Read This Before You Launch A Non-Profit Organization

For some reason, non-profit organizations are still the go-to plan for aspiring creatives seeking to make a difference in the world. 

I can appreciate a good non-profit org, and this post feels a little hypocritical as I have been working for non-profit organizations my entire career. However, I fear that most musicians who decide to launch their own non-profit are making the decision without considering all of the factors that go into launching and running a non-profit organization. 

Before turning 30, I founded two non-profits: Envision Chamber Consort, a chamber ensemble promoting contemporary communication through the arts, and Arts Enterprise, an organization I co-founded that paired arts and business majors on college campuses through the vein of entrepreneurship.

For those of you who may not know, I’m a bassoonist who had zero experience as a non-profit manager before launching those two organizations. The years I ran those organizations were incredible for my personal growth, but they were also filled with mistakes and missteps as I tried to figure out what the heck I was doing. 

There are a million best practices books out there about how to launch a non-profit. Those books cover things like setting up the legal structure of the organization, how to form a solid mission statement, build an active and supportive board of directors, and strategies for building programs that last. 

I read all of those books.

None of them told me about the ten things below I wish I knew before I launched a non-profit organization. 

  1. You are the glue that holds the organization together. As a non-profit founder, it’s important to remember that nobody cares about the organization as much as you do. Your responsibilities include providing the vision and passion to inspire others, as well as keeping artists and supporters engaged and committed to the organization’s success. 

    Tip: The most successful non-profits I’ve seen have founders who are able to take a step above the programmatic activity in order to focus on the logistical things that need to happen in the background for the organization to be successful. Make sure you are tending to those things as you build the organization.

  2. Running a non-profit is a full-time, arts administration job. The musicians in your group will mostly just want to show up and perform, often without even thinking about the countless hours you have put in to bring a particular program to life. 

    Tip: When you run a non-profit, nobody is going to step up and help unless you ask. You will be the person making the programs, securing the venue, building the website, and selling the tickets. Make sure you build in time and space to run the organization and still be fully prepared to perform. You should be spending the same amount of time working on the organization as you are practicing for your performances. 

  3. Before you launch, look for other organizations doing similar work and collaborate. I often work with founders who are so excited about their idea that they are blinded by the fact that a more established organization is doing very similar work right down the street from them. 

    Tip: There is value in launching a non-profit to bring your personal vision into the world, however, I urge you to consider partnering with another organization before you launch your own. Going this route will allow you to focus completely and deeply on programmatic activity. Working under the umbrella of a more established organization will also allow you to grow more quickly than if you were starting the organization from scratch. 

  4. You don’t own your non-profit, your board of directors does. As soon as you become a non-profit, your board of directors technically become the owners of the organization. Most of the time it works out and the board is in lockstep with your vision. However, board management is often a full-time job. 

    Tip: Choose your board wisely and know that the board is filled with as many different viewpoints and ideas as there are members. Try to remain in regular conversation with your board as you build and grow the organization. 

  5. If you don’t pay yourself, your non-profit won’t survive. Many founders I work with reinvest any funding that comes back into the organization instead of giving themselves a salary. This is problematic for two reasons: it undervalues the founder’s time and the true costs of running the organization, and eventually, I find that founders prioritize paid gigs over the organization. 

    Tip: Running a non-profit should not literally mean that you don’t get paid for the work you are doing. Always budget an appropriate amount of the money that comes into your organization to pay yourself so you are able to continue the work.

  6. Becoming a non-profit is not necessary for overall success. Founders are often given the bad advice that the only pathway for them to take in order to ensure programmatic success is to become a non-profit. The time and energy necessary to become a non-profit, combined with the time it takes to run the organization make it difficult for me to endorse this path. 

    Tip: Consider working with an organization like Fractured Atlas, which serves as a fiscal sponsor to artists who would like to raise money for a project. Fractured Atlas takes a small cut (8%) of the money raised, and in exchange, donors get all of the benefits of supporting the programs while the organization gains access to funding without the hassle of running a non-profit.

  7. Founders get overloaded, overwhelmed, and jaded quickly. Founders become jaded due to the constant pressure to build an organization with limited resources. In addition, there are constant programmatic obstacles, donor demands, and lack of recognition, leading to burnout and disillusionment over time. 

    Tip: Running a non-profit is a full-time job and it is often thankless. Make sure to block off time for reflection, continuous goal setting and remind yourself that you are doing this to make the world a better place.

  8. Administrative costs are real. Founders are often so excited to bring their programmatic ideas to life that they create budgets that show a lower cost to make the program attractive to funders. When founders only ask for funding to support direct programmatic support, they are giving their funders a false sense of the true cost of running the organization. 

    Tip: Figure in a 33% overhead budget to cover all behind-the-scenes administrative costs. That means if a program you are running will cost $3,000 to pull off when it comes to direct programmatic costs, you should be saying that the program costs $3,990 to run. Some funders will only cover direct programmatic expenses but you should still keep the overhead in your budget and make a note that the extra 33% is “in-kind” or covered by the organization. You have to capture the true cost of doing business, otherwise, your funders won’t know. 

  9. Your full-time salary will not likely come from your organization. Many founders decide to launch a non-profit because they believe it to be a path toward financial stability. It will likely take years for your salary from the non-profit to be large enough to support you. In addition, most founders I know put the majority of the money they do earn from the non-profit right back into the organization in order to keep it going. 

    Tip: If you are running an organization, you should plan for 10% of your overall budget to go toward your salary. 

  10. Sunsetting a non-profit is an option. So many founders I work with launch their organization with the idea that it will take over the world and run in perpetuity. It is really difficult for non-profits to make it past year three and most don’t make it past year five. 

    Tip: If you do decide to launch a non-profit, start small and go into the launch with the mindset that it is ok for the organization to sunset if things aren’t working the way you hoped. 

If I had a choice, I would launch the two non-profits I founded in my twenties all over again. The lessons I learned and the skills I developed through lived experience were irreplaceable. They paved a path for me to step into different and more important roles later in my career that I would not have had without building two organizations. 

The points above are not meant to dissuade you from launching your own non-profit organization, but they are meant to help you go into a launch with your eyes wide open to the challenges most founders face when they go down this path. 

Photo Credit: Bill Jelen

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Nate Zeisler is the Dean for Community Initiatives at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. He envisions a world where students majoring in the arts have a clear path to a sustainable career, where creative minds are empowered and inspired to rule the workforce, and where access to the arts is not just for the privileged few, but for all.

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