Don’t Start Yet Another Nonprofit

start a nonprofit

“If you’re the kind of person who tends to succeed in what you start, changing what you start could be the most extraordinary thing you do.”

I previously featured this quote in a post about why society needs great marketers. If you’re a marketer interested in or working in the public and social sectors, maybe you’ve wanted to start a nonprofit of your own. As someone who has started his own business and worked at startups and nonprofits, I advise you to think long and hard before you start a nonprofit. It might not be the best way to have the impact you desire.

What Facebook and Nonprofits Have In Common

Dustin Moskovitz, one of the founders of Facebook, gives a great talk about why you should start a company. I think it’s just as applicable to nonprofits.

Moskovitz hears budding entrepreneurs cite several common reasons for starting a company: financial gain, massive social or commercial impact, lifestyle, and control. Most of the time, Moskovitz says, these are pipe dreams.

He also hears passion and aptitude as reasons to start a company. These are better reasons.

Moskovitz goes on to make the case that if you have passion and aptitude, and want financial gain, massive impact, and even the founder’s lifestyle, you may be better off joining an established but growing organization.

The same goes for nonprofits.

It’s Hard Work To Start a Nonprofit

Nonprofits may have a lower failure rate than businesses. Getting volunteer labor and donated capital may make it easier for small organizations to hang on. This article on gives reliable statistics about 10-year survival rates for nonprofits. The rates are lower than the proverbial 80 percent failure rate for startup businesses.

Still, you probably want to accomplish more than merely hang on.

There is fierce competition for donations, as well. The top three percent of large nonprofit institutions account for more than 90 percent of nonprofit revenues. According to Charity Navigator, nearly half of all charitable giving goes to religious and education groups. Unless you’re starting a church or a university, your pool of available funds just shrunk by half.

Even if you can get funding, a lot of hard work lies ahead. As a marketer, you know that design, distribution, pricing and promotion are fundamental activities for any organization. You’d need a vision for these four core areas for your nonprofit. In addition, consider the other necessary-but-time-consuming tasks in founding an organization, such as

  • Legal compliance
  • Facilities
  • Human resources
  • Accounting

If you lack passion or aptitude for these tasks, or feel they will detract from what you want to accomplish, maybe you shouldn’t start a nonprofit. And that’s okay.

If I Don’t Start a Nonprofit, Then What?

Don’t start yet another nonprofit, unless you have the passion to wade through all the heavy lifting without losing sight of accomplishing your vision. There are plenty of ways to contribute to our social good. Consider these choices:

  • Give money directly to those how need it. Research is demonstrating the power of direct cash payments.
  • Donate your time and money to an established nonprofit that aligns with your goals. They already have the infrastructure you need to support your work.
  • Change careers to join an established nonprofit. This is harder to pull off, but nonprofits are always looking for experience professionals with new perspectives.
  • Start a business, instead. There’s good support for a business solution to poverty, for instance.

If you’ve read this far and aren’t deterred, here are a couple next steps:

  • Visit the National Council of Nonprofits for resources on how to start a nonprofit.
  • Consider franchising a nonprofit from another community.  Instead of starting from scratch, adopt the model of a nonprofit already succeeding in another community. You’ll help them scale while building on the work they’ve already done.


(Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Three Ways To Eliminate Low-Quality Charitable Products

low-quality charitable products

Are you designing and distributing low quality charitable products? How do you know? Just because your clients may benefit from, and even rely on, products that are free to them doesn’t mean you can give them crap. It also doesn’t mean they stop becoming savvy consumers just because something is free to them. Your products and services may be free to your clients, but in areas like healthcare and water they can also a matter of life and death.

Here are three lessons from two cautionary tales of low-quality charitable products.

Low Quality Threatens Healthy Babies

Low-quality charitable products can threaten healthy babies.

In India, TED Fellow Zubaida Bai encountered a midwife who used a small farming implement to cut umbilical cords after delivery. The sight stunned Bai. After delivering her own child in a modern hospital, Bai spent a year trying to shake an infection. What were women in villages going through?

She made it her mission to offer a low-cost kit of medical tools for delivering babies in the developing world. At first, she was thrilled to find that such a kit already existed. Her excitement faded when she final received a kit. Its contents were unhygienic, did not follow medical best practice, and turned off expectant mothers and midwives. Also, the kits were only available when there was charitable funds to support them.

Bai worked with midwives, mothers, and medical experts to design a better kit. For just $3, which was $1 more than the old kit, Bai’s company ayzh created the Jamma clean birth kit with proper and hygienic tools packaged in a purse that mothers could keep and use. So far, the kit has helped more than 600,000 mothers and babies.

Low Quality Threatens Clean Water

low-quality charitable products

Low-quality charitable products can also threaten access to clean water.

In Ghana, Kevin Starr saw the pioneering work of Saha providing clean water in arid, rural areas. The Saha nonprofit business model, supported by both donations and affordable client fees, was thriving in multiple locations. Saha’s ongoing testing at the water source and in client homes showed that their system consistently delivered bacteria-free water.

