Nonprofits are a full-time venture, not a high school hobby

October 7, 2020 — by Manasi Garg and Rohan Kumar

Scrolling through our Facebook feed recently, we noticed that every other post seemed to be a high school student advertising their new nonprofit, coupled with flashy buzzwords like “youth empowerment” and “raise awareness.” We couldn’t help but feel a flash of annoyance: Nonprofits shouldn’t just be hobbies to be picked up in your free time; they’re organizations with ethical implications that impact real people.

On the surface, these new nonprofits have positive goals: donating to firemen relief funds, helping girls get into STEM and donating computers to underprivileged communities. Unfortunately, they don’t have much beyond their loud rallying call. 

The lack of human resources, reach and experience of nonprofits founded as high school side projects ultimately detract from established nonprofits that have the infrastructure and experience to meaningfully impact their target communities in the long term. 

Many of these high school “nonprofit” events clock attendance in the single digits, and their advertisements are limited to Facebook posts and the occasional mention in the principal’s weekly newsletter. Their websites often look like they were put together in a day, and some of their services are essentially YouTube videos rebranded as a paid course raising money for charity. Some students call their organizations nonprofits despite not being officially recognized as 501(c)(3) organizations. Others are run by a single high schooler and some friends, with their own parents being the primary donors.

Nonprofits founded and run by high school students are treated as “Extracurricular Number 4,” not as the full-time, business-like venture that founding a genuine non-profit actually constitutes.

To be clear: Nonprofits are not supposed to be mom-and-pop stores doling out community service, side projects for padding college resumes or a club under the guise of a nonprofit for the sake of seeming altruistic. Creating a long-term, positive impact in marginalized communities requires consistent, targeted work over the span of years, if not decades. 

For example, if your organization’s goal is to tutor underprivileged students, you’ll first need to develop a positive, trusting relationship with those students and their community, then constantly evaluate how impactful your volunteering is and identify areas of improvement. You’ll also need to create a solid curriculum, manage other tutors and schedules and implement infrastructure that allows the nonprofit to last. 

Sound like a full time job? That’s because running an ethical nonprofit is a full-time job, one that multitasking, stressed-out high schoolers cannot sustain. 

But why is sustainability and long-term impact so important for a nonprofit? If a high school student runs a nonprofit for a year or two, then ditches it after going to college, at least they did something good for a year, right? 

Wrong.  Regardless of the intention, founding a nonprofit as a high schooler often comes with tangible negative impacts. When a new nonprofit comes into existence with the same goal as an existing one, they begin competing for funding, media exposure and volunteers. But because the majority of student-led organizations simply don’t last, all that funding becomes a wasted investment. 

A preexisting nonprofit that would have received long-term benefits from those resources now loses the opportunity to utilize them, directly harming the communities some students may have been trying to help. Of course, every nonprofit starts out with little recognition, manpower and impact. But at the same time, there is no reason to reinvent the wheel.

Our advice: Instead of creating one of your own nonprofit, find an existing nonprofit where you can apply your skills to actually help more people. You can find plenty of established nonprofits in the Bay Area, and the major difference between these nonprofits and those founded by high school students is that they are led by members with extensive experience in serving their target community, employing thousands of full-time employees and already impact the lives of thousands of people.

Sunday Friends, for example, provides opportunities such as financial literacy, writing and STEM classes for impoverished families to learn new skills together and earn tangible rewards for their accomplishments. It was founded by Janis Baron, a mother of three and Silicon Valley engineer who, at the time, had 20 years of community volunteering under her belt. 

Twenty years is longer than any high schooler has even been alive, and her experience allowed her to make a program that has been running for 23 years and has thousands of volunteers each year, operating at three sites in San Jose. Volunteering for a single day at one of Sunday Friend’s programs immediately reveals just how many families are benefited, with mothers and their children participating eagerly in activities together to earn tickets and using those tickets to purchase toys and necessities.

Instead of forming your own nonprofit, support organizations like Sunday Friends by volunteering your time and donating your money. Every volunteer is one more person to teach classes to families, one more person to help get materials to the families who need them. Every donation is another toilet paper roll for a family with nothing, another toy for a child with nothing. Sunday Friends has the resources to make these community service efforts work. 

And if you notice an issue in your community that no one is addressing, reach out to local organizations and see if you can build on the infrastructure they already have. Instead of floundering about trying to create your own nonprofit, make the most of your time, energy and innovation by partnering with existing community organizations and creating a new branch to address the problem. 

Above all, when it comes to nonprofits, it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel. Instead, let’s strengthen the wheels we already have: Every spoke counts.

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