There are tens-of-thousands of college nonprofits and charities. At my alma mater, Ohio State, we had more than 500 nonprofit student organizations active during any year alone. Some are built as resume builders for the founders, but some are also serious operations with massive organizational structures and huge philanthropic bases. Ohio State’s yearly dance marathon routinely raises $1 million for cancer treatment every year while Ohio State’s fraternities and sororities will often individually raise over $50,000 per group.
College is a time to experiment with learning teamwork and organizational management. It’s okay to make mistakes. The trouble is that many of these organizations are poorly run and will often donate to ineffective charities that accomplish nothing. Simple reforms to how college charities operate could make them considerably more effective in combatting global poverty.
In 2015 I helped co-found a nonprofit at Ohio State called Best Food Forward. We worked to alleviate food insecurity through cooperative food purchasing and food pharmacies. Twice a month we would hold bulk buys where students, staff, and community members could buy bulk produce and dry goods at half the cost of the local grocery store. Over the last five years, we have served thousands of community members, providing more than $50,000 of savings to our members. I was president for the first three years and I have been a board member since.
It’s been a fantastic experience. I didn’t just have the chance to see what it’s like to lead a functioning nonprofit, I also got the chance to mentor and interact with many different charitable student groups. It’s taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t. So I wanted to compile my best tips for building effective nonprofits in colleges.
1. Effectiveness before feel-goodness
You’re given a million dollars and you have two options. Donate it to a charity that saves 5 lives or donate it to a charity that saves 300 lives. Which is better? Well, everything else held the same, there’s no doubt that a donation to the second charity is better.
Whether college charities like it or not, they are always being given that option. According to the charity evaluation organization, Give Well, a donation of around $3340 to the most effective charities could save a life. But not many folks think about their charitable giving in terms of how effective it is at saving lives, instead most donors choose charities with good marketing or easily visible impacts.
For example, the largest charity at Ohio State is Buckeyethon, it’s a huge and inspiring dance marathon that raised $1.6 million for the kids hematology and oncology floor at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital. That is an undoubtedly good thing to do, however since the average cost of a pediatric cancer treatment is about $833,000, the charity would be lucky to save the lives of two children.
Don’t get me wrong, savings those kids lives was a good thing to do, but the choice becomes more complicated when given the option of saving the lives of 479 children through a donation to GiveWell’s most effective charities like the Against Malaria Foundation or Helen Keller International.
If you choose to start a charity or you are in charge of philanthropy for your greek life organization, please consider first consulting Give Well’s list of top charities before setting up fundraisers.
2. More brains doesn’t mean more brain power
Y-Combinator is the most successful startup incubator in the world. Their rule for applying companies is that they have 2–3 founders and sometimes 1. Anything over 3 becomes too difficult to manage.
When students start thinking about building charities, they tend to think that the first step is to get a big group of people together to work on the problem. That almost always fails because it requires too much coordination across all the group members ideas. You could have a group of the 30 smartest people in the university all working on the same project and still accomplish nothing because the cooperation is so difficult. It’s always best to start with a small group of passionate and like-minded people who can effectively cooperate on the project.
3. Set clear measurements of impact in your mission statement
It’s too damn easy to spend four years pretending like you’re doing something without accomplishing anything. That’s why it’s essential to have a clear and concise mission with measurable goals.
For example, Best Food Forward started out as project to “alleviate food insecurity at Ohio State”. We had a rough goal and topic, but it wasn’t specific or measurable. Over time, in turned into something around the lines of: “alleviating local food insecurity by providing Ohio State community members with a 50% discount on healthy food through biweekly bulk buys.” At the end of each year we could look at our mission statement and assess our success by asking ourselves “how we much we saved members?”, “how many food insecure members we worked with?”, “how many bulk buys we provided?”, and “how many members became more food secure because of our work?”
4. Move fast, you have less time than you think
Too many people approach these projects with the mentality that “it can wait, we have four years.” Four years in college goes by surprisingly fast, and it’s very easy to accomplish nothing after getting swamped under the weight of constant exam cycles. Move fast and don’t wait to pursue different projects.
5. Look for underappreciated areas/Don’t do what everyone else is doing
When presented with a problem, folks tend to imagine a lot of the same solutions. In some cases that’s because the solutions actually work. But a lot of the time, people come to that solution because of common misconceptions about the original issue. This causes a lot of folks to create well-intentioned projects that amount to nothing.
Take food insecurity. People hear that some large percentage of people in the United States don’t have constant access to healthy and varied food. So folks tend to suggest two solution projects: food pantry or food waste donation (take the food waste from restaurants and donate it to the needy).
