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Why You Shouldn’t Start a Non-Profit (And What You Should Do Instead)

Non Profit Blog

There are two reasons it seems students choose to start non-profits:

  1. They want to look impressive on their college apps
  2. They want to help people

Both of these are perfectly fine reasons to do something! But I would like to tackle each one and explain why I don’t think non-profits are the answer.

1) They want to look impressive on their college apps

I don’t believe AOs believe/respect most non-profits for the same reason I don’t run a non-profit. Non-profits are hard. They are essentially businesses, and, as such, it is typically CEO types with MBAs who tend to run them. Even with real-ass adults in charge, non-profits fail all the time.

I would suck at running a non-profit. I know this because I’m currently trying to run a business of one person, and it’s hard as hell. I’m continually learning as I go, and sometimes I’m glad it’s only me who has to deal with the fallout when the boss screws up. I joke about it, but my English degree and writing background don’t put me that far ahead of most of you as far as “adulting” goes. I never took business classes; I don’t know how to balance a budget; I can’t promote synergy like a boss.

Most non-profits run by high school students do not work very well. I can’t prove that with data, but what I can say is that so many non-profits run by college students fail that someone made a roundup of 20 that managed not to. AOs know you’re presenting everything at its very best in your application. Unless your non-profit has objective, quantifiable attributes of success, it’s just going to be glazed over, likely with a sigh.

The vast majority of AOs reading your work also know what it takes to run a successful non-profit. That’s why their eyebrows will rise every time some student shows no other examples of hard business or leadership acumen, and yet claims to organize 20 students in providing aid to a third-world country. It’s just not something a 17-year-old can do…Unless someone is helping them.

A non-profit is not a charity extracurricular. It is a business extracurricular with charity flavoring. You submit a non-profit along with all the other business background work you have to showcase that you are already so far into this life that you had what it takes to run something this size yourself. You submit that to NYU, along with your application to join their 5-year MBA program, and God bless you. You got a shot.

For the rest of you? The ones who are applying electrical engineering and play piano? No. Don’t. It makes no sense.

I value theming in my extracurriculars. I love a student applying engineering who is on the robotics team, teaches math to middle schoolers, and builds model Ferris Wheels and sells them in his spare time. These hobbies synergize, and it so easy to place them together on the EC list or write about all of them in a Common App essay. The overall message is, “This is what I do. I’m excellent at it and use that excellence to improve as many aspects of my and other’s worlds as possible.”

There’s rarely theming in a non-profit. “I rule at business” is one. The other is, “I care so much about this particular situation, and enjoying helping others so much, that I had no choice but to do it myself.” But that’s fraught with inconsistencies. Do you then have a half-dozen other service acts you can mention? If so, that helps a lot. Then your words are being backed up by your actions. But even if you do, merely caring more than the next guy does not make you qualified to manage people and money. This goes double when there are real stakes at play. Go ahead and start a business. If you fail, whatever. But when you promise a group that you will help them, and accept donations from your community to support those efforts, but then aren’t able to back those promises up? That’s not cool.

This whole thing reminds me of lifetime waiters or chefs who decide who start their own restaurant. They often crash and burn once they discover that knowing a ton about food and spending years around the industry is not enough to run a business. Business is itself an entire field of study. If you aren’t experienced in it, no amount of passion or determination will be enough to make sure the hundreds of necessities to make the whole thing run on time are being done correctly.

Many people here know about “Spikes” in your application, and I tend to lean into the concept myself. But what people seem to misunderstand about a good spike is that it needs to be on top of a body of evidence that supports it. These blog posts I write would make a good spike. I could write about my upvote counts and how they lead to me getting work. But all that has to come as the big finale to my ten-year background of content writing and college consulting. Without the body of evidence backing up what I’m doing, it’s just a gambit I’m trying and hoping no one will find out the truth about.

