Commentary: Why Travis County needs nonprofit start-ups

Austin is an entrepreneurial city filled with caring people who like to improve things. We see a wrong; we want to right it. Many respond by wanting to start a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

Lately there has been a surge of thought from local business and tech leaders who urge people to “stop starting nonprofits.” The state comptroller lists more than 7,000 in Travis County alone. It is easy to understand that the landscape of nonprofits in Travis County is confusing and appears wasteful, especially in the face of limited philanthropic resources.

Nonprofits are not just putting a new widget into the world; they are trying to solve complex, intractable social problems — the roots of which often go back well beyond our lifetimes. It is precisely because these needs are so urgent that we need start-up nonprofits.

Starting a new organization dedicated to a challenging cause — even if there are other organizations already in that space — may seem duplicative. But this is the only avenue open for experimentation within the sector. It is only here that something new can be tried or made more pointed. Mistakes can be made without jeopardizing all of the other work that is being done within a larger organization. This is currently the only way to fail fast for social good.

There is a basic flaw in the underlying assumptions about the similarities of nonprofits and businesses: We cannot expect nonprofits to “run like businesses” if we are not willing to allocate the same resources – and encourage the same risks that we do in the private sector.

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Well-meaning funders, supporters and mentors do not support successful organizations in taking chances on new approaches. Most funding is dependent on “proof” — defined as delivery on specific metrics and clear outcomes, along with an oversimplification of the problem, so that a solution is easy to understand and implement. Nonprofits need the opportunity for research and development, just like a business — and maybe even more so.

Instead, I offer three simple ways to help create more meaningful impact:

• Take risks with your investments. Nonprofits are held hostage by requirements of proof and threats of withholding funding. Partner with nonprofit leaders to mitigate risks. Ask good questions but also listen to the answers and be OK with failure. Take a risk with them. Dream big about solving the most important problems.

• Treat nonprofit professionals as just that: professionals. They are your allies and are experts in their field. You are an expert in your field. Come to the same table and learn from each other. Instead of telling them what they are doing wrong, ask why they operate like they do. Plus, if you ever want to understand how to do so much with so little, ask any nonprofit professional for a crash course.

• Be a part of the solution. Instead of telling people to stop doing something, help those you believe can solve the problem. Playwright George Bernard Shaw is credited with saying, “People who say it cannot be done should not interrupt those who are doing it.”

Social good is messy. It is not easy. But together, through sharing knowledge, we can meet the urgent needs of our city. It’s not that metrics, outcomes and messaging aren’t critical to success; they are. Nonprofits are continuing to learn these lessons and apply them. There is much work to do — and to have more impact, we need work faster and better together.

Blue is a consultant in the nonprofit sector.

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