When I was at Ohio State we had one very over-funded food pantry that served 30 students a month, and we had 4 food waste projects. Folks were working hard and had good intentions, but they did next to nothing to impact the problem because they both didn’t understand the problem and they never attempted to think outside of the box.
Food insecurity isn’t about a lack of food — 35% of food insecure adults are obese and a very small percentage of the food insecure are actually malnourished. Food insecurity is more about having easy choice and access to healthy and varied food. It’s about dignity. Giving people second-hand scraps and donations is not a dignified way of increasing food access, and that’s why only .3% of OSU’s food insecure students used the food pantry.
So look outside the box. Think deeply about the problem you’re trying to impact. And don’t just assume that the people working on the problem know what they are talking about.
6. Don’t be a prestigious fellowship chaser
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing prestigious fellowships like the Rhodes, Goldwater, or Cambridge. Some of the most amazing, genuine people I know successfully got into those fellowships. But a lot of disingenuous social climbers pursue those fellowships, and a decent chunk of them will make it in.
The trouble is that these fellowships create perverse incentives for hopefuls. People think they have to found 5 non-profits to get in one, or worse, they have to embellish their background. Focus on one or two projects during college. Don’t overextend yourself and don’t compare yourself to the people who win these awards.
7. Avoid tutoring, mentoring, or education
It’s difficult to work successfully in education and unfortunately the first philanthropy idea that most people have is somewhere along the lines of: “lets do test prep tutoring and mentoring for underserved kids.” So, many people already do this and it’s very difficult to be successful in it since it requires so much one-on-one work hours. It’s not a high-leverage point.
8. Be practical about political advocacy
My rudest awakening in college was working briefly withtwo policy groups. You can very quickly be introduced to the sausage factory of legislation and lobbying. You will go and fight for a bill you care about for 2 years and then have it forgotten about in committee because some fickle politician got bored.
If you only have 4 years to work on a policy topic in college, you will be lucky to see and advocate for even a couple bills. They will most likely not pass, and it will feel like years were wasted. They, of course, weren’t wasted — policy work is a valuable place to build career capital and valuable social skills. No matter what, you have to be very practical about the lack of impact you are likely to have.
9. If you can’t serve the needy in your direct community, than serve the most needy abroad.
We have a bit of a bias to work on problems that make us feel good. Typically that means working directly with the people we are serving. The trouble is that the most needy people in the world are not in the United States. They are abroad. And when you have billions of people in extreme poverty, even small donations that would have no effect on local American charities can go a long way in the third world.
10. Don’t trust University Administration or Student Government
First off, student government is universally a theater. They have no real power and never affect real change. Don’t waste your time playing politics with no consequences. The USG/SGA projects will almost always be half-assed and inefficient.
Secondly, as a student you’re thinking on a month-to-month time scale. You are worried about the next exam and you’re worried about problems directly facing students in the moment. University admins are in it for the long haul. They think on a 5-year time scale, and they have no time for even the most well-intentioned 2-year plans of students. They will take your meetings but nothing will come of them. Don’t waste your time.
11. Don’t make a project about changing the way another group works
A lot of folks will see the way another business, nonprofit, or institution operates and they will think “hey it’d be better if they did X this way.” That’s fine, but this approach will typically have four problems: 1) they thought of X already, 2) there’s a good reason they do it the way they do, 3) they’ve already tried it, and 4) they don’t care what outsiders think.
Take for instance, food waste at Ohio State. During my time there I talked to 5 different groups about reforms they had for Ohio State’s dining services when it came to food waste. The director of dining services was polite and would take their meetings, but for 4 years nothing happened.
12. Build for Longevity
Social change takes years. Your 4 years in college are a drop of water in a very big bucket. Even when first starting a project, think in terms of how your model will be successful in the long-term. In order to affect change it needs to operate for many years. Take it seriously and build for the long haul.
13. Start experimenting quickly/Don’t wait till it’s “safe”
People tend to procrastinate when it comes to charitable projects. They make excuses for not doing anything in the moment, so they ask permission from tons of different authorities before they end up doing anything. Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. It’s easy to accomplish nothing in 4 years if you are not constantly iterating and experimenting.
14. Beware of parent organizations
A lot of folks have the idea to be a chapter of some larger group. For example, the Sierra Club is a massive conservation organization that hosts hundreds of small chapters at local colleges. These can be valuable experiences for folks, but most of the time these chapters operate under the rules of the parent organization. Oftentimes, they don’t get to think for themselves or make their own projects, and sometimes the decisions of the parent organization can directly contradict the beliefs of chapter members.
15. Focus on one big project rather than a lot of little ones
It’s easy to try and build a fat resume with tons of interesting experiences. That’s fine, but I don’t believe that a bunch of half-assed volunteer experiences are helpful in positively impacting the world. The people who have focused hard on one or two projects tend to have the most success and reach.