Two Harvard Law School graduates and social entrepreneurs shared their experiences creating and developing non-profits with a crowd of about 60 students at the Law School on Monday.
Earl M. Phalen, who graduated from HLS in 1993, and Adam T. Stofsky, who graduated in 2004, spoke at the event.
Phalen is the CEO of Reach Out and Read, a non-profit that encourages doctors to push their clients to read out loud to their children. He has founded and managed a number of charities, and was awarded the President’s Service Award for outstanding community service by President Bill Clinton.
After graduating from the Law School, Stofsky clerked for an appeals court judge before founding the New Media Advocacy Project (N-Map)—a non-profit that draws attention to social injustice.
Both speakers urged the audience to think about non-profits like businesses. They offered practical advice: write compelling grant applications, promote promising leaders, solicit friends and family for financial support early on, and develop strong networks while at Harvard.
“At the time, I didn’t like the concept of pretending to be friends with people in case they did well 10 years down the line,” Phalen said. “Now I wish I had done more of that.”
Both speakers agreed that there is room in the marketplace for new non-profits.
Even in cases in which a charity already exists, creating a similar organization can help foster competition and drive down prices, they said.
But they also said that individuals can make an impact within existing organizations.
“Think carefully about whether you want to start up your own organization if there are already eight out there that are doing the same thing,” Stofsky said.
The Law School graduates also warned the audience that running an upstart charity can be frightening at times.
“Be ready to feel the type of uncertainty that you don’t necessarily get when pursuing a law degree,” Stofsky said.
At least one student appreciated this message.
“Hearing from two individuals who actually committed to taking a risk was really refreshing in an environment where we’re taught to not fail,” said Harvard Law School student Neil K. Rao.
Both Phalen and Stofsky strongly recommended developing a business background, especially before taking on for-profit projects.
“Learning about and studying cases can give you an advantage that’s incredibly useful,” Phalen said. “Every bit of it counts.”