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The Secret to Starting a Successful Nonprofit

By: Jess Birken

Tel: 612-200-3679
Email Ms. Birken


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Here's the secret to getting your nonprofit idea off the ground: knowing for sure that it should be a nonprofit in the first place.

To be or not to be a nonprofit?

It's a question everyone has to answer when they're starting something new. But most people don't see it that way. To most people, a business that makes money is a for-profit and an organization that helps people is a nonprofit.

As a lawyer that serves the nonprofit community, I can tell you it's not that black and white. Sure, there are some ideas that clearly work better as one or the other. But then there are a lot of ideas that could work as a nonprofit or a for-profit.

Gather round! It's story time.

One day a couple years back, I met Michelle and Nick. They came to my office with a new idea for a nonprofit. Well…at least they assumed they were starting a nonprofit.

They were each parents of grown children who struggled with drug and alcohol addiction. Their children had been to in-patient treatment centers over and over again.

One of the things they had in common – besides the shared pain of watching their children struggle – was that they both felt like the way family members were involved at treatment centers just stunk. There's no way to sugarcoat it the family aspects of treatment they had experienced were demeaning to the parent and the child addict and just…not helpful.

Michelle and Nick felt that a lot of treatment centers were overly negative and shamed the addict and their families. Families dealing with addiction suffer enough. They didn't understand why the treatment centers were so harsh.

After seeing each of their children relentlessly cycle in and out of in-patient care at chemical dependency centers, Michelle and Nick were fed up.  They were sick of a process that they didn't feel was helping their families or their kids.

So, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They knew they could do this in a better way. Between Michelle and Nick's combined professional skills, real life experience and the research they'd done, they developed a curriculum for family therapy during treatment for addiction.

They developed a program that would accomplish the goals of family therapy while also respecting the families. In short, they had a better way to solve this problem, and they were ready to take action and make it happen.

Michelle and Nick were ready to go, and they thought they should start a nonprofit.

But should they?

After some time speaking with them, it became clear to me that Michelle and Nick didn’t really need to start a nonprofit to make this dream come true. And in fact, if they did go the nonprofit route, it might slow them down and get in the way of making a difference.

I recommended they start a for-profit consulting firm and test the curriculum everywhere they could, even holding free workshops if that’s what it took to get proof of concept. They could get right down to work without getting bogged down by all the regulations and costs that come with being a nonprofit.

Even though it means I’m out of a job, I think its SUPER important that people get started out right. And sometimes that means they should be a for-profit.

Let me bust a big myth for you: Not every idea that does good in the world needs to be a nonprofit.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Nonprofit sounds better.

People usually think for-profit = greedy. But that doesn’t have to be the case. You can start a for-profit business that does good in the community. Look at examples like TOMS shoes or Finnegan's beer. And in some cases, it's a lot easier to do it that way.

Starting a nonprofit is really complicated, and not every idea makes sense as a nonprofit. Unfortunately, this is a decision that Google can’t make for hopeful nonprofit founders. You have to take a hard look at what you want to accomplish, and then make an informed decision about what road to go down.

Have you taken a moment to consider whether your idea should be a nonprofit or a for-profit?





Jess Birken is the owner of Birken Law Office, a firm designed to help nonprofits. Ideal Client Engagements are nonprofits looking for a strategic partner who will give pragmatic advice and keep business operations on track so the mission work stays a priority.


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