Why Young People are Starting Nonprofits

Frustrated by what they see, 20-somethings create their own organizations.

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When Lindsay Hyde was a freshman at Harvard, she wanted to become a mentor to younger girls in the area, but when she looked into potential opportunities, she couldn't find any groups willing to work with undergraduates. So she organized her own team of volunteers and found two elementary schools interested in working with them. Once she graduated from college, she officially launched her nonprofit, Strong Women, Strong Girls, which now works with over 400 girls a year in Boston, Pittsburgh, and Miami.

[For more, read: "Obama Boosts Nonprofits."]

Hyde, now 27, is one of hundreds of young people who start their own nonprofits each year. Over the last decade, there's been a 30 percent increase in the number of nonprofits, and experts say much of that comes from the energy and idealism of 20-somethings like Hyde who are sometimes disillusioned by the bureaucracy of large, established organizations. I recently spoke with Hyde about why she decided to start her own nonprofit and some of the challenges she faced. Excerpts:

Why did you decide to start Strong Women, Strong Girls?

I had been very involved in service work in high school and had a passion for working with women and girls. I grew up in a single-parent household and was raised by my mom, and felt like there was a powerful opportunity there for adult women to serve as role models.

Did you consider joining up with an existing nonprofit instead?

I did look at that, but I knew from having started the program in college that there wasn't a comparable program being offered. We were already four years into doing the work and had established that we could provide some unique value.

What was the most difficult thing you faced?

When I was getting started, it was not knowing the right questions to ask. The great thing about being a young person working in the nonprofit sector is that there are plenty of great people willing share their expertise if you know the right questions to ask. I spent six months sitting down with other people who had started nonprofits and asking them, 'What did you do right? What did you do wrong? What are the questions you wish you asked?'

In retrospect, do you feel like you made any mistakes?

I was lucky, I got a great system in place, but I hadn't realized how complicated the financial management would be. It's not that it's hard, I just had no skill set around it. I had never taken an accounting class and didn't know how to use accounting software. That got flagged and I found a great person willing to volunteer their time. That's something I tell people now -- at the bare minimum, take an accounting class.

Is fundraising hard?

The great thing for us is that we'd been running for four years so had a reputation in the community. Our total budget the first year was $60,000 and we've grown in incremental ways. So much of fundraising is building good relationships.

Has the recession affected you?

It's a cliché, but it's true: There are fewer dollars and there is far more need. We're having more requests for the program. Some donors have stepped up and made bigger gifts. We've made cuts and held salaries flat and not taken on some of the projects that we planned to.

What's your advice to other young people thinking of starting a nonprofit?

The really key thing is to build an advisory council or cabinet that you can go to for advice and support, and to talk to others who have done similar things. Having that kind of team behind you that can answer questions that come up was so essential for us.

Tomorrow: An interview with another young nonprofit founder, and the obstacles he faces.