This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
It’s June, and for millions of high school and college students across the country that means graduation. Hundreds of thousands of the world’s most talented, capable young people are heading out into the world to make their mark. Here in the Bay Area, the birthplace of the startup, creating your own company or organization can feel like the only true measure of success. I’m asking graduates to consider joining something first instead.
More people are committed to being active agents of change at younger ages than ever before. And yet, over the past five years in my quest to answer the question — “Why do some social startups succeed, while others don’t?” — I’ve heard countless stories of students graduating from college and starting organizations with very few tools in their toolkit to handle the challenges that starting an organization inevitably presents.
There’s an endless amount of passion upon graduation, but not a lot of seasoned leadership, fundraising experience, innovation, clear metrics and strong storytelling. As a result, the nonprofit sector, which is already so starved for resources, is wasting time and money while young people learn these lessons on the job.
Carolyn Laub was a recent college grad who had come out as bisexual when she started a support group for LGBTQ teens in the late 1990s. She was inspired by a gay-straight alliance club at Palo Alto High School that was vigorously standing up for LGBTQ students and training their teachers on how to address bullying. Laub realized that to really make a dent in the problem, she’d need to start an organization and build a movement. But she was 23, she hadn’t hired that many people before, let alone fired anyone, and she was lacking the contacts to raise the millions of dollars she’d need to build a nonprofit.
For years, the organization’s growth was hampered by her failure to build a strong upper management team. She worked herself to the bone to launch her organization, but her staff were dropping like flies because they couldn’t keep up with her pace. She grew the organization into a nationwide movement, and although she was a really good fundraiser compared to similar organizations, for the first five years she was operating the Gay-Straight Alliance Network on less than $500,000 per year with just a handful of staff.
This is the story of so many social entrepreneurs, who start their organizations in their 20s and realize very quickly that passion and charisma will only take them so far. The vast majority of nonprofits spend most of their time in survival mode. In fact, two-thirds of nonprofits in this country have $500,000 and below in annual revenue. They are on a treadmill to try to keep their organizations afloat when they should really be focusing on their mission and impact.
Education is changing the situation for the better. Stanford University has quadrupled its community-engaged learning offerings over the past five years, meaning that students are graduating with more skills-based opportunities under their belts. But, in general I believe our educational system is guilty of inspiring agents of social change without giving them the basic skills they need to succeed.
Last year, a junior at Stanford University approached me to ask for help with a nonprofit she wanted to start to help people in the slums of Cape Town, an idea she had hatched as a part of a class project and wanted to apply to launch at the campus pitch competition. When I asked her how often she goes to South Africa, she responded that she had never been but hopes to go one day. By encouraging students like this to start companies and organizations, universities are setting them up for failure, and putting communities at risk.
Seed funding is going to young college grads, often at the expense of community-based leaders who may not have access to Ivy League networks, but do have the lived-experience that makes them arguably more equipped to address the problem. While we all fall prey to the stereotype of the college dropout who founds a billion-dollar “unicorn” startup, research from Aileen Lee at Cowboy Ventures finds that inexperienced, 20-something founders are actually an outlier. In fact, companies with well-educated, 30-something co-founders who have history together have built the most success.
Once Laub invested in a growth strategy and hired seasoned management, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network began to take off within a year. Today it operates a thriving national organization (now called the Genders and Sexualities Alliance Network) with an annual budget of $2.6 million, but it took Laub and the organization’s senior leaders nearly 20 years to reach that level of impact.
After interviewing more than 100 social entrepreneurs about their path to success, I can attest that Laub is one of the smartest, hardest working and creative social entrepreneurs I’ve met. The fact that even she faced such huge challenges as a young person starting an organization is evidence that there is no substitute for life experience.
We should encourage our students to volunteer and work for effective organizations before running with their own ideas. With no shortage of urgent social problems to solve, we must find ways to ground the passion and potential our graduates promise to deliver with practical skills for success. Starting an organization, when nonprofits skilled in best practices desperately need fresh talent, has both a personal cost and a social one.