3 tips to consider if you want to start a nonprofit

If you’re interested in developing a social-impact career, there are very few straightforward paths to follow. This week, we’re sharing the advice and stories of a few people in various fields to help shine a light on the opportunities that exist in the social sector. Today, Tim Ifill—Co-founder and Executive Director of Philly Fellows—shares his tips for launching a nonprofit and being a social entrepreneur. Check out the other posts in this series.


Photo credit: Jonah G.S., Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo credit: Jonah G.S., Creative Commons/Flickr

There is a lot of buzz around social entrepreneurship. People increasingly want to do well while doing good and are eager to launch organizations that give back. However, what does it take to build an organization, especially if you’re right out of college?

Tim Ifill graduated from Haverford College in 2003 and wanted to change the world. The problem? There were very few opportunities available. Unlike for-profit companies, which might send recruiters to college or spend money advertising their jobs, nonprofits rarely stretch their limited budgets to include recruiting efforts. To solve this problem, in 2004 Tim and his college roommate Matt Joyce launched Philly Fellows, a nonprofit that matches talented recent college graduates with nonprofits around Philadelphia to complete yearlong projects.

Eight years later, Philly Fellows has over 100 alumni, many of whom are still working for the public good. But moving from an idea to an actual program required collaboration, patience, and a willingness to network.

Do you want to launch a nonprofit?

Here is Tim’s advice:

  • Build your network: “Every opportunity you have to build your network, take it. Many people think of networking is a bad thing; that it’s something people only do out of self-interest. But building up your network creates mutual benefits for everyone overall and creates a stronger nonprofit sector. We were successful because of the nonprofits in Philly. Once we were plugged into that, we were able to build this program. We spent 6-8 months meeting with anyone who would be willing to meet with us.”
  • Focus on what you have to offer: “Matt and I started this a year or so after we graduated from college. We didn’t know much about the nonprofit sector and didn’t have much in the way of a career history. But we had an idea and we felt like we could do something in Philly that would benefit the city and the sector. It was great to go to civic leaders and for them to get over their skepticism and sign on to the program. You’d think there’d be a story of us fighting to get through as 23-year-olds, but everyone in the nonprofit sector in Philly was so open and offered their assistance in various forms. What we were doing was asking them to sign on to something instead of helping us build something. “
  • Stay connected to the impact of your work: “Because of Philly Fellows I am in touch with different organizations but I am one-step-removed from the exciting stuff in the city. I feel disconnected at times. To stay plugged, I check in with the Fellows and their work to learn what they are doing on the ground. When I’m running through spreadsheets and less exciting but important stuff, it makes sure I have a balance. “

Next steps




Tim co-founded Philly Fellows with Matt Joyce in 2004. He grew up just outside of Philadelphia in Abington, PA. After graduating from Haverford College with a degree in linguistics, Tim spent two seasons working for the U.S. Forest Service in California’s Eastern Sierras before returning to Philadelphia to begin work on Philly Fellows. Tim also serves as Treasurer of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.


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Former Editor and Creator of Idealist Careers, a publication of Idealist.org. Follow me on Twitter @ajlovesya.
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  1. Dear Ms.Allison Jones:
    I’ve been reading your articles and I liked them all but this article is THE ONE I need. Please keep writing about setting a non-profit. I’ve a blog ‘WOMEN & AFRICA’ at http://womenandafrica.blogspot.com/ I intend to transform it into a non-profit but I don’t know where and how to start it.

    However, I have been building my network as you said, through social media (Facebook and Twitter) and I’ve now 200 Twitter followers and over 150 Facebook likes. My goal is to have on Facebook and Twitter 1000 people supporting the blog.

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Jessica,

      I am glad you found the interview helpful! If you want more info on starting a nonprofit, we put together a list of the nuts and bolts of starting a nonprofit http://www.idealist.org/info/Nonprofits/Startup2

      Hope this helps!


  2. Pingback: Want to start a nonprofit? Keep these 3 tips in mind | Idealist Careers

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