In one village, though, the local Saha provider was struggling after two years in business. During that time, three different charity programs came to the village, distributed free water filters, and left. While the filters worked, clients stopped using Saha. That’s not to say the filters were effective at removing harmful bacteria. Eventually, the filters clogged or broke, and there was no way to repair or replace them. If free solutions kept arriving and not working, they would kill the one effective method for delivering clean water.

Three Lessons About Low-Quality Charitable Products

Lots of lessons spring from these two stories, but in the context of this blog, three items stick out.

Design matters

Both Saha and ayzh invested effort to design products that were affordable, met measurable standards, and appealed to clients. Both organizations designed products with, and not just for, their clients. For both these companies, competing products that were poorly designed promoted infections that were harmful and potentially deadly.

Business model matters

Saha providers charge pennies for clean water, but compete against free water filters. ayzh charged $1 more for their clean birth kit than the competing charity version. Both companies have build business models with products that cost clients more than all-out charity. However, that additional cost fit within clients’ means and assured quality products with ongoing benefits.

Designing affordable solutions with self sustaining business models is the business solution to poverty and the best way to scale.

Sustainability matters

As Kevin Starr said, there’s an opportunity cost to failure. People in poverty have much less ability to absorb that cost. Solutions for vital services like clean water and health need to work reliably and continually.

Saha’s clean water solution works because it relies on local products and labor, receives revenue in exchange for water, and performs ongoing measurement to ensure quality. Clients don’t get sick and possibly die from infection. One-time interventions with products that wear out can’t match this.

ayzh’s clean birth kit keeps mothers and babies safe from infection. It might sound crass, but this helps sustain the market. ayzh receives revenue for the kit, which ensures ongoing support and product improvements.

Probably the kit’s most clever sustainability aspect is packaging the kit in a purse that the mother could keep. One, the packaging is reusable, making the product more environmentally sustainable. Two, it made the kit more appealing to mothers, sustaining interest in the product. Three, after the birth the purse became a promotional tool when the new mother carried it with her. That helps spread word-of-mouth about the product.

In the end charitable work, like business, requires dedication to a market. Anything less is a disservice and potentially harmful.

Read more about The Business Solution to Poverty.


(Images courtesy of Flickr and WikiMedia)

Nonprofit Administrative Costs Help People, Too, So Why Won’t Donors Fund Them?

In the social and public sectors, internal branding with staff, funders, donors and volunteers matters. One area where this is apparent, even critical, is nonprofit administrative costs. These costs are also known as operations, overhead, infrastructure, or as one commentator put it: Things-we-need-in-order-to-do-our-job-of-helping-people-dammit.

Continue reading Nonprofit Administrative Costs Help People, Too, So Why Won’t Donors Fund Them?

Designing and Promoting Organizational Change: Three Marketing Methods To Move The Elephant

Marketing, especially in the public and social sectors, often targets changing the behavior of individuals and groups. We all know that changing behaviors is hard. If change was easy, we’d all lose weight, save more money for retirement and get enough sleep at night. As a marketer, how do you design and promote organizational change?

Continue reading Designing and Promoting Organizational Change: Three Marketing Methods To Move The Elephant

Practically Free Graphics Tools for Image Clipping and Vector Images

free graphics tools for image clipping and vector images
Image courtesy of Clipping Magic

Like many social and public sector marketers, you’re probably forced to be your own graphic designer. Maybe you’re lucky enough to occasional access to another department’s designer, or can spend limited funds on freelance help. You have Microsoft PowerPoint on your computer, and while PowerPoint is versatile and useful, it just can’t do some things. Two things it can’t do is clip images from backgrounds and create vector images.

Two low-cost, easy-to-use web services now let you easily clip images from backgrounds and create vector images.

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The Power of Audience: Urbanization and megaregions

According to the United Nations, a majority of the world’s population now resides in urban areas. The trend towards urbanization shows no signs of slowing, either. By 2050, two-thirds of the planet’s population will be urban. Urban areas are organically connecting into megaregions that don’t always respect existing political or natural boundaries. Marketing in urban areas and megaregions demands that social and public sector marketers think in new ways about their markets.

Continue reading The Power of Audience: Urbanization and megaregions

Government Can Be A Leader In Digital Goods And Services


Back in 2002 Peter Fisher, undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury, described the U.S. federal government as “an insurance company with an army.” After all, if you look at the federal budget, benefits and military spending take the vast majority of funds. Since much of the military focuses on supply chain and distribution, you can modified Fisher’s quote to describe the federal government as an insurance company and a logistics company.

Continue reading Government Can Be A Leader In Digital Goods And Services

Our Social Nature: The Biological Roots of Altruism

“The roots of altruism and compassion are just as much as part of human nature as cruelty and violence, maybe even more so.”

When she was 19, Abigail Marsh was rescued by a stranger after a freeway car accident. She had swerved her car to avoid hitting a dog. Her car hit the dog anyway, fishtailed,  spun until she was facing ongoing traffic in the inside lane, then died. A stranger ran across four lanes of traffic in the dark to help her. He got her car started and turned facing the right direction. Once Abigail was safe and able to be on her way, the stranger left. He never mentioned his name.

Continue reading Our Social Nature: The Biological Roots of Altruism