Written by Ariana Wiltjer (SAS '23)
Pursuing a social impact or passion project as a young adult can be a fulfilling and enriching professional development experience. You can develop numerous skills applicable to one’s educational, personal, and professional lives while, most importantly, giving back to the community. Whether starting a nonprofit that addresses community needs, starting a club at one’s school, or volunteering with a local organization, you have a unique opportunity as a young adult to make a direct and measurable impact.
My name is Ariana Wiltjer, and I am a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania from Portland, Oregon. Although a large part of my life consists of being a student studying Economics with a minor in Consumer Psychology, I am also the Co-Founder and Executive Director of NeighborShould Nonprofit. Through my experience with NeighborShould, I have learned about the process of bringing an idea to life, the skills that can be developed through social impact or community service work, and, more specifically, what it takes to build a nonprofit from the ground up. I hope to pass on that information to assist others like you in making an impact in their community.
Bringing an Idea to Life
As my brother, Sam, also a student at Penn, and I were in the early stages of founding our nonprofit, we experienced firsthand the process of developing an idea or passion into concrete steps. While we were driven to start our nonprofit by the medical needs of patients suffering severe cases of COVID-19, ideas can be found anywhere. By recognizing a specific of your community, you can develop the idea further to have a positive contribution.
Recognizing a Problem: Is there a specific area you are passionate about or a crisis that you would like to address?
For us, this meant identifying the need for COVID-19 convalescent plasma for patients suffering from COVID-19. Although we started with a specific need, you don’t need to know precisely how you will contribute yet! This could be a more general area that you will develop further in the research and development steps.
Research: What is currently being done and what is missing in these areas?
For example, how is COVID-19 convalescent plasma (CCP) currently being collected and distributed? What are ways we could help this process? For us, that was identifying that we could contribute by hosting drives at college campuses across the country to increase access to CCP treatment.
Development: What are your next steps and the practical ways to get there?
Prepare a formal proposal (useful for internal and also for applying for funding)
Background information, synthesis of research, new steps, etc.
NeighborShould’s formal proposal included all of the above sections, including our projected timeline for the following months and project details. Our project details section laid out our plans for what we wanted to include on our website, our advertising and social media plans, what other organizations or companies we wanted to work with going forward, etc. Our budget included expected costs for website maintenance, paperwork filing fees, advertising, hosting drives, and more.
Skills that can be Developed While Building an Initiative
As I mentioned before, while you are giving back to your community, you can also build valuable skills that will be very beneficial to your school and future work life. Although starting an initiative such as a nonprofit might feel out of your comfort zone at first, as you work to build these skills and learn from your work, you will begin to feel more confident.
Time Management & Efficiency: Being more organized and efficient with your time allows you to balance spending time for the initiative while still managing your responsibilities as a student.
Setting priorities, goals, and "free time"
Establish a general ranking of commitments. Check out this article for more tips on balancing your activities.
Planning vs. improvisation
Make a plan, be prepared to follow your plan, but also maintain a degree of flexibility to meet priorities.
Apply techniques to maximize efficiency and reduce time spent on tasks while boosting quality (ex. Pomodoro method)
Interpersonal Communication: Being able to effectively communicate your vision to others is an extremely important skill, especially for young adults!
Confidence is key.
Remember: your audience will only have as much confidence as you have in yourself!
Research and know your stuff.
You are the one moving the conversation; you will only get as much as you put in. Don't be afraid to practice with a script! If you come prepared for meetings, people (often your elders) will respect you, regardless of your age.
Know your genre and audience.
For example, speaking to a corporate professional versus a fellow student will require different methods of communication. This comes with research and continued experience. Take cues early on from the person you are communicating with.
Marketing through Social Media: Being able to effectively use social media to share your initiative takes practice to master!
Mission-based social media
Keep in mind why you're doing it: the organization's purpose.
As you can see in the example, your organization’s social media page doesn’t have to be “Pinterest perfect”! For NeighborShould’s social media, we focus on our mission statement and purpose. Since one of our main Initiatives is hosting the CCP drives, we have many graphics with educational resources on CCP and the donations process, how CCP is helping patients in need, and promotional materials for our drive.
Cohesive graphics should match your nonprofit or organization's vibe. NeighborShould sticks to a consistent color scheme and matches our style to our mission and intended audience. For example, if your target audience for your posts are other students, you don’t need to post formal or professional looking graphics and captions.
Utilizing free resources
Canva, Youtube tutorials, online social media or marketing courses, teachers & professors.
Collaborative Teamwork: You can't do everything alone!
Set yourself up for success
Whether it's setting up in-person or online meetings, make sure you have effective tools at your disposal to get work done live (ex. Notion).
As a team, you will inevitably reach disagreements on day-to-day tasks or big picture ideas. Listen to your partners/peers and meet them in the middle, or agree to one idea.
Acknowledge hard work and success
Working in a small team can be hard. Acknowledging your partner's work can go a long way to create a positive, healthy work environment.
Accountability and Quality Control
Implement systems to ensure maximum quality and minimization of mistakes. For example, for emails, graphics, forms, etc., have one person write a draft and at least one other person review and edit.
What to Avoid When Starting an Initiative: Performative Activism
Although we just went over all of the skills that you can build and what you can get out of pursuing a social impact project, it is important to make sure that you are getting into it for the right reasons. What is performative activism and how can you avoid it?
The key is to remember why you got involved in this project in the first place. How do you want to impact your community and make a difference?
Paperwork and Securing Funding
How do I go about starting a nonprofit or initiative and where do I find funding? This will vary depending on whether you are starting a club at school, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in the United States, or another type of organization. If looking to start a club for school that addresses a social impact issue, your best bet is to contact school administration to find out the steps for startup and funding opportunities. Since my experience is in the nonprofit sector, I will outline the steps to achieve 501(c)(3) nonprofit status in the US and grant opportunities. Although this part of the process might be a little scary, don’t let this discourage you from pursuing your project further. There are a ton of free resources online!
Startup (only have to file once)
Articles of Incorporation (Differs by state)
Articles of Amendment (if needed to make changes to Articles of Incorporation)
Bylaws (internal & submitted to Department of Justice (DOJ))
1023-EZ (IRS for 501(c)(3) nonprofit status)
Annual (file yearly)
Form 990-N (yearly tax form to IRS)
PayPal for business & Nonprofit/small business checking account.
A clean, organized budget allows for an easier time on paperwork and grant proposals.
Free resources for nonprofits
Canva Pro; Microsoft Suite; Google Workplace; Grammarly Premium
Donations are tax-deductible for 501(c)(3) nonprofits.
Although it can be a lot of work, especially during the startup phases, building a nonprofit or other social impact group or initiative is very rewarding in these many ways and there are a lot of resources available to help you! If you are interested in starting a nonprofit or initiative, feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have!
About the Author:
Ariana Wiltjer is an undergraduate student at the School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pennsylvania. She is the co-founder and executive director of NeighborShould Nonprofit and worked as a member of the Wharton Women Dollar Scholars Committee during the Spring of her sophomore year. For any questions, you can reach Ariana at email@example.com.