So, you want to start a nonprofit?

So, you want to start a nonprofit?

Have you ever wondered how successful nonprofits are started? Curious about what it takes to be able to positively impact thousands of people around the world? Ever wanted to do that yourself?

Well, Erin Zaikis, founder of the Sundara Fund, is here to give you a behind-the-scenes look at starting—and running—a successful global nonprofit. 

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Children practice proper hand washing techniques at one of Sundara’s hand hygiene workshops. Photo credit: Bernat Parera

Before founding Sundara, Erin worked at an orphanage in India and at a school for Burmese refugees in Thailand. It was during these experiences that she became passionate about hygiene education and had an idea to provide soap—one of the most basic medicines in the world—to communities in an innovative, sustainable way.

The Sundara Fund is only a few years old, so the challenges and steep learning curve of starting a non-profit are still fresh in Erin’s mind. For all the passionate, community-minded entrepreneurs out there, Erin wanted to share some advice and lessons-learned.

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A few of Sundara’s Mumbai hygiene ambassadors. For most of them, this is the first job they’ve ever held. Photo credit: Bernat Parera

So, how do I come up with a great idea and how do I turn that idea into a reality?

First, what is it that breaks your heart about the world? What issue do you talk about and feel emotional about – or connected to? Think about out what it is why it is so important to you. For me, it was the kids I met who had never used soap despite the fact that this simple intervention drastically reduces deaths from preventable diseases, like pneumonia and diarrhea.

Second, do your research – are there other organizations that are tackling this issue already? Is your idea for solving it any different from existing approaches? Talk to and learn from as many people as you can. There are 1.5 million nonprofits in the US alone – so make sure your idea is new or the perspective is fresh. People will always ask “why should I donate to you?” Practice responding to your friends. Make sure you have a convincing answer.

Once you have a clear concept and persuasive reason, start small. Do one thing each week towards your idea – whether it’s interviewing an industry expert, setting up a bank account, or applying for a grant.

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A bar of recycled soap is shared between students in Shilonda village, Maharastra. Photo credit: Bernat Parera

What’s the very first thing I should do after deciding to start a nonprofit?

Register a domain and create a simple website: proof of your vision becoming reality.  You will feel inspired to have something tangible to show people. Then, don’t keep it a secret! Tell everyone you know that you are doing this – telling people will make you hold yourself accountable for making real progress.

How long does it really take to establish a non-profit? 

This is the hard thing for me and many people my age to swallow – great things take time to build. It took 11 months for us just to get legal standing as an NGO in the US (in our case 501C(3) status).

How did you approach getting funding?

There are lots of small grants out there. I applied to a LinkedIn grant that gave me the initial $10,000 to go to India and test my vision with an initial, six-month soap recycling program. Subsequently, during the holidays, I set up a crowd funding page which was a successful way to raise money from family and friends. This enabled me to establish more worksites and continue to grow Sundara. As we grew, I started reaching out to small businesses and foundations with an interest in health and hygiene and, since then, we’ve been able to create formal funding partnerships.

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A Sundara hygiene ambassador distributes soap at a school in the Kalwa slums on the outskirts of Mumbai. Photo credit: Bernat Parera

How did you get to know the local community well enough for them to trust and work for your organization? 

Find trusted locals who share your vision! We always hire local staff who speak the language and know the culture inside and out. I find staff through colleagues, friends, mentors, well-reputed local community groups or just through networking and relationship building.

I also personally visit our worksites and get to know the community leaders. It’s much easier to operate in an environment where people understand your process and know you don’t have any underlying motivations.  Remember, building trust takes lots of time and respect for local customs!

Any last words of wisdom?

It’s really important to keep an open mind and be flexible enough to learn from mistakes—you may realize the problem you initially identified could be solved in a more sustainable/efficient/context-appropriate way, so expect many things to change as you get up and running.

Initially, I was trying to fund hygiene education through making and selling my own soap – all out of my tiny New York apartment! Now the soap comes from gently-used bars donated by the hospitality industry, which are cleaned, recycled, and distributed by underprivileged women in need of income-generation opportunities.

Setting up a nonprofit seems daunting, I know. Be patient, give yourself time, and keep moving forward…you will be there before you know it!

To contact Erin for advice or just to learn more about her story, contact her through Twitter (@erinzaikis) or email her at [email protected]


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