Michael K. Bervell ’19 was a freshman at Harvard when he set out to create a board of directors for his nonprofit, Hugs for — like so many other freshman, his efforts were challenged by the chronic busyness of the Harvard student.
“One of the biggest difficulties, of course, was people having time,” he says. “You know, this could be a full time job and we could hire a director. But we chose to keep it student-run because we want students to get the experience.”
To recruit for the project, he emailed 500 other freshmen in his class, received nearly 40 applications, and finally chose three, finalizing the makeup of the newly inaugurated Harvard-specific team. Even so, the selected board of four students never actually met in person.
“After a year of working via Google Drive and chatting on the phone and the classic ‘catching a meal sometime,’ it was just a struggle and the board was disbanded,” Bervell says. The Harvard board faded in, and then quickly out of existence.
Shai M. Dromi, a College Fellow in the Sociology department, has seen his fair share of Harvard students who double as nonprofit founders. He teaches Sociology 1131: “Philanthropy and Nonprofit Organizations” — one of the College’s only courses dedicated to the critical study of nonprofits. One of the biggest challenges, he notes, are the dual demands on students’ time. “I know some students who personally manage nonprofits and are full time students who are doing well on both fronts. The question is what happens when something goes wrong on one side… once that happens, the scales might shift in a way that will impact your ability to perform well as a full-time student.”
Bervell is one of several Harvard undergraduates who founded nonprofits before or during their time in college. He took leadership of his organization in high school and remained seriously involved as a full time college student.
Despite the challenges that student founders face, running an organization from within the gates of Harvard Yard does come with its benefits.
After the 2016 election, Jahnavi S. Rao ‘22 founded New Voters, a 501(c)(3) organization that encourages newly eligible high schoolers to register to vote. In addition to running her nonprofit, she is involved with four performance groups on campus and the Institute of Politics.
Rao notes that attending Harvard has proven itself an invaluable growth opportunity for her organization. “The incredible thing about this school is the people that you meet, whether it be students or industry professionals,” she says. “Being part of the IOP, I've met the most incredible people and have been given such very fundamentally helpful advice.”
Yet, the many difficulties of organizational leadership, especially at such an early stage in life, reliably present themselves. College-aged nonprofit founders face hurdles beyond time management — with less than 22 years of life experience, they grapple with the challenges of defining a philanthropic mission, navigating thorny legal procedures, and organizing projects and employees.
Finding What You Want to Fix
There are currently more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the United States, and nearly 80,000 new nonprofits are created every year. About 60 percent operate with a budget under $250,000. Small-scale nonprofits are everywhere, and with the increasing accessibility of technological resources, young people are finding it easier than ever to create their own tax-exempt, federally-recognized organizations. As an institution that seeks out socially-engaged innovators, Harvard attracts more than its fair share of these young philanthropists.
Harvard’s nonprofit scene spans a wide array of charitable causes. Kavya V. Kopparapu ‘22 began her nonprofit Girls Computing League as a series of computer science workshops for girls in the Washington, D.C. area and has expanded to hosting summits about new technologies in the computer science fields. Bervell’s Hugs for features an ambitiously broad mission statement on its website: “to empower students in the United States to share love, hope, and confidence with children in impoverished countries so that they can have the ability to make positive contributions in their own communities.”
Trisha N. Prabhu ‘’’22 created and patented ReThink, an anti-cyberbullying app that detects harmful language and nudges its users to ‘rethink’ the words they are about to send or post. Prabhu is now the CEO of the social venture ReThink, Inc. Though the company is not a nonprofit, she and her team are working on creating ReThink for Good, a nonprofit branch that will focus on providing ReThink-equipped devices for underprivileged high schools.
ReThink’s website features a quote of Prabhu’s, where she issues a call to action: “Together, we will end digital hate – forever.”
Prabhu’s app is far from the first anti-cyberbullying initiative — organizations like The Cybersmile Foundation and STOMP Out Bullying share similar missions. But Prabhu claims that ReThink adopts a preventative approach to cyberbullying, in contrast to other organizations focused on alerting authorities or parents and spreading awareness.
“As important as these issues are, the fact is that 90 percent of teens don’t tell anyone that they’re being cyberbullied. It’s really hard to tackle the issue if we’re putting the burden on the victim instead of attacking it where it really starts, which is with the cyberbully and with individuals who aren’t making responsible decisions online,” she says.
ReThink has been downloaded over 500,000 times, in part due to Prabhu’s appearance on ABC’s “Shark Tank.” She joined the less than one percent of applicants who make it onto the business-focused reality TV show.
“I thought, let me throw in an application, the odds of me getting it are slim anyway so it’s not like I have anything to lose. But then I got a call from a producer. So from there, it snowballed… We aired, and the traffic was amazing. We started to expand in ways that I had never really anticipated.”
