Three years ago, I was starting Idle Tuesdays Recording Studio while I was working on my master’s degree in Public Administration (MPA), specializing in Nonprofit Management.
After a rigorous program and the most stressful exit exam of my career (on which my degree depended), I graduated with a more comprehensive understanding of how public administration and nonprofit organizations work together and fit into the fabric of American society.
Although I was working towards a master’s degree in nonprofit management, a course on how to actually start one didn’t exist. I found that a bit odd. The program was entirely geared towards executives or employees, leaving pioneering founders out of the equation.
I did back then what most still do today and typed “how to start a nonprofit” into Google’s search field and pressed enter.
LegalZoom.com had a paid listing on the top of the page. I took the bait and clicked. It seemed so easy. So fast. Then too easy. Too fast. I paused to ask myself what I was doing. The site does a great job convincing people starting a nonprofit organization will be fast and easy…but overlooked a main component: education.
I had the opportunity to get this process over with…but what process? I was working towards a degree on how to manage an organization I didn’t even know how to start.
The psychology behind LegalZoom.com, and other similar sites, is to convince people that starting a nonprofit is so complicated, so confusing, and so grueling, that nobody is smart enough to do it themselves…but that their Harvard lawyers are, and so you should pay them to do it for you.
Ordinary people with a passion to fill a gap or meet a need are the ones starting the 70,000 new nonprofits in this country every year. And I’d bet all 70,000 probably started by googling “how to start a nonprofit”, clicked LegalZoom’s paid ad, and subconsciously found themselves doubting their own intelligence.
After reading everything I could find online, I grouped information into three categories:
- Overly simplistic lists
- Overly complicated, legal-like books
- Paid services (LegalZoom, etc.)
All were void of pulse and personality. The overly simplistic lists felt like a candy bar – I could consume it quickly, but in the long run, how was it really going to benefit me? The overly complicated, legal-like books felt like a mountain of kale – I should have it, I should want it, I should understand every word for 500 pages, I should, I should, I should…guilt, guilt, guilt for being a normal person. The paid services felt like a Burke-Williams hot stone massage – the best 90 minutes of my life…and then I tip the massuist, walk out to my car, and drive back into reality.
I opted for the overly complicated, legal-like book to help me get Idle Tuesdays going. It was painful, and I often felt pretty dumb for not understanding everything. In the end, I was glad to be there. The end.
After filing with the state and federal agencies and Idle Tuesdays was officially a 501c3 nonprofit organization, I didn’t even have the energy to do the thing I set out to do. Eventually, the wind filled my sails, we moved forward, and launched in 2012.
We started receiving calls and emails, from all over the country, from people asking how to start a nonprofit. Between Skype and phone conversations, I did the best I could to help everybody. There never seemed to be enough time to fully 1) educate, 2) inform, and 3) empower.
Education is powerful.
Picture it. You own a 100,000 square foot warehouse. It’s empty. Every time you learn something, anything, a new tool arrives in your warehouse. You read a book, learn a few things, and a few new tools arrive in your warehouse. You attend a dinner party, speak with some interesting people, learn new things, and a few more tools arrive in your warehouse. You go to the DMV, attempt to renew your driver’s license, have the incorrect form completed, get sent to the back of the line like a punished child, which is outside, in the sun…learn a few more things, and a few more tools arrive in your warehouse. Businesses like LegalZoom fear you becoming educated, informed, and empowered.
I never set out to write a book on how to start a nonprofit.
When I think of nonprofits, I think of organizations filling social gaps and addressing societal issues that are seemingly going unnoticed. Indeed, nonprofits do just that. What I didn’t realize was the gaping void we have here in the United States helping future nonprofit founders just get started.
We’re offering future founders bullet points, legal anthologies, and sub-consciously telling people they’re dumb. We’re so focused on doing the good, we have abandoned the do-gooder.
Starting Your Nonprofit: A Workbook to Guide You Through a Million Exciting Tasks contains tools for your “warehouse.” The first section is entirely dedicated to education. Think about it, do you ever see athletes run onto the field or court without first learning how the game is played? Education should always come first.
Only after the reader understands the process is the game ready to be played. Section two walks the reader through the eleven steps needed to get a nonprofit up and going – starting with reserving your nonprofit name and ending with obtaining a seller’s permit.
While starting Idle Tuesdays, I also made mistakes, so I talk about those as well. I love it when people talk about their mistakes because it means they’re trying something new. Hi, I’m Emily, I support calculated risk-taking. Our mistakes, when shared, can help others. And that’s what we’re here to do.
The last section points into the future and outlines the legal responsibilities founders should expect. Everything needs a little maintenance, and nonprofits are no exception.
So, as I was about to say, my west coast book tour…
Last week, a few of us drove north from Los Angeles, with stops in Stockton, California, Salem, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington. I haven’t met one person who wants to start a nonprofit who I haven’t found to be amazing! The United States is a better country for having founders of nonprofits because they have:
1. experienced or observed some sort of shortfall in our system, and
2. have decided to do something about it!
This is remarkable!
I get re-inspired when I interact with future founders. They are excited and ready to make this world a better place. I hope to provide all future founders with my book so they can benefit from my struggle, and be far more educated than I was when I was wearing their shoes. Starting Your Nonprofit educates the reader and simplifies the process into 11 steps, 12 months, and about $1000.
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