I talked myself out of a job and felt great about it. It was not because I won the lottery.
As a business owner, I am not in the habit of turning down clients and projects that match my skill set, interests, and availability. I am in the habit of asking lots of questions, though, a blessing or curse that has followed me all my days.
A colleague referred a therapist to me who was interested in grant funding to start a nonprofit that would seek grant funding to offer behavioral health services geared toward teens and young adults. Access to quality, affordable mental health services falls far short of the growing demand and need for them across the United States. Private foundation funding does exist, but government funding for mental health services varies widely from state to state. I was ready for a discussion about traditional grant-seeking as challenging for brand-new non-profits.
When she described the details of the proposed nonprofit and her lack of time and resources, I knew that a nonprofit was not the best fit for what she was trying to do. And thus, I talked myself out of a potential consulting project. Here’s why:
- She wanted to develop an app, not expand onsite services.
- She wasn’t set up as a nonprofit and didn’t realize she needed to cover legal expenses to incorporate, recruit, and set up a board of directors, develop articles of incorporation, and accounting structures.
- She was looking for a short funding window.
- She wanted to charge a modest monthly fee for users.
Grants do exist for seed money, general operations, and capacity building for increasing access to mental health services, and some of these grants could support seeding nonprofits that charge sliding scale fees for mental health and other essential services. But where I live, the state slashed $93 million from the behavioral health budget. Few major local and regional foundations focus on mental health and/or offer these substantial seed funding, so competition is beyond fierce. The time lag between applying for a highly competitive grant cycle and receiving notice of an award could last from four to eight months.
In the latest episode of the Fundraising HayDay Podcast How NOT to Start a Nonprofit (podbean.com) co-host Amanda Day and I discuss other major pitfalls of nonprofits in detail—CAUTION: ranting may be involved. But we do cover other possibilities for helping effect positive change that don’t involve the administrative burden of starting a nonprofit. Here are some highlights:
Collaborate whenever possible and appropriate. If there are nonprofits with similar missions doing excellent work, start talking with them and see where you could work together to serve more, or to deepen levels of service, activity, or projects. Sharing space and volunteers could increase access to food pantries, for example. Connecting neighborhoods with one another could open new business co-ops or arts and cultural venues.
Informal mutual aid societies can quickly come together around disaster relief, environmental, and anti-racist issues—offering immediate assistance when and where it’s needed.
Social enterprises can offer more immediate help which can expand in scope as the business side grows. I recommended this method to the therapist seeking to develop the mental health/self-care app by suggesting that people who could pay the modest monthly fees (which were less than a moderate monthly Starbucks habit) could offset other individuals who couldn’t afford to pay. Then, she could seek investors and other funding sources now versus waiting months for a single grant cycle. Successful models of this kind of funding include an Atlanta-based nonprofit meal delivery program that also incorporates a commercial meal box delivery service. The planner I use also donates planners to people of low income for every one they sell.
As someone who has spent her career working with nonprofits, I know how transformational they can be for the communities they serve. We can all recognize the tremendous benefits of hospitals, universities, food pantries, animal shelters, afterschool programs, and so many other agencies. Nonprofits are just one of many ways to make good things happen. Don’t we all want as many ways as possible to make the world a better place?
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