Are micro-nonprofits the answer?

Posted on December 5, 2011

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According to a recent study, more than 12 million baby boomers would like to start new nonprofits in the next decade.  If they succeed, by 2020 there would be about 12 new charities for every 1 in existence today.

Nonprofit sector activist and scholar, Mark Rosenman, responds with alarm in his blog post, Do We Really Need Twelve Million New Nonprofits?

Rosenman contends that this approach is fragmented and only adds to the problems Baby Boomers are trying to solve. To address huge social, economic and political issues, we need to join forces. Not create and feed millions of new micro-nonprofits* (my term, not his).

But do-gooders of all ages find this approach attractive. A USA Today article recently profiled several examples of tweens starting micro-nonprofits. Parents encourage, and are understandably proud of, these young social entrepreneurs.

From tweens to seniors, people are trying to make a difference.  Their motivation is good. I applaud their passion for helping others.

But let’s not confuse needing more services with needing more nonprofits.

99% of the time, starting a micro-nonprofit is not the answer. Too many organizations strain funding sources. Nonprofits lose their economy of scale with fragmented, independent efforts. And there is greater risk of duplicating services — that’s time and money we simply can’t afford to waste.

There is that very small 1% of the time. When it’s a great, new idea that addresses a clearly defined need. With a small enough scope that a nimble micro-nonprofit is in fact the answer. (Note: If just 1% of the Baby Boomer nonprofits come to fruition, it would be similar to adding 1,000 nonprofits each month for the next 10 years.)

Far be it from me to reject the wisdom and commitment of a recent retiree. Or squash the enthusiasm of a spunky 6th grader.

But I hope that people dreaming of their own nonprofits would first try working with existing nonprofits. The Foundation Center offers the helpful resource “How do I start a nonprofit organization?” which sums up points and alternatives to consider.

What do you think about micro-nonprofits?

* Micro-nonprofit: A teeny public charity or foundation created by a motivated individual. Has no paid staff and earns less than $25,000 in annual revenue.

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