Starting a nonprofit is a major endeavor that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Before you assume that a new organization is the best way to get a great idea or program, consider how you could partner with an existing organization. In addition to enabling you to build on the existing resources, capacity, and expertise of that organization, it will ensure that you’re following your passion in a way that strengthens — rather than competes with — organizations that are already doing similarly important work.

Approximately 50,000 new nonprofits are incorporated by the IRS each year. Each is led by passionate individuals with an idea and a purpose who want to make a difference. But with more than 1.5 million nonprofits in the United States alone, there’s no question that some overlap or compete for the same resources in ways that can create challenges.

Would we be meeting an unmet need? Before you start a new nonprofit, take the time to assess the true need for your program or cause. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What would be our core purpose? What problem are we trying to solve or what new reality are we trying to create?
  • What would be our unique value? Do we understand the landscape well enough to have confidence that we’re bringing something new to our community or world?
  • What other organizations are working on related issues? Are any of them doing it in a way that is similar enough to what we want to do to result in real — or perceived — duplication?
  • If we created a new organization, are there organizations that would likely be made weaker as a result? Would we be competing for the same resources or constituents?
  • Could we make the case to a donor or funder that we are creating a new benefit?
  • Could we work with another organization?

Working in partnership with an existing organization — rather than building a new organization from scratch — can be a powerful way to accelerate your idea’s progress and avoid duplicating or competing with others who are doing good work.

  • What organizations are working on similar issues?
  • Would our idea or program add value or fill a gap for any existing organizations?
  • Have we spoken with them about our ideas and if we could work together?
  • Do we know what it will take?

Building a new nonprofit takes a lot of effort, both to build and fund the programs and to set up the infrastructure required to exist as a legal entity.

  • Do we have the financial resources we need to support and sustain our work while we get up and running?
  • Are there individuals who care enough about what we’re doing that they will fund the organization for the first year while we’re building our reputation and cultivating additional support?
  • Do we have a committed leader — or group of leaders — who will stick with this organization as we get it off the ground, even if it’s on a volunteer basis?
  • Do we have a strong group of leaders who will be willing to serve as volunteer board members and be both financially and legally responsible for our organization?
  • Are we familiar with the paperwork and filings that will be required to be formally incorporated as a nonprofit with the IRS and our state, and have the associated costs?
  • How can we stay open to future partnerships?

One strategy that more and more founders are using is working with a fiscal sponsor instead of founding a new nonprofit. By partnering with a fiscal sponsor, you don’t have to go through the formal process of founding a new nonprofit, incorporating with the IRS, or forming a governing board. Instead, you can operate as a project under the banner of another organization. This has many potential benefits, including

  • enabling a founding group of leaders to test their model or programs prior to formally launching a new organization
  • focusing early efforts on the program rather than building organizational infrastructure
  • making it easier to partner with another organization in the future, as it would not require a merger to do so

To find a fiscal sponsor in your area, visit the National Network of Fiscal Sponsors directory at fiscalsponsordirectory.org.