A non-profit only serves as a spike if you naturally build to through the rest of your application. Through writing this, I’ve accidentally built the teenager in my mind who could get away with it. He’s a business mogul who started selling candy at recess when he was nine. In middle school, his dad let him take business classes with him at night. By freshman year, he had his own shoe selling business (it’s always shoes). He started getting Emails from students around the globe, asking for a way to get a pair of his shoes at a discount. He wanted to help, so he started a fund where 20% of every sale went towards new free shoes for kids in third-world countries. Today he has seven employees: five dedicated to his main business, and two operating his charity branch.

That’s the kid who gets into Stanford by starting a non-profit.

If you want a bonus reason for all this, college admissions isn’t a zero-sum game. If you were the only student on Earth submitting a non-profit with their application, it would work. The sheer ballsiness of such an endeavor would be enough. But somewhere around 2013, this became a thing, and now thousands and thousands of students do it. I get called the QuIrKY guy around here, but there’s a reason for what I preach. Following the advice that everyone thinks is the one way into school is a good way to make your application the same as the other 10,000 teenagers playing the same game. And unless you are that shoe seller with $600,000 in sales and 12,000 shoes donated to date? Someone else will be playing that game better than you.

2) They want to help people

That’s great! Helping people is the best! The best way to help people is by volunteering. Not by trying to run a business.

For all the same reasons I mentioned above, I do not believe a non-profit is the best way for a 17-year-old to assist the planet as much as she can. That’s because starting a non-profit means you will be spending a whole lot of time you could be volunteering instead (poorly) running a business.

I go back to our shoe mogul, Cris Sirloin, above (I named him!). If business is what he’s into and already experienced in, then maybe. That is the one case where his skill set matches the type of venture he is taking on. But for you artists and writers and scientists and mathematicians? Screw that.

If you are an artist, you should be doing volunteer work where you do art. If you code, find a place where your unique skill set makes you as valuable as possible. Not all service work is created equal. In high school, I built houses in Mexico. I did a crappy job, and it was next to useless as an EC. What I should have been doing is finding a way to help people with my writing. I did in college, taking on work at the local pinball museum near my house. There, I wrote 300-word background-info boards to go on every table. It was a lot of fun, and I got to utilize things I liked and was good at to improve somewhere I cared about.

As a consultant, I take on students pro-bono. Each one will take about 40-60 hours of my time. This is no small investment, but I know that the value I may provide with that time is as high as possible. I am not just volunteering time, but also volunteering my skillset and acquired knowledge. I can offer more goodness to the world through my time spent because I have picked the most logical outlet. I also gain personally by getting a chance to expand my knowledge base by working with students who don’t fit my usual student criteria. It’s the best situation for everyone involved.

If you don’t know, College Essay Guy runs a full volunteer program that I’m considering joining in the spring when I’m less busy. He is undoubtedly providing more benefit-per-hour than I am. He can also do so because he has experience running a consulting company and has transferred that knowledge to the public service space. I could not run such a program; it would be a disaster. But, I plan to be in this career for the rest of my life, and I plan to hire people underneath me someday. Only once I figure out management on my own accord will I then feel comfortable using that background to help others.

Don’t try to be the waitress starting a restaurant. Don’t be the startup consultant running an essay charity organization. Super don’t be the waitress starting an essay charity organization. Instead, take stock of what you are good at and utilize those traits to their fullest to make every hour you do volunteer as fulfilling and beneficial as possible.

Because that’s how you help people. And it’s how you get into college, too.

“OK, that was all very writery and nice. But seriously, what do I do?”

OK. If general advice and a pat on the back isn’t enough, I do have a system I think will give you the best chance for success. Let’s put it all together.

Step one is to pick a charity. A good one that people have heard of. Here’s a fun list!

Pick one that somewhat combines what you’re good at and what you care about. The ratio of each is up to you.

Contact that charity and tell them everything. Explain your situation (you want to help and also lol college) and mention that you specifically want to be able to utilize your X skills while volunteering. Depending on what those skills are and the charity you’ve picked, they may or may not be into it. I recommend you keep searching until you hit on one that has a way for you to give back by doing what you’re already into. You might get a lot of, “I guess if you’re willing to do *actual work* then we could find a place for you to do *work related to skills .* That’s good enough.