The ReThink app has a 3.2 star average rating on the U.S. App Store. While many reviewers are delighted by the app’s mission, others critique its slow performance and lack of autocorrect. One reviewer even urges her to drop the patent so that similar technology can be developed with more functionality, and therefore, a greater social impact.
When asked about the possibility of dropping her patent, Prabhu remains steadfast in her reasoning. She was a 2014 Google Science Fair Global Finalist and was first advised to patent her app when she presented it to a panel of Google researchers, who encouraged her to claim her intellectual property before a larger company took the idea.
She explains that many larger companies are hesitant to even admit the extent to which cyberbullying manifests on their platforms, and she worries that her technology will stagnate if it is picked up by another company. “Maybe we don’t have the most flawless technology, but it’s something that we’re always working on and we always care about the issue.” The iOS app was last updated over a year ago.
She says her real-life experiences with cyberbullying make her more qualified to tackle the problem than members of an older generation who might want to implement her solution without a strong personal knowledge of the problem. “It was an issue that I had experienced a lot because I grew up in a town that was predominately white and I was one of a few women of color, and endured a lot of racial slurs and lots of language against my family and my origins, especially when I was younger,” Prabhu recalls.
First-hand experience of an issue can present insight that otherwise would not be accessible to an organization. Kopparapu came to understand issues of representation in computer science in part through her own experiences attending a STEM-focused high school. “Academically, it was a great learning environment, but there were like five girls in my class of 30,” she says. “This was the most basic advanced CS class, and as I took more CS classes it just got worse from there. I talked to a lot of my friends who would be interested in taking these classes but felt like they were alienated in the class.”
The understanding that personal experience can offer young nonprofit founders does come at the trade-off of significantly less work experience in the nonprofit sector than their older counterparts.
Siri, What Is a Nonprofit?
The legal legwork of establishing a nonprofit is complicated. In most cases, in order for donations to an organization to be considered charitable, it must be a 501(c)(3) organization, and the process of filing for this status was different for every founder we spoke to. Alexandra E. Summa ‘20, founder of Iconic NYC, had her father fill out the paperwork for her. Kopparapu filled out the paperwork herself, but her parents co-signed it because she wasn’t a legal adult at the time of filing. Nadya T. Okamoto ’20-’21 and her co-founder, Cornell student Vincent Forand, were completely in the dark before they started the filing process for their organization PERIOD.
“I didn’t even know what a nonprofit was when I started. I just knew that it was a keyword for doing something good,” Okamoto tells us over the phone. “When we started, we were Googling questions like, ‘What is a nonprofit?’ ‘What is the IRS?’ ‘What is a board of directors?’ I had no idea what this would turn into at all.” PERIOD now has over 300 chapters spread across several countries.
Okamoto recently decided to take a year off from Harvard to work for PERIOD full-time. “After sophomore year, I was just really ready for a break,” she explains.
In preparation for her return to school, she has hired a managing director and other staff to take over some of the administrative roles she has filled in the past.
Other founders have also needed to relinquish some control of their organization as their nonprofit has grown, especially as they direct more time toward school. When Kopparapu began creating Girls Computing League, she reached out for funding and mentoring by cold-emailing women in the technology industry. She received several replies, one of which was from Vice President of Amazon Web Services Teresa Carlson. Kopparapu credits Carlson with helping her learn how to delegate roles to others when she could no longer fill them. “[This] was very difficult for me in the beginning because this organization was like my baby and I wanted a vested interest in every part of it,” she says. “But as it grows larger you have to delegate and put that responsibility onto other people.”
Even though they may not have had extensive knowledge or experience to begin with, many founders have been able to learn on the fly and grow their organization in the process. Okamoto has recently published her first book, titled “Period Power: A Manifesto for the Menstrual Movement”, which she hopes will further her mission of reducing the stigma surrounding menstruation globally. Despite a lack of targeted advertising, more than 300 participants signed up in two days for Girls Computing League's first summit on artificial Intelligence.
The benefits of starting a nonprofit can extend from the public into the personal sphere, as well. Summa was motivated to start Iconic NYC after the end of an internship with the New York City Council. “I realized that I didn’t have this extracurricular in which I can engage in my community the same way, and I kind of missed it,” she says. “So I started thinking and watching local news and what was going on, and I learned about the horse carriage crisis initially, so that inspired me to take action.”
The ‘horse carriage crisis’ – alternatively referred to as the “carriage wars” on Iconic NYC’s website – refers to controversy surrounding proposed legislation by Mayor Bill de Blasio and animal rights activists to get rid of Central Park’s horse drawn carriages. Summa saw the attack on the horse carriages as an attack on New York City’s image, and was determined to help keep the carriages in operation.
She has faced criticism for her work, primarily from animal rights groups. “On one hand you get people who think it’s really awesome that you have a nonprofit that you’ve had since you were 15 years old, but then there’s also the other side that doesn’t really agree with what I’ve done with it,” she says.
