How Professionals Can Create a Nonprofit

Several months ago I wrote a posting focused on the challenges encountered and the process followed by a group of volunteer leaders in forming and establishing a nonprofit organization. Recently I received a question from a professional who wants to spin off the project she has been developing within a nonprofit organization, having reached the conclusion that the project can no longer thrive in its present institutional relationship. She asked me what the process was for engaging in a discussion with the parent organization and what is the best way to create an independent nonprofit entity.

These are complicated questions with any number of potential pitfalls and conflicts. One has to think carefully through their conceptual issues as well as the practical considerations, including personal and political concerns. Moving a project into an independent status is not an easy process and warrants due diligence before taking any step forward. A premature move in the wrong direction could very well bury the project and alienate any number of people who might otherwise be a source of support and encouragement.

In this situation, my colleague, who was on the staff of a senior center that serves people with dementia, had developed a movable garden project for its participants. It was a creative idea that had been tried and proved successful in other settings. A small plot of soil and flowers was placed in a portable cart, which was moved throughout the facility, enabling the clients to plant and care for flowers without having to bend down and work on ground level. The attendees at the center were able to work together caring for the plants and flowers, or they would work individually with the horticulture therapist, my colleague.

The project had been initially funded by a donor whose family member had dementia and who knew the value of this type of activity for that population. Over time, the center found that it was having financial difficulty funding the salary and the materials for the horticulture project; it looked as if my colleague was going to be let go and the activities cut back. The donors who provided the seed funding for the activity and had covered the cost of all the equipment, the construction of the movable garden, and the first several years of the therapist’s salary were no longer willing to sustain the project on their own.

Although the director of the center was very enthusiastic about the project and thought it was a valuable addition to its services, he was not in a position to raise the additional funds necessary to continue it. He found it difficult enough to ensure there were adequate funds for the basic services offered to the center’s members on a daily basis. The center already had a full schedule of daily activities, including movement, singing, occupational therapy, and physical exercise, as well as serving breakfast and lunch.

The director engaged my colleague in a discussion about the possibility of her raising funds to enable the project to continue. She called me immediately after that conversation, asking what I thought about her going independent. She thought that perhaps she would create a nonprofit organization whose mission would be to provide horticulture activities and therapy to senior centers, hospitals, nursery schools, kindergartens, and other settings that might be interested in having a movable garden. She felt that, by transforming her project into an independent nonprofit, she could offer her programming on a fee-for-service basis and raise funds to enable the service to be offered on a subsidized cost to the host settings. She called me because she wanted to know whether this was feasible or whether she was embarking on a path that would be frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful.

I was intrigued by her idea, and we discussed both the conceptual and practical issues that would challenge her if she decided to create a new organization. I encouraged her to follow these steps in the process of creating a new nonprofit.

  1. Clearly articulate her vision and mission.
  2. Once she had defined the scope of her project and who was its target population, she needed to conduct a mapping exercise to explore whether any existing organizations were providing a similar service. As part of this exercise she should also explore whether there was a nonprofit that would be interested and excited about incorporating her program into its operations. If so, she might not have to establish her own agency, and she would have a base from which to provide services directly to clients and to other nonprofit organizations.
  3. The next step was to interview directors of senior centers, hospitals, nursery schools, kindergartens, and other organizations to see if there was any market for engaging her to provide horticulture therapy using a movable garden. Of those organizations that were prepared to consider engaging her, how many would be prepared to make the investment of creating a movable garden?
  4. Along with the mapping of agencies’ interest and ability to engage the new service, it was important to conduct research about potential donors to support horticulture activities in nonprofit organizations. Would she need to develop donor interest in this project, or were their companies, foundations, and donors who would support these kinds of programs?
  5. Once she had completed her background research she needed to have a discussion with the director of the center where she was presently employed. The professional approach would be to discuss fully her plans to establish a new nonprofit organization and the reasons why she was doing it at this time. She needed to clarify that her goal was to develop a sustainable way of providing horticulture therapy, which was not possible given the financial constraints of the senior center.
  6. Once she had covered all these bases, she then needed to identify potential board members and donors who would be interested in helping her develop the organization. She would have to recruit people who shared her passion and her vision. Only after this was done would she be ready to consult with the appropriate legal and financial consultants to begin the processes of registering the nonprofit and developing the services she would offer to a variety of existing institutions that had been identified in her earlier planning phase.

This is one example of how a professional can begin the process of taking a creative idea and moving it forward to determine whether or not a new nonprofit should be established to implement it. A solid foundation of background research and exploration of possible collaborative relationships needs to be laid down before a decision can be made to move forward. Ideas need to be cultivated in order to bear the fruits of success.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.