5 Reasons I Have a Fear of Formalizing

I’ve been doing this for over three years now. And, together, we’ve done a lot. As I try and figure out how to sustain this project and continue this journey for the long-term, you might be wondering, why don’t I just register as a (non-profit) organization? Isn’t becoming an “NGO” or “NPO” just a tax status? Here’s five reasons why I disagree & dislike the idea of becoming an organization…

5) Creates Two-Tier Donors: This project was born on the internet. On the internet, everyone is equal. If there was a way I could register as an organization so that every donor – from anywhere in the world – could get a tax write-off, I would. I don’t see the point in giving one country special preference and turning a project – born out of a global online community – into something which is skewed (or becomes more skewed) to one particular country.

4) Requires Working Under the Radar: Most developing countries have different requirements for those visiting as an individual vs those coming to work as part of an organization. Some charities, like World Vision, Save the Children, & the Red Cross, invest millions of dollars to register, form a legal presence, and hire a permanent staff in all the countries they serve in. Many smaller organizations simply fly-in & work under the radar. I don’t have millions of dollars, don’t have a need to hire a permanent staff, and don’t want to disrespect the laws of the countries I visit.

3) Takes the Fun out of Fundraising: As an individual, I don’t have a bottom line and I have relatively low overhead. As an organization, I’d need to raise funds – not just to register – but to sustain the organization itself. You’d be surprised at how expensive it is to run even the smallest organization – and how breaks like pro-bono lawyers are few and far between. I don’t want to create something that requires me to pressure you to donate in order to reach some preset funding requirement.

2) Hinders Community Democracy: I wanted to give 10,000 lbs of food to the LA Food Bank. Whose permission did I ask? Yours. I wasn’t sure if I should build a Pond Sand Filter. Who made the call? You. If I was an organization, that power would be vested in a Board of Directors – not you. The ups and downs of this project have taught me this: I never want anything – or anyone – to have veto power over you guys. There is, of course, one exception: the people we are trying to serve on the ground.

1) Limits Trust-Building on the Ground: The number one question I get in Bangladesh is whether or not I’m an organization. Most rural Bangladeshis have had negative experiences with organizations and have seen NGO corruption first hand. This maybe why they get so excited when I tell them I’m just a guy. Simply not being part of an organization seems to foster trust, approachability, a willingness to brainstorm, and interaction with you guys (who I explain are my friends back home who support my work).

What I’ve learned in Bangladesh is that, as just a guy, I add value to any existing organization. Locals see me as an independent voice – one whom they can approach with their ideas, suggestions, and even complaints (and, yes, I do address and resolve their complaints – albeit not always publicly). Meanwhile, the online community sees me as their direct line to both those they help and the good they have funded.

I don’t have anything against organizations. In fact, why can’t organizations that have already done all the hard work to formalize, reap the benefit from someone like me (as an independent individual)? This is why I try so hard to pitch the idea of teaming up to multi-national organizations. It’s also why I wish foundations & funding sources supporting initiatives like mine wouldn’t brush me off just because I’m not a tax-writeoff.

Because doing good is more than just a tax status.

4 Responses to “5 Reasons I Have a Fear of Formalizing”


  1. 1 Jared

    Hell, that’s what I love about you, Shawn. You’re not an organization. You’re just a guy. You wanted to help out, so you just went. You embody the way that I think most people should act. Of course it’s harder, but nothing is easy. I think if everybody stopped paying so much attention to organizations and charities and just went out and helped people, the world would be a much better place.

  2. 2 Jared

    Hell, that’s what I love about you, Shawn. You’re not an organization. You’re just a guy. You wanted to help out, so you just went. You embody the way that I think most people should act. Of course it’s harder, but nothing is easy. I think if everybody stopped paying so much attention to organizations and charities and just went out and helped people, the world would be a much better place.

  3. 3 Stacey Monk

    Speaking as a founder of the tiniest of tiny nonprofits, I sometimes wish I’d chosen your road…

    A few things though:

    i don’t believe it creates two-tier donors. sure, some will get a tax writeoff, some not. but it doesn’t strike me as a big deal. you listed it as your first one – maybe i’m missing something.

    if you find a nonprofit – small or large – that’s following the letter of the law everywhere they work, let me know. i’d be shocked. really. we’re tiny, but we really try. we worked with mama lucy to get her registered as a tanzanian nonprofit. we pay a volunteer tariff when we’re there. is it an effort? sure. and i’d agree bureaucracy might be a key reason to avoid the whole scene.

    there’s no legal reason that your followers couldn’t be your board of directors. Maybe a representative democracy of sorts. We’ve certainly thought about doing that at Epic Change.

    Fundraising can still be fun. TweetsGiving, ToMamaWithLove, Twestival – trust me, it doesn’t have to be a drag. and there’s no requirement – what we don’t raise, we don’t spend. simple as that.

    trust, i’d agree, comes down to individual humans. and there’s certainly a degree of mistrust that arises when people know you’re getting paid to help. that said, i do think individual humans, regardless of for whom they work, can build trust – not necessarily for an organization, but for themselves. I think if you asked Mama Lucy, she’d say she trusts Sanjay & I, but others who might volunteer would have to build trust individually, even if they’re somehow affiliated with Epic Change. People trust people, not organizations.

    a few benefits of formalizing?

    * being eligible for certain types of funding.
    * tax deductibility.
    * being taken seriously by some potential partners & supporters.

    (and looking at that list, i myself am not sure it’s nearly enough for all the red tape.)

  4. 4 Stacey Monk

    Speaking as a founder of the tiniest of tiny nonprofits, I sometimes wish I’d chosen your road…

    A few things though:

    i don’t believe it creates two-tier donors. sure, some will get a tax writeoff, some not. but it doesn’t strike me as a big deal. you listed it as your first one – maybe i’m missing something.

    if you find a nonprofit – small or large – that’s following the letter of the law everywhere they work, let me know. i’d be shocked. really. we’re tiny, but we really try. we worked with mama lucy to get her registered as a tanzanian nonprofit. we pay a volunteer tariff when we’re there. is it an effort? sure. and i’d agree bureaucracy might be a key reason to avoid the whole scene.

    there’s no legal reason that your followers couldn’t be your board of directors. Maybe a representative democracy of sorts. We’ve certainly thought about doing that at Epic Change.

    Fundraising can still be fun. TweetsGiving, ToMamaWithLove, Twestival – trust me, it doesn’t have to be a drag. and there’s no requirement – what we don’t raise, we don’t spend. simple as that.

    trust, i’d agree, comes down to individual humans. and there’s certainly a degree of mistrust that arises when people know you’re getting paid to help. that said, i do think individual humans, regardless of for whom they work, can build trust – not necessarily for an organization, but for themselves. I think if you asked Mama Lucy, she’d say she trusts Sanjay & I, but others who might volunteer would have to build trust individually, even if they’re somehow affiliated with Epic Change. People trust people, not organizations.

    a few benefits of formalizing?

    * being eligible for certain types of funding.
    * tax deductibility.
    * being taken seriously by some potential partners & supporters.

    (and looking at that list, i myself am not sure it’s nearly enough for all the red tape.)

  1. 1 5 Mistakes in my Search for Sustainability | UP | uncultured project
  2. 2 Scalability of One | UP | uncultured project
  3. 3 Beth Kanter Gets It | UP | uncultured project
  4. 4 This Takes Time | UP | uncultured project
  5. 5 Negative Attitudes to NGOs in Bangladesh | The Uncultured Project

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