This is such a crucial thing. If you are starting in a large city, there is a chance that an organization already exists to do the thing you’re hoping to do.

Before you begin, do your research. Find out who’s doing what, and on what scale. Then, one of the following scenarios will emerge:

There are no similar organizations

Obviously this is ideal. You jump in and fill that void.

There is a vaguely similar organization

Very often you will discover that there is an organization related to youth literacy in your city or town. But usually it will be different in significant ways. Perhaps there’s a group that sends poets into schools. Perhaps there’s a bookmaking program for young people.

The key thing to do, right away, is to connect with these groups and assure them that what you’re doing is different and is noncompetitive and that you want to be friends. The nonprofit world can be a bit competitive because often nonprofits are (or they perceive themselves to be) competing for limited resources.

Be sure you connect, make friends, and plan cooperation or even partnerships (foundations very often love to support partnerships between nonprofits). This can’t be overemphasized. You really don’t want a longstanding organization thinking you are encroaching blithely on their territory. Go in with respect for those who have come before, and have an open conversation about how you will fit into the nonprofit landscape.

A very similar organization already exists

This is tough. It could be that there’s an organization that is pretty similar. Maybe they offer tutoring after school, and they even send tutors into schools. Whatever the overlap, at this point, you have three choices:

1. You can shift your focus/limit your services so you don’t duplicate services — that is, skip the after-school tutoring and concentrate on publishing projects. Articulating this focus to the existing organization is important so that they know you are not duplicating (if that is a problem).

2. You can combine forces. Maybe the existing organization would love an injection of new energy and volunteers.

3. There might be room for both of you. Chances are that you’re in a city. And if a city has a few hundred thousand students, there is room for not just two literacy organizations, but a thousand of them. So as long as you connect with and communicate with the existing organizations, you can move forward, knowing that teachers and students need all the help they can get.