There is an interesting discussion brewing over at HackerNews on whether it's worthy to pursue a remarkable, "world-changing" idea that you think will never make any money. Having worked seriously on at least one non-profit project over the past few years, I've gone through the same thought process before and ultimately realized that if your idea is really that much of a game changer, there's always a way to make money.

The real question: Is it really game-changing?

This is probably the biggest thing you should ask, regardless of whether your idea is non-profit or for profit. How many people will be positively impacted by your idea? If it's truly game-changing, the answer should be too many to count. If it only impacts a handful of people, it's likely to have very limited scope in terms of making any kind of sizable income.

If your idea is that much of a game-changer and will positively impact a vast number of people, you will likely be able to get financial support from donations or governmental grants, so the cost associated with the project should be minimal (other than time). The great thing about NPOs is that you can still pay yourself a reasonable salary with the money you do raise, as all organizations ultimately need leadership and a management structure to function at their optimum level.

So you can offset the costs associated with it, but how do you profit off of this world-changing idea? Several commenters rightfully pointed out the Open Source software movement. Take a look at the jQuery project, for instance. It's creator, John Resig, is now world-famous for his contributions to the web and JS community. He is a frequent speaker at conferences and events, has written a book on JS and will likely never have to look for work again (companies will find him). Another person that comes to mind is Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia - I'm pretty sure that his non-profit idea has made him a fairly wealthy man (entirely speculation though). The same goes for any game-changing idea, you can always:

  • Write a book - Whether it's about your experiences starting the project, how you came up with the idea, what it means for the world, etc., there's always something to write about that the people you've impacted will enjoy reading (and purchasing)
  • Speaking engagements - Many speaking gigs offer money, so there is the very real potential of being paid to talk about how your idea has had an impact on the world
  • Marketability - In the event that you become somewhat popular or have direct influence over a lot of people, any new project you start will automatically garner a lot of public attention (more eyes/visits = more conversions = more $$$)

Conclusion

All of these points are besides the fact that you will improve the lives of others, which in itself should be worth your efforts. So to the person who asked the question on HN, my advice is this: take a leap of faith and just go for it, because if it truly is a game-changing idea, there is the high likelihood that it will make you some money in the future (in one way or another). HN user TomorrowMars actually sums up my thoughts quite eloquently:

... Serve humanity and humanity will serve you. A journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. Good speed, and do not listen to the naysayers. I have set out on an amazing journey myself, and the more I depanded from the universe - by giving away what I had to give of my talent- the more I got back. Not that you should go hungry. You can manage in balance.

Please keep in mind that all of the above are simply my opinions and thoughts, derived from my own past experiences. I'm pretty sure there are also many NPOs in which the creators/founders have lost more money than they've made, but to that I'd argue: was it really a game changer then?

What are your thoughts on non-profit work? Am I completely wrong in my line of thinking? Leave a comment and let me know! Bonus points if you can name the references made in TomorrowMars' comment.