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A teen leader. A passion to help others. A somewhat niche focus area on kids, elders, or underprivileged members of society. Combine these three, and you get a flood of high school and college students founding and running their own nonprofit organizations.
Don’t get me wrong, I love volunteer work and philanthropy. Before it became a silently agreed-upon requirement for college applications, there was no ulterior motive that high school students may have had in embarking on various volunteering endeavors. And I still want to assume good intentions.
But here’s the thing. The majority of student-founded and -run organizations contribute to causes that are already supported by existing well-established organizations. These previously established organizations have key advantages for making change compared to student-run ones. They tend to have a much higher budget for the operational costs, often allowing for ample professionals and resources, whether physical or virtual. They also are likely to last longer. Especially considering how high school and college students often graduate and relocate from their hometowns, it can be extremely difficult to maintain the continuity of a student-run program once the original founder — who undoubtedly benefits the most from having “founded” something — moves away.
The monetary and timely costs of registering as a nonprofit may not be worth it. Registering as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in Massachusetts costs about $600 and requires filling out several official government forms such as IRS Form SS-4 — not to mention that you need to establish an official director and officers. For student initiatives such as a local community food bank, $600 is logically too large an investment for close to no real return. Why not just use that money to help the cause you claim to be passionate about? For example, you could purchase tangible supplies, such as loads of canned foods. That money would be much better spent on the cause itself, rather than the bolstering of an ephemeral student effort.
Of course, there are potential benefits to students establishing their own nonprofits. Students tend to have a very strong network of young volunteers that they can reach and mobilize through social media with the push of a button. This also allows them to practice their leadership skills. But experiencing and learning from leadership doesn’t require setting up a completely new nonprofit organization. You can start a chapter of support for an existing organization at your school. That way, you can build on existing resources and potentially have further reach. Because a pre-existing organization may already have cross-country offices and staff, student wide initiatives — even nationwide ones — are much more feasible.
It’s also critical to acknowledge that there are organizations with causes that students may agree with but maintain internal values that are misaligned with the students’ visions. In this case, it makes sense that students would choose to dedicate their time and efforts to an organization that they truly identify with.
But what’s most important to consider is advancing the cause itself. Be careful — investing your time and energy into your own registered nonprofit organization may be serving you more than the cause. This may veer into the dangerous territory of performative activism. We need to decenter ourselves from the spotlight of volunteerism and activism. We need to and realize that we are there to amplify the voices of the underprivileged and aid their solutions.
Furthermore, we often accidentally give too much credit to just the “founder” or the “leader” of a group. No wonder students feel the pressure to create their own organizations to display on their college applications and resumes. But the people in supporting roles are the ones who can serve as the communication liaison between the larger pre-existing organization and the newer school-based student members. Serving in an amazing supporting role is just as important and necessary for the community — if not more — than swooping in with a savior complex.
So please, before you start your own nonprofit, take the time to see if there is already an organization that you can contribute to. Learning to share the stage in making a difference is a lot more philanthropic than craving the spotlight.
Minsoo Kwon ’24 is a Crimson Editorial comper.
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