How to Start a Nonprofit as a Young Person: Maybe Don’t

Diana Chao, Founder, Letters to Strangers, United States

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide 

The crowd’s reaction would have been comedic if it didn’t make me so sad. As I gave a keynote to a group of high-achieving high schoolers, eager students took turns asking me questions about my journey as a child of people with no higher education attending Princeton University. One girl asked how I talked about Letters to Strangers, the nonprofit I started when I was fourteen, in my college applications.

“I didn’t,” I answered.

The crowd went quiet. Here it was: supposedly the crowning achievement of my youth, proof for elite admissions officers to know that I am, at least on paper, dedicated to “service” — whatever that means. I had created the largest global youth-for-youth mental health nonprofit. We have reintroduced a bill called Stop Stigma in Our Communities Act on the U.S. Congressional floor, started the first pan-African, toll-free mental health hotline, and wrote a 80,000-word Youth-for-Youth Guidebook, the first of its kind. My feelings of frustration were exacerbated as the questions continued:

“How should I start my nonprofit?”

I didn’t need to think before replying, “I don’t think that’s the right question to ask.”

Over the last few years, my DMs have exploded with teenager after teenager asking me how to create their own organization or how to make themselves “look good” on college applications and job resumes. I get it. It’s a tough, competitive world out there, and if we can somehow get a leg up while doing some good, then why the heck not? But it wasn’t until I attended a youth empowerment conference to speak to teenagers interested in public service that I truly understood why I felt, frankly, repulsed.

Every single panel in that conference revolved around the idea that public service must be tied to the creation of a brand new nonprofit. When did we go from, “How can I support a cause I care deeply about?” to “How can I file some papers to start an organization that might not actually be necessary or even helpful to the community I am looking to support?”

I must interject here, as I can imagine that people may tsk and point out that this is all easy for me to say since I started a nonprofit that “succeeded.” I’m just hogging the glory and spotlight, right? 

And frankly, I cannot fault anyone for thinking that way. Nor do I believe that there is no space to create new nonprofits. But my follow-up question is simple: what do you want to contribute to the cause? And HOW can you contribute to it?”

As we increasingly use social media to discuss and elevate social values, it can feel like starting a brand new organization is the only way to achieve noteable change — especially as the media awards “youth activists” left and right. But the truth is that, most of the time, it is not efficient to reinvent the wheel. Most people have limited time, energy, work capacity, and knowledge to share. When effort and talent that could have gone to bolster existing groundwork gets caught up in the weeds of tax statuses, recruiting teams, and pulling from the same limited pool of volunteers as everyone else already in the space, the cause can become secondary to the organization’s existence itself. And that, to me, is not what a nonprofit is about.

When you see a gap in the existing space, you should certainly fill it. When you find that old programs are lacking, you should certainly change them. To make these decisions, however, one must become familiar with the current space, and pay respect to and learn from those who originally paved the path. We best propagate change when we learn from each other, and when we take time to understand the community we seek to serve. A tax status cannot and will not be the sure-fire answer to eliciting change — change lies in the power of the people.

Simply put, my deepest concern is the extreme privilege of the notion that one must first start an organization to support a cause. 

In the United States, for example, it costs $600 to file the 1023 form to start a nonprofit, a form that can take over 100 hours to complete. It requires planning out finances, structuring teams, sorting through legal requirements and more, all of which is daunting for anyone, let alone a young person.

Once you actually start the organization and want to carry out some work, how will you do so without any funds? There are ways to raise money, sure, but that involves building a network of donors (introversion barriers aside, you’d be surprised to know how many girls I know wore fake rings to ward off advances from old male donors who held not just money but also power over their heads), having the time and money to put on enough bake sales, or having parents and friends willing to support you. The process of applying for a grant takes months and requires even more detailed financial, professional, and legal enumerations, all for a slim chance of receiving anything. The prospect of receiving a grant is especially difficult if you’re a new organization with no relationships to foundations and agencies and do not yet have results and impact for corroboration.

All of this is time, money, and energy that could have been spent working on existing programs to further the cause. And even if you get past the financial, legal, and logistical barriers, you still need to increase publicity and awareness around your organization for it to have reach and legitimacy. One way we’re often told we can achieve this is by sharing our stories publically, but not all of us are ready or can even safely share the stories that drove us to the cause.

In fact, the reason I didn’t put Letters to Strangers on my college applications is simple: I was terrified. People told me left and right that admitting mental illness is a straight route to rejection; no college was going to take the liability/risk that was my history of suicide attempts on their campus. If I wanted to get in, I better pretend to be as “normal” as possible, whatever that means. So if the best way to get people to pay attention to the nonprofit is by sharing our stories, we can end up feeling forced to dissect our traumas on demand or otherwise share parts of ourselves that we shouldn’t have to just for the sake of being taken seriously.

To others, the solution is more simple. Certainly the people who constantly send me email like the one below seem to think so: 

Yes. For the low (*sarcasm) fee of $3,000, I can have the “honor” of receiving some award that I can attach to my name as an emblem of my credibility. I don’t need to share the details of my story before I’m ready, but I also don’t need good programs, results, or credentials. I just need a few thousand dollars of spare cash.  

This is why it took me five years from founding Letters to Strangers as a high school club to register it as an official nonprofit, all by myself. The belief that creating a new organization is necessary to drive change deeply alarms me; all of these steps make advocacy feel extremely out of reach. Without the proper connections or resources, creating a nonprofit as a young person can feel impossible. But that is not how we should feel about creating change — at any age.

When I first started Letters to Strangers, I had never heard of the word “nonprofit.” I didn’t know what “tax-exempt” meant or what it took to run a charity. I only knew that I couldn’t find people my age who looked like me talking about mental health. I wanted to change that, if only selfishly, so that I would not feel so alone in my bipolar diagnosis. 

I am far from perfect, and so is the system. I’m not a morally righteous, upstanding change-maker or anything of the sort — I held onto my cause because I didn’t know anything else. If I was fourteen years old today, maybe I, too, would feel pressure to start a nonprofit as a way to get into the college, and career, of my dreams. If it was systemically easier to create new organizations and sustain old ones, maybe we wouldn’t be in the mindset that there is one route to creating change. If the rhetoric that “young people must save the world, it’s up to them now” wasn’t echoed throughout every social impact conference, maybe the burden wouldn’t fall on us to take up new helms and carry the weight of the future on our shoulders. Instead, we should encourage young people to help repair and build upon existing ideas and approaches. Get in touch with local organizers, volunteer at a community nonprofit, ask how you can get involved when you see folks working on an issue you care about.

Alas, with reality as it is, this is my imploration: create change for the cause, with the people, for the planet. Being a founder or CEO does not determine the quality of change that you can make. Change is as good as the community it supports. So let us learn together from the past and from each other to build a future with causes at the forefront, our own titles be damned.

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change. 

Driving Change

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