One of the biggest mistakes we see parents and students making when they come to us is starting new nonprofits. Now, nonprofits are a powerful force for good in many areas, picking up where the government leaves off, and helping numerous people, places, and causes. The problem is not with nonprofits themselves, but in how high school students approach them.
High school students are, understandably, frequently concerned about their activities, and what colleges will think of how they’ve spent their time. We’ve written a previous guide to extracurriculars in general, but feel an update is in order. In this article we’ll explain why nonprofits are so popular, why founding them is usually a mistake, and where you should focus your time and energy instead to best impress colleges.
There are a number of traits colleges look for when they read applications, notably leadership ability and community involvement. Colleges have a great deal of nuance in how they evaluate students’ leadership skills, and how they’ve contributed to a community. Many students and parents, however are looking for a silver bullet, an activity so good and so impressive that colleges won’t be able to ignore it, and that will guarantee their acceptance.
Nonprofits seem like an obvious choice to demonstrate the traits colleges are looking for, and founding one is even better than joining one, for what better way to show leadership than by becoming the leader of a fledgling organization?
Thus many students and parents come to us with bold ideas about starting new nonprofits, gaining valuable experience, and crafting a resume that colleges can’t ignore, one which will guarantee acceptance into the college of their dreams. While starting a new nonprofit can be a good way to spend time for some students, it is far from being a silver bullet, and can sometimes harm more than it helps.
Are nonprofits bad actually?
The biggest problem with students starting new nonprofits is their short half-life. High school students who found nonprofits frequently abandon them when they graduate and go off to college. This is inevitable; while some may be carried on past the founders graduation, most up and coming students will want to found nonprofits of their own, and gain the same prestige and recognition in turn.
While it is understandable that students may not want to continue their high school activities in college, this can be uniquely harmful in the case of nonprofits, for two reasons. First, colleges are catching on that most students completely abandon the nonprofits they start, which is decreasing the value admissions officers place on them. This is compounded by the increasing number of students following the same path; oversaturation and cliche are the worst enemies of a student trying to stand out in admissions.
The second problem, which is specific to nonprofits, is that when students start and abandon a nonprofit, they often do more harm than good to the groups their nonprofit is aimed at helping. Successfully impacting the lives of the underprivileged often requires a long and concerted effort to produce real change, and a nonprofit with a built-in expiration date is less likely to produce lasting change in the communities it is meant to help.
In addition, these new formed nonprofits frequently compete with older and more established organizations for recognition, funding, and volunteer hours. By dividing limited resources, and trying to fill the same niche, existing nonprofits are less able to help the same group of people.
While nonprofits are not intrinsically worthless as activities, there are problems that mean they are not the silver bullet that many expect, and founding a nonprofit is rarely worth it for high school students.
Are nonprofits good actually?
While starting a new nonprofit yourself is rarely worth it, joining an existing one can be a very valuable experience. Working your way up through the ranks of an established organization shows the same dedication and leadership that colleges look for, and is also much more likely to create lasting change.
Founding a new nonprofit can be worth it in some scenarios, when you see a need that is not already being addressed, or a topic or region has been completely overlooked. In most cases, however, long established nonprofits will already be in the niche, with groundwork, infrastructure, and plans already helping people.
To stand out then, look for how you can improve upon existing systems, or act as an efficiency multiplier for an existing process. This is not as glamorous as boldly going where noone has gone before, but frequently produces greater impacts and more lasting results.
Finally, do not come away from this thinking nonprofits are a necessary part of every college application. They are merely one path to take among many, one way to demonstrate to colleges their leadership skills and devotion to their communities. While nonprofits can be a good way for some students to do this, all students are unique, and what works well for one student may go terribly for another. Do not think you can guarantee success by doing exactly what another student did; the college already has one of those students, they have no need for another.
Nonprofits themselves can be more or less efficient, and not every established one is doing a good job. Finding one that is, and helping out in its mission, however, is a good way to spend your time, and ensure that the work you do will impact the world.
This article may feel discouraging, and in some ways it’s meant to be. Our goal is to discourage blindly starting a nonprofit, and then believing that this will serve as a silver bullet to guarantee acceptance into the college of your dreams. While founding a nonprofit can be a worthwhile activity, joining one is usually equally valid, and there is no need to involve nonprofits in your college journey at all.
This can all feel overwhelming, and indeed, the college application process often is. If you have concerns about your own activities, and whether founding or joining a nonprofit is right for you, don’t hesitate to schedule a free consultation with us, we’re well experienced in all aspects of college admissions, and are always happy to help.