Then you’re in. Figure out who your boss is and let them know this matters to you. That you don’t see this as some one-off thing, but instead an organization you wish to climb as high in as possible. If that’s not true, consider spending all this time doing something else. That’s not sarcasm: I only recommend doing this style of charity work if you are actually into charity work. It’s OK if you’re not. I wasn’t at your age. I’m just saying that this isn’t some stealing Harvard scheme. You need to be willing to go for it.

Now you’re working. Treat your time there as if it were your job. Show up on time; make friends with other volunteers; do everything you’re tasked to do with a smile. As things are going well, look for ways to move up in the organization. Ask for new projects to try or see if you can lead a team. Hopefully, you should still be primarily utilizing your desired skillset, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be using this opportunity to learn as many skills as possible. What’s cool about learning things this way instead of with a non-profit is that if you fail, it’s a learning experience instead of the end of the non-profit.

If you do it right, you should see yourself moving up in the organization. If you’re not, consider switching to another charity where you will be able to get in a higher level thanks to the background you have at your past charity. That’s right! You’re using one org to springboard to another at a higher starting point — just like a real millennial!

You may also use this newfound clout to shape your organization into doing the work you care most about. That’s the one thing I do get about non-profits. Students launch the good ones to directly provide aid for the people or place the student cares about. Keep that group in your heart and rise to a position of esteem where you may then use the walls around you to get them that aid. It may take a bit longer, but I guarantee the support you may then deliver will dwarf whatever you could manage on your own.

By the time you apply to schools, you should have moved as far up the ranks as possible. I guarantee you, having an official title with a renowned charity organization will do you so much better than running your own show. I think students (and their parents) get hung up on “leadership” as some holy grail. There are ways to lead that do not involve being in charge. The vice-president of media relations at the Northern California wing of the SPCA leads plenty. And it’s a type of leadership AOs will believe and respect. Showing that you are good enough at what you do to rise the ranks in a certified organization is extraordinary. It’s also hard. But hard in a way that I trust you to be able to do.

“And…and if I already have a non-profit?”


No, kidding. I’m not trying to give kids here even more complexes. What you’re doing is neat. A lot of people reading this will be seniors, and you got what you got. I recommend that you look at those two reasons I wrote about above and consider the viability of what you’re doing. Does your non-profit have an heir that will take over once you graduate? Is there real, tangible good coming from the work you do? Do you give a shit? If those statements are all true, then you’re fine. Keep on keeping on.

But when it’s time to apply to college, both understand how to utilize best what you’ve done and understand its inherent value. Try to think of your version of Cris Sirloin’s ascension. If you can come up with that narrative, and it’s real and believable, go for it. If not, feel free to include all the work you’ve done, but understand that this is not what will be getting you into school. But do include it. It won’t hurt.

Bonus edit: If you’re reading all this being like, “ayy by gawd e’s fool of sheet. Ma naan prahfit it the bees knees!” First, congratulate me on my excellent British (Jamaican?) impersonation. Second, think of all the ways you want to prove to me that your non-profit is the real deal and you really do help people. Hell, write it all down. You are going to want to include that proof somewhere in your application.

Take this is a warning that the impetus is on you to prove that you don’t just run another non-profit. The best way to do that is with quantifiable facts. Donations received, number of pledge drives run, meals fed or clothes received. If you have awards, explain what they’re for and why you got them. Build evidence around the non-profit itself to show its validity. That combined with presenting your own background to explain how you were able to make it happen is what will get you in.


Want more?  Check out my FREE strategy guide on the “Why College” essay.


Like this? You might also like:

You Don’t Have to be Spiky, but Please Don’t be Well-rounded

How to Get Noticed and Stand Out During the College Admissions Process: Have a Weird Hobby

The One Key Difference Between My Students Who Did and Did Not Get Into T20 Schools

I wrote an original essay for every 2020-2021 UChicago Prompt. Here you go.

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