By Valerie Johnson | Contributor | Generocity | 9.1.21
I have a secret for you: you don’t have to start your own nonprofit to have an impact. Seriously.
I know, I know. There are a lot of you out there who are super passionate about a cause because you’ve lost someone, you’ve experienced it yourself, or someone close to you has. You want to help. I totally get that.
But you know who really needs that passion? The people who are already on the ground, doing the work. We’re not always in your face, and we’re not always a big, recognizable brand. But we’re here and we’re very likely doing exactly what you’re passionate about doing.
There are 1.5 million nonprofits registered in the US. More than 76,000 are in Pennsylvania, with 4,200+ right here in Philadelphia.
And we need you.
We need your skills and your expertise. Always, we need resources. But most especially, we need your passion.
Nonprofit work is hard, y’all. The world is like a bucket full of holes, and nonprofits are plugging what they can — someone’s covering employment, someone’s covering hunger, there’s another nonprofit covering literacy. But the universe just keeps dumping water in the bucket.
The way that social inequities run rampant, and issues all run together to make symptoms like homelessness get worse, makes it feel like we’re fighting an unwinnable battle. Not just an uphill battle, but a battle that will never be won. Any time we get a win, the universe dumps more water in our bucket.
Living that battle day to day can be disheartening. It’s stressful, anxiety-provoking, depressing, and leads to many of us getting burnt out and exiting the field.
And that’s where you come in.
We need people like you to remind us why we are here. The struggle is real, and your passion and excitement is like shining a bright and happy light into a dark room.
You don’t have to start your own nonprofit to get the impact you want. Your passion and your skills, coupled with the years of expertise that already exist in your area of focus, will help you to see your impact faster and relieve you of the burden of figuring it all out yourself.
So first, find the organizations that are doing what you want to be doing. Maybe they’re serving a different neighborhood, or providing a slightly different service, or in some other way not perfectly aligned with what you envision — that’s okay! Your interest could be what they need to expand or shift their services. Start the conversation, offer your help, and check for alignments in your core values. If you and the organization have the same core beliefs, then you’ve found your people and you can do more together than apart.
Once you find them, there are so many ways to help. We like money, sure, but giving money is just one piece of the puzzle. We also need:
Lived experience on our boards. The board of directors is tasked with providing strategic direction for a nonprofit organization. Your direct experience with the mission is invaluable, especially on a board that is made up of folks who haven’t directly experienced the challenges your nonprofit aims to support. You can challenge the board to think differently, to involve their clients in major decisions, and to pivot to be responsive to the needs of the community.
Volunteers. Nonprofits are chronically short-staffed and underfunded. And yes, there are some things that volunteers can’t do for liability reasons. But there is a whole lot you can do as a volunteer. You can help with administrative tasks. You can design graphics. You can set up SEO. You can coach, or mentor, or assist with special activities. You can emcee the annual fundraiser. You can sit on an event committee and help to choose floral arrangements. You can review financials. You can provide legal advice. You can review policies and procedures or benefits packages. Of course, this is based on your own areas of expertise and interest, but you get the idea: the possibilities are endless. Communication is important here, because you don’t want to insist on volunteering to do a task that doesn’t need to be done.
Passionate staff. If you’re really, really committed to the cause, consider a career change. Nonprofits need expertise in specific places like case management, sure, but we also need accountants and marketers and HR reps like any for profit does. Your passion and drive for what the organization does already gives you a leg up on your competition. And, best of all, you’ll influence your new fellow coworkers who may have lost their passion or hit a burn-out period.
Mentors. I am a talker. I like to process out loud. Usually with several different parties before I come to a conclusion or make a decision. It can be annoying or even exhausting for my coworkers. But I would be lying if I said I didn’t also process work problems with my friends, my family, acquaintances, and occasionally Lou who works at the BSL Logan southbound station in the afternoons. Insight can come from anywhere, and most problems boil down to something universal rather than something so nuanced that only your close coworkers will understand. I’m willing to bet that there are many folks like me who would appreciate a mentor who actually volunteers to problem solve.
Advocates. I’m in the final stages of becoming a foster parent in Philadelphia. As I worked through the process, I was surprised to see how many misconceptions there are about foster care. The system is misunderstood, and stigmatized, and the kids who are in foster care end up unfairly bearing the brunt of all of that stigma. So, you’re passionate about something? Teach others about it. Advocate for what you know will benefit your cause. Correct misconceptions, fight stigma, provide resources, have patience for those who aren’t as knowledgeable as you. Your passion will spread to others, and your cause will be better for it.
I know that mentoring a few folks at your local community nonprofit isn’t quite the same as seeing your name emblazoned on a nonprofit’s letterhead. But the impact of starting yet another nonprofit from scratch with limited resources vs. the impact of lending your time, talent, and treasure to an established nonprofit already working towards the same mission is exponentially larger.
And you still get to look back, pat yourself on the back, and say “I did that.”
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