Estrella Rosenberg

Thinking of Starting a Non-Profit Organization or Working at One?

In Non-Profit on March 27, 2010 at 7:49 am

I actually wrote this article a few months ago but it’s something I’m asked about so often I thought it apropos to make it my first blog post here.

I have recently received a ton of questions about how to start a non-profit, whether it’s something you can make money at, and/or working in the field in general so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the subject….


If you’re looking for a job with an already established non-profit but don’t have experience in the non-profit sector, understand that you will face the same challenges you would face when looking for a job in any field you don’t have direct experience with. The person doing the hiring (either the Executive Director, CEO, or for larger organizations the director of the department) answers to a Board of Directors. Both Boards and donors want (appropriately so) donations to go towards mission, not administrative overhead, so it’s very important to them that salaries are money well spent. This generally means that to get a job with a non-profit, you need to already possess the skills it will take to get the job done unless you’re applying for an entry level position. It also means that you need to have real passion and commitment for an organization’s mission….and if you do get a job in this field, you’ll want to have true passion for the cause because the hours are longer than comparable jobs in the for-profit sector and the pay is less. When I say the hours are longer, I mean that you will often be working 60-90 hours a week and that many of those hours will take place on the evenings and weekends. My point here is that if you want to work for a non-profit, it should be because you truly want to have a part in changing the world and not because you’re having a hard time finding employment in your current field. Dedication is key to both finding and keeping a job in this sector, and most importantly –  in being happy working in this field.

Most of the questions I get are related to starting a non-profit….certainly, anyone can start one in the same way that anyone can start a for-profit business and it requires much of the same skill set and determination. It’s hard work to be sure – there are a lot of legalities to understand and comply with and a lot more to it than fulfilling mission so my best advice is to make sure that your mission is not something that’s already being done well by another organization. Once you pass that hurdle, be sure you can rally the support you’ll need – that you can recruit a committed Board and that you’ll be able to fundraise effectively. This can’t be vague – your 1023 application to the IRS must include a 3 year budget, a sobering overview of what your mission will really cost to fulfill and what the true costs of fundraising will be. If you don’t have experience on an executive level with a non profit, I REALLY recommend using a service like The Foundation Group to help you with this process (www.501c3.org) and also recommend that you take advantage of classes offered through places like The Donors Forum to better understand the accounting, reporting and legal issues associated with a 501 (c) 3.

Most brand-new non-profits have no paid staff….non-profits are generally evaluated on the percentage of funds raised that go towards mission and the percentage that goes toward salaries and other administrative overhead. If more than 25% of funds raised goes towards salaries and overhead you are essentially taken out of the running to receive grants from corporations and some private foundations.  An increasing number of individual donors use sites like Guidestar and Charity Navigator, who rate the financial health of non-profits, to make a decision about which organizations they donate to. How soon you can start paying yourself and hire staff members is determined by your success at fundraising – the more you raise, the more you can devote to salary.

Having said all that, non-profit work is incredibly fulfilling and has a set of rewards that make up for long hours and not a whole lot of pay. The belief that you can change the world is the most important factor in changing the world….if you believe you can do this, you can. The universe has a remarkable way of connecting you to people who will assist you and getting to spend your time with others who are full of passion for your cause or theirs is an endless source of energy. Margaret Mead said this: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That is the mantra of just about everyone I know in this field, for good reason.

Good luck and best wishes to my many friends who seem to be contemplating this these days. I am proud, honored and blessed to know so many people who both want to and understand that they can effect positive change in this world. You all inspire me more than I can ever express.

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  1. Good thoughtful post. It’s good to learn from you. I know you have a lot going on, but I’d love your thoughts related to the board of directors role that you mentioned. Have you found any best (or better) practices when relating to your board? Thanks again!

  2. Thanks @dentmaker!

    I have been on Boards, have answered to a Board (in my previous role as Director of Development at Children’s Heart Foundation) and have hand-picked them for my own organizations. They can be your best friend, your worst enemy or a combination of both!

    Relating to your Board well comes from knowing your Board well. I make it a point to meet with all of my Board Members individually to get to know both why they are passionate about the cause or organization, what their strengths are and how they see their role. I do this with the Boards I’m on as well as the Boards of my own organizations.

    When conflicts arise between Board Members or between Executive Directors and Board Members it helps to remind people of why they’re committed to the organization and their own goals within it…ex: “Bob, I know how passionate we both are about making sure that all children, no matter where they live, get access to the medical care they need. You said it was your mission to turn this organization into more than just a band-aid. That’s my goal too. Let’s take a step back and see how we can work together to move forward.”

    Knowing your Board Members gives you the chance to make sure they’re being utilized to their fullest potential and the opportunity to put them into roles they’re happy with – everyone has different skill sets to bring to the table and people are most content when they’re allowed to use theirs. Board Members that have a specific role feel more invested and responsible for the future and success of an organization. This makes them more willing to compromise and collaborate with staff and fellow Directors.

    Clearly there’s a lot to discuss when it comes to Board Member relationships! I will write a more in depth post about this in the near future – thanks again for bringing it up!

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