Once Mayor de Blasio dropped the legislation to ban the carriages, Iconic NYC shifted its focus to preserving other New York City traditions.
Because it is a highly localized nonprofit, Summa has taken a step back from her work while living in Cambridge. She’s not sure who is currently on the board due to recent organizational reshuffling.
“I’m on the board, I’m pretty sure my aunt’s on the board,” she says. “I think me being on the board and me thinking about it in a more academic context has made me start thinking about it looking ahead. Am I going to go back to New York and continue this? Is this going to be my career? I think college is a strange time in having a high school nonprofit, especially when it’s so geographically oriented, but it’s still in my life, it will always be in my life, and I hope to do something with it soon.”
Bervell has asked himself similar questions while pondering his future career aspirations. He and his older siblings founded Hugs for when he was 11 years old, and he has taken over an increasing number of leadership roles as he has gotten older. “I think a drawback is that it's easy, as you grow older, to feel like you've hit a crossroads, hit a block… you can imagine, running Hugs for for 11 years was very interesting and very engaging, but now I'm looking for ‘what's the next thing I'm hoping to do,’” Bervell says. “Since this has been so successful I'm having this midlife crisis, and I'm only a quarter or a fifth of the way through my life and my career.”
‘Doing Good Better’
Harvard’s nonprofit founders seek to collaborate with already-established giants in their respective fields and fill holes that they believe other nonprofits have overlooked. New Voters’ function is similar to organizations like TurboVote and Inspire U.S., though New Voters focuses exclusively on high schoolers. Girls Computing League began with a similar mission to Girls Who Code, though Kopparapu is shifting the focus towards “very specific, cutting edge parts of computer science and their applications, rather than a general ‘learn how to code’ workshop format,” she says.
With approximately one registered nonprofit for every 217 people in the United States, some mission overlap is inevitable. Garrett W. Walker ‘21, the incoming president of Harvard College Effective Altruism, notes that there’s a danger in spreading donations between groups with a similar goal but varying levels of demonstrated efficiency. So when young people begin nonprofits, they can inadvertently contribute to “scattering the resources more thinly” between organizations, he observes.
The process of creating a sustainable organization is highly time-consuming and resource-intensive. Walker questions the benefits of forming a new organization rather than working with established ones. “I think you can build on existing groups through a sort of 'yes, and' strategy — to try to work within those already extant interventions to make them more efficient or implement them on a larger scale without having to reinvent the wheel every time.”
Most new nonprofits will successfully produce some amount of net good, though efficiency must be considered –– especially in a world where needs are numerous and resources are scarce. The effective altruism movement uses verifiable data to evaluate the relative utility of organizations in order to determine which are most worthy of donations. “I think the one sentence definition would be, “Doing good better,’” Walker says.
Determining how to “do good better” involves deeply considering an organization’s credentials and track record — particularly the degree of impact it makes relative to its budget. These types of questions require large amounts of quantitative data that many student organizations simply can’t provide.
Despite Shai Dromi’s optimism about the level of engagement that he observes in his students, he’s keenly aware of the challenges that fledgling nonprofits face. “Sadly many of them don't succeed in what they try to do. Or they succeed in making some sort of impact, but at very high costs, and possibly not in a sustainable way… Often, actually volunteering your skills or time or effort or even your financial donations to an already set-up organization that can demonstrate that it has an impact, that it's actually achieving realizable goals, and that it's cost-effective – that strategy might be more effective in the long run.”
He adds that working at an already-established nonprofit can lead to being prepared to start a new nonprofit in the future. And, of course, the two are not mutually exclusive — the new nonprofit will likely be more successful if its founder has the on-the-ground experience.
“My sense is sometimes the nonprofit comes before the learning and the actual deep involvement with the issue,” Dromi remarks.
Yet he is quick to add how impressed he is by youth engagement in philanthropy. “Numerous students have had the initiative and the skill and the maturity from a very young age to form a nonprofit, which I think is just mind-blowing when you really think about it,” he says. “Whenever I meet a student who just casually mentions that, I'm overwhelmed really.”
Many of Harvard’s nonprofit founders receive extensive national media coverage and public praise for the good that they appear to create. Yet, at the same time, those we spoke to seem to have some self-awareness about the instability of running a nonprofit as a student.
During our interview, Bervell brings up Okamoto and PERIOD as an example of a student-run nonprofit that has prospered despite the pressures of undergraduate life — though Okamoto is currently taking time off from Harvard.
“Her organization, I think, as opposed to other students who start organizations, has grown faster and faster and faster in college, as opposed to kind of fizzling out.” he says. “I think that's one of the dilemmas and drawbacks of starting young.”
—Magazine writer Anna Kate E. Cannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow her on Twitter @ae_cannon.
—Magazine writer Tyler T. Johnston can be reached at email@example.com Follow him on Twitter @ty_jn_