How To Navigate The Tricky But Rewarding Path To Starting A Nonprofit

Running a nonprofit or pursuing a philanthropic passion is a noble call, but a tough path.

How To Navigate The Tricky But Rewarding Path To Starting A Nonprofit
[Image: Flickr user Gabriel White]

Devoting time to a cause you believe in is not only fulfilling, but can transform your life.


My philanthropic passions stemmed from watching a 60 Minutes segment on El Sistema, an orchestral program in Caracas, Venezuela, where they took underprivileged youth and taught them music.

As a trained concert pianist, I knew firsthand the impact music had in my self-discovery and personal development. I felt fortunate that my family had resources to support my musical development and talent, and I knew I wanted to do something to help those that weren’t as fortunate as me.

I didn’t have any experience when I started my nonprofit, Music Unites, only had limited experience in the philanthropic space from my time on the board of New York Neighborhood Coalition of Shelter. But what I lacked in knowledge I made up for in passion. I was working full time at Women’s Wear Daily, and I remember staying up all night with my friend researching the first steps in starting a charity.


My journey empowering and inspiring change for at-risk students in high school and teaching them about the music business has helped me discover my entrepreneurial spirit.

Broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien and her husband Bradley also had limited experience but a lot of passion when they formed the O’Brien & Raymond Starfish Foundation after experiencing firsthand the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina.

The foundation’s mission is to provide women with a bridge between obstacles and opportunity, giving them resources to overcome barriers to reach their potential.


“I was frustrated after Katrina since I saw practical fixes–-the school system was a train wreck and so many middle class families needed the help on every front,” O’Brien said.

O’Brien describes her role as visionary of her foundation to be a part-time job where she spends about 20 hours a week.

“It’s as exhausting as it is invigorating, but there’s a tangible change. I put the time necessary into it because I know I’m changing these girls’ lives forever,” she explained.


O’Brien didn’t start off with a big comprehensive strategic plan. She started off with one high school student, providing tuition for four years.

“We wanted to guide our scholars through college, providing them with the assistance and financial resources, in addition to a mentor,” she said.

The first steps to take

Think it’s time to make a difference? Here are a few key steps from both my experience and O’Brien’s to turn your philanthropic passions into a thriving nonprofit.


1. Tune into your passions and research topics that drive and inspire you.
What are those issues that are most important?

2. Home in on your mission statement and provide a solution to the problem you see at hand.
Don’t worry if it changes over time.

“You must genuinely believe in it and dig deep,” O’Brien says. “We started with paying tuition for girls but we realized it wasn’t enough to get them through college so we expanded our vision.”


3. Find out who is doing something similar.
Research the competitive set of organizations in your sector that are doing similar work to see how you can add value to what already exists. But remember: How are you going to stand out?

“We reverse engineered it by offering something no one else did through an individualized approach,” O’Brien explained.

4. Determine your level of dedication.
You can form your own 501c3 by filing for nonprofit status if you are fully committed, or join a charity incubator to test out proof of concept–the safer way to go for those who want to rely on existing resources.


5. Figure out how much time you can commit.
Assess your time commitment and ability to run the organization full time or bring in someone to run the organization.

“Do your homework and research to find someone you trust because there’s a real risk when dealing with money,” O’Brien explains.

6. Get a lawyer.
Find a pro-bono lawyer that you can consult with to guide you through the process.


7. Create a brand and market yourself.
Market yourself and create a brand that resonates–craft your creative vision. Identify a name for your organization and logo, and start developing your website. Consult with a lawyer before moving forward to make sure logistics are taken care of.

8. Create a short and long-term budget and fundraising game plan.
Identify program costs and resources to better understand cost structure so that you can create sustainable funding sources that are generated from individuals, corporations, and grants.

“Put together a roadmap to help you be realistic with your goals and don’t fret if your plan changes,” says O’Brien.


9. Be realistic and in charge of your organization’s growth and scale.
Don’t be worried to start small.

“Identify growth areas and be sure to revisit the structure over time to make changes to serve its needs,” says O’Brien.

10. Share your vision.
Build a team of change agents that are dedicated and just as passionate about the cause.


“Be strategic and have a clear idea and ask. I could have maximized and utilized my team better rather than do everything myself,” says O’Brien.

11. Identify board of director positions.
Make sure you recruit an active board with the skill set needed to help see your vision to life.

“Your first founders board sometimes might not be the board to take you to the next level. Refresh and rotate board members, and have specific asks to help achieve your deliverables,” explained O’Brien.


12. Create a social and digital plan for your organization.
Think what is the call to action that will get people to want to engage with your cause.

Michelle Edgar is founder and executive director of Music Unites, in addition to the general manager for Alex Da Kid’s company KIDinaKORNER.