what order of importance (and execution) you think they belong in. Then, try to write one sentence that articulates your overall goal.
If you can articulate your goal, then move on to the next question. But you might have difficulty articulating exactly what you want to accomplish. For instance, you might care about military kids’ education but not know exactly what you would like to do in that space. Or maybe you have difficulty narrowing your ideas down to just one specific mission. If you don’t have clarity on your precise goal, that should be your first clue that supporting an existing effort is the right place for you, at least for now. Working with an organization that has a clear mission, especially if it relates to issues you care about, can help you figure out where your passions are, and where they intersect with your talents. Not only that, but spending some time working in an established organization can teach you important lessons you can take with you if you ultimately decide to start something of your own.
- Have you done your homework?
We don’t usually talk about it this way, but the vast majority of the goals, passions, and heart projects we devise can be summed up in the concept of philanthropy. In its most basic form, philanthropy is about identifying and meeting needs in the community. Having gone through the exercise of writing down the needs you care about, and your ultimate goal, you’ve given yourself a list of the needs to be researching.
Before you start something new, spend some time researching what’s already out there. Are there organizations currently working on addressing the needs you care about? How are those organizations tackling the problems? What programs do they have already ongoing? There are tens of thousands of military-affiliated non-profit organizations across the country, working locally, at the state level, and nationwide. Many of those organizations have overlapping missions, and often that is because organizers skipped the “what’s out there?” research.
It takes time, but figuring out whether (any how many) organizations already work on an issue is an extremely important inquiry. The reason for this is simple—a non-profit is really only sustainable and successful in the long-term if it is meeting a need for the community. If other organizations are already addressing the problem you care about, creating a competing organization will make sustainability difficult, and will also result in splitting resources that might be used more effectively by one organization rather than multiples. Resources available for non-profits—whether we’re talking funds, volunteers, or community partners—are scarce. We must to use those resources very wisely if we hope to succeed in meeting all of the community’s needs.
If there are no organizations currently working on the issues that you care about, continue to the next question. If there are, often the most efficient and effective use of resources is working together. Whether it’s augmenting volunteers to make an existing organization more effective, or creating a new program to fill a hole in the organization’s work, impact can happen a lot faster in a framework that already exists than in one that is starting from Square One.
- Is collaboration an option?
There are many ways to make an impact in the community, and they don’t necessarily require the creation of an organization to complete. In fact, many successful community projects are completed using individuals or partnerships between existing organizations, without creating anything new in terms of structure. Sometimes, there are existing programs or models in other subject areas that can be adapted to address unique community issues. Other times, there are umbrella organizations like the United Way that are willing to sponsor community-based programs on a short-term or long-term basis.
Consider the different ways in which your particular mission can be accomplished. If there do not appear to be any projects, pilots, partnerships, or existing umbrella organizations that can accomplish the mission, continue to the next question. However, if you can accomplish your goals through the Donut Method (a project that doesn’t need a new organization) or the Umbrella Method (creating a program, project, or fund with in an existing organization), do it! Collaboration is typically the quickest, most efficient, and most effective way to meet the needs you’ve identified. The reason for this is simple: as discussed below, while a non-profit organization has its benefits, running one also comes with significant administrative obligations that can slow down the work toward the organization’s actual goals.
- Have you counted the costs?
Forming a non-profit requires developing the documents to establish an organization under state law, then seeking recognition from the IRS in order to obtain a non-profit designation. The process takes a significant investment of time and money to accomplish. Once an organization’s application is filed with the IRS, non-profit status takes several months to obtain, and sometimes the process requires rounds of document revision in order to address particular questions from the IRS. If revisions are necessary, this can prolong the approval timeline several more months.
Creating a non-profit is certainly a doable endeavor, and it’s not my intention to say otherwise. But it’s important to know what you’re getting into before you start down this path. If you think that creating an organization is the best way to achieve your goals, and you’re willing and able to shoulder the costs involved, continue to the next question. If you’re not sure, or if you lack the resources to start an organization in the short-term, give further thought to working with an existing organization, project, or program. It may well open some doors for you, or give you access to the resources you need to reach your goals.
- Are you ok with the long-term maintenance?
Once an organization obtains non-profit status, there are a host of rules and guidelines that must be followed in order to keep it. There are IRS reporting requirements—and usually state-level reporting requirements as well—that must be kept up with by the organization’s leadership. Often help from professionals is needed to ensure compliance. And these obligations are in addition to the tasks associated with running the organization day-to-day, such as bookkeeping, volunteer management, event execution, and so forth. It’s an ongoing investment of time, money, and other resources over and above what’s needed to actually execute on your mission.
If, having considered the investment involved, you believe that creating a non-profit is your best option, the place to start is consulting with people who have done it before. If you’re not sure that the creation and maintenance of a non-profit is the best way to execute your mission, go back through your research from the earlier questions. Think about the Donut Method and the Umbrella Method, and consider whether one of them might work for you. Talk about your goals with those people who want to help you with them, and let them help you think creatively about how to affect the change you want to make.
There is no shortage of need in the military families community, and no shortage of military spouses working hard to meet those needs. But it’s important to recognize that there are many ways to address those needs. Thinking carefully about the best way to meet particular needs, and being creative and efficient with available resources, will ensure that our efforts to meet the needs we care about most are as successful and long-lasting as possible.