A few years ago, I helped to co-found a non-profit organization called Nerd Louisville. The local paper here recently published a feature story about the organization. When I shared the story on G+, Jay saw it and thought it was an awesome idea. He asked me for some advice about starting the such an organization. Here’s that advice on starting a nerdy non-profit.
DO YOU NEED TO START A NON-PROFIT?
Before you venture, think about whether or the organization needs to be a non-profit at all. Think about the mission you want to do. Do you need to receive donations? If so, is there an existing non-profit that you could partner with for your efforts? Developing a nerdy program through an established non-profit could be an easier route. Reach out to your local community foundation if you have one for suggestions. If you find an organization to work with, great! You get to skip a lot of work.
It’s possible you won’t find anyone willing to partner with you. That’s fine. Start your own.
Of course, you can’t do it alone. You need to find smart, passionate folks to help you. This is for two reasons:
- Legally, it’s required.
- It’s a lot of work.
Kentucky state law requires a three-person board of directors. There were two of us who wanted to make Nerd Louisville happen. We had to recruit a third. Your state may be different. You’ll have to investigate and figure that out. I’m guessing in most cases you won’t be able to do it alone.
Running a non-profit, even a small one, is a massive undertaking. You’ll need to treat it like any business. This means you’ll have a slew of tasks that need done. When we first began Nerd Louisville, there were only two of us filling most of these roles. Unless you are wealthy, your budget will be shoe-string. We dubbed our non-profit a “Do-acracy”. In other words, unless you’re doing it, it isn’t getting done.
- I learned how to build a website, run a server, the Facebook & Twitter pages, and manage event calendars.
- I become an event coordinator; recruiting, booking, hiring food trucks, promotion, and hosting.
- I had to become a fundraiser. I reached out to every local comic shop, game store, and nerdy group in Louisville. Our city isn’t large. I am surprised at how many nerd-oriented shops and groups there are. I was asking these stores to sponsor us. And, when people are giving you money, you need to take care of them.
- I had to help design merch, order it, and sell it.
Going it alone is not possible. You need a team. Make sure you find the most talented, reliable people and get them involved.
BUILD A COMMUNITY
Building a community is the primary reason for Nerd Louisville’s success. We focused very much on connecting local nerds. We tried a bunch of different things. Getting people out to a venue and doing nerdy things together is what worked. When people meet and become friends because of you, that is a powerful thing. It’s not easy. People were skeptical of us at first. You have to be ready to put your money where your mouth is. Leverage established local groups. Promote them. And, offer something.
We started by hosting an RPG event at a local bar every other week. People could come, have a drink, play a game for a few hours, and meet other nerds. We also promoted other groups doing nerdy things around town in whatever way we could. We built connections with people. And, those people bought into our mission. Especially, when we launched our major charitable initiatives.
Your community becomes volunteers, game masters, and board members.
While community building is great, the goal is to do something to benefit the community. We could sit, drink beer, play D&D, and help a few people meet other nerds. But, that’s not enough. You need to make a fucking impact with your non-profit. If you’re not in it to make serious, social change do not start a non-profit.
We began to leverage our community to raise money for disadvantaged youth in our city. First, we reached out to various organizations around town who we thought might need help. Then, we launched our “Little Nerds” fundraising campaign at one of our game nights.
Imagine, 50 or so drunken nerds playing Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons & Dragons at a local dive bar. We interrupt the festivities and announce our goal to buy RPG books for kids. Everyone — I mean everyone — pulls out their wallet and tosses us money to do it.
Today, the charitable initiatives have gone on to do crazy amazing things:
- Partnered with the local library to stock D&D books.
- Flew Kenneth Hite down to run Trail of Cthulhu for an after-school program.
- Sent a kid who’s house burned down to a week-long science and technology camp.
- Donated many RPGs, Magic cards, and miniatures to disadvantaged youth around the city.
- The organization has made an impact. You need to center your non-profit around making an impact.
I have retired from the board, but the organization still thrives.
GO START YOUR NERDY NON-PROFIT, JAY
There isn’t much else in my life that has been as rewarding as my work with Nerd Louisville. I have retired from the board, but I still take an active interest in the organization. Jay said that gaming had a huge impact on his early life. The same is true for myself. I grew up in poverty. A couple pencils, a set of dice, scrap paper, and our imaginations helped us cope with some terrible times. Games inflamed my appetite for reading, writing, math, and storytelling. I’m sure there are kids Nerd Louisville has given the same experience.
It ain’t easy, Jay. But, you should definitely do it.