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[ASK AN EXPERT] When to Start a New Nonprofit vs. Work within an Existing One

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Our Ask An Expert series features real questions answered by Claire Axelrad, J.D., CFRE, our very own Fundraising Coach, also known as Charity Clairity.

Dear Charity Clairity,

I’m trying to start a charity in my late husband’s name. My question is how can I go about getting this initiative started? His death just happened, and I am overwhelmed and raw, but need to do something positive in his name. He was loved by so many and had so many thoughts and passions on helping people. I can’t just let him, or his ideas that could help save a life, go.
— Wishing I could have saved him

Dear Wishing,

First, let me say how sorry I am for your loss. And it is human, and commendable, that you’d like to bring some positive purpose to this sad event.

That being said, you note you are overwhelmed and raw. Perhaps it would be prudent to take some time to grieve and heal, without holding yourself too much to account right now. Losing a spouse is one of life’s greater stressors and giving yourself permission to step back while the grief is fresh is going to help you gain perspective regarding next steps.

That being said, doing some research into your options for honoring your husband’s legacy may be a way to get started while still respecting your own needs right now.

Let’s take a look at some possibilities: (1) Start a memorial fund with an existing nonprofit, (2) Contribute time and expertise to a program at an existing nonprofit; (3) Work with a fiscal agent, (4) Start a local chapter of a national nonprofit, and (5) Start your own nonprofit.

5 Strategies to Honor a Loved One’s Legacy

I list them in order of easiest to accomplish, and work towards those requiring the greatest effort.

1) Establish a Memorial Fund

One way to honor someone’s lifetime values is to establish a fund that carries these values forward in perpetuity. Are there charities with which you and your husband have been affiliated where it might make sense to set up a fund in his memory? If so, contact them and express your wishes. Find out what it would take to create a lasting legacy that yields annual income for a purpose you support. Some charities may allow you to establish a fund to which other people contribute as the spirit moves them, without a dollar floor. Once you have a framework and fundraising goal, reach out to your networks to try to generate this amount in loving memory.

2) Affiliate with a Project at an Existing Nonprofit

Too often I see people decide to start their own organization that ends up replicating the work of existing organizations. This is well meaning, but under-informed. There’s no need to duplicate costly infrastructures.

Whatever you may be thinking about in terms of initiating something that incorporates your husband’s passions and experience, why not consider working under the umbrella of an existing nonprofit that deals with these issues? Perhaps you had an occasion to work with some of these organizations while your husband was going through this heart-wrenching experience? Consider reaching out to some of them and brainstorming a way you could be helpful to them. For example:

  • Get involved in a volunteer capacity (e.g., board, committee, or direct service).
  • Explore creating a special project/initiative, and negotiate your involvement. You may have ideas that they would welcome, including resources that may be available to finance the new undertaking. The upside is this will not require separate books, government reporting, and boards and committees.

3) Work with a Fiscal Sponsor

Rather than starting a new charity, and waiting for it to be incorporated before you can begin to fundraise, consider working with a nonprofit fiscal sponsor. This means finding an established 501 (c) (3) charity willing to accept donations and handle various financial and administrative duties on behalf of your project. The sponsor accepts the responsibility to process donations and ensure funds are properly spent to achieve the project goals. This arrangement is useful for new charitable endeavors that want to “test the waters” before deciding whether to form an independent entity.

Technically, any established nonprofit can serve as a fiscal sponsor. The National Council on Nonprofits recommends looking for an organization whose mission is similar to yours. If you think you might be leaning towards an all-volunteer organization, this might be a better option than beginning an all-new infrastructure that will bring layers of complexity. Here you can find a fiscal sponsor directory.

4) Start a Local Chapter of a National Nonprofit

If you find a national organization doing the type of work with which you’d like to become more actively involved, see if there is a need for a local chapter in your geographic area. If so, you’ll have the benefit of the larger nonprofit’s name recognition, wisdom, expertise and back office to help you get started.

5) Start Your Own Nonprofit

This is a big endeavor, and there is a lot to consider. It means working with an attorney to incorporate and establish nonprofit status, building a board, hiring staff, setting up administrative and communications systems and putting in all the pre-conditions for fundraising.

If you decide this is something you want to do, walk through the questions you’ll need to answer to determine your readiness.

Next Steps

You clearly have a passion for making a meaningful difference in people’s lives, especially those faced with the same challenges as your husband.

Take some time to consider the best way to turn your passions into productive philanthropy, not grinding paperwork.

Wishing you healing, health and hope,

— Charity Clairity

P.S. For fundraisers reading this, consider which of these options you might offer to your own donors facing a life event that may prompt them to consider creating a legacy to honor and memorialize their loved one. Being able to guide donors on their journeys is the real job of a philanthropy facilitator.

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