We need some straight talk about starting non-profits. So many of my coaching clients come to me with ideas for starting a non-profit. I don’t have a formal education in non-profit management, but I’ve learned a few things through my experience working for non-profits over the years. I’d like to share my insight with anyone with a huge heart, beautiful motives, and no idea what they’re doing— like most people who have an idea for a grassroots non-profit!
Here are seven realities you should come to grips with before you move forward:
1) There is a chance you shouldn’t do this.
Womp, womp… Here’s why that’s the first thing I want to say to you: There may be other ways to help or other people who can help more effectively than you. And quite frankly, not everyone is cut out for it. Keep reading to find out why I feel compelled to put that idea in front of you.
Let’s look at my first reason why there’s a chance you shouldn’t do this. Maybe there is another nonprofit organization (NPO) out there who is already doing what you want to do. Could your passion and energy be an answer to prayer for them? Maybe they’re doing what you want to do in another location. Could you help them scale by bringing what is already working to a new community? Be willing to connect with the work that is already taking place. It’s always a good idea to walk alongside people who are helping and learn from them. Could you be the fuel for their engine?
Sometimes you’re the gas and and sometimes you’re the engine.
If you are going to be the engine you should know that starting a non-profit is more than a full time job— only you don’t get paid and it could cost you everything. Still, if you are walking in your purpose and doing the work you were made to do, it will be worth it. Not easy… but worth it.
2) You are probably already way ahead of yourself.
Your NPO was likely birthed from an idea that came to you while observing what you perceive to be a problem or challenge. If you haven’t stopped to ask the people you aim to help about the perceived problem and their ideas for solutions, you are way ahead of yourself. The most valuable and compassionate thing you can do to help someone is LISTEN to them. Ask questions and really listen and then ask more questions and listen some more. You might hear that what you perceive as a problem isn’t a problem to the people you want to help. Or maybe there’s a different, more pressing and solvable problem that you didn’t see at first. Spend what might seem like an unreasonable amount of time listening before you pitch your solution. After all that listening, you might find that your solution isn’t actually solving anything… and it might even be causing more problems.
If you want to do this right you should take at least a year to learn about your cause and what it takes to start and run an organization. Google everything and have coffee with anyone who will share their knowledge and experience with you. Be humble enough to admit that you don’t even know what you don’t know.
BONUS TIP: GET BASELINE DATA!!! Before implementing your solution, determine what you will measure to assess for impact over time. Find a way to record your starting point so that you can see how far you’ve come down the road. One day you’ll have a development team and I promise they will thank you. By the way, did you know that there is an entire sub-field within non-profit management focused solely on measurement and evaluation? This is a big deal, guys.
3) You need help.
Yes, at some point you will need professional help from a counselor because this work is hard and it will make you question everything you thought you knew about life. But what I’m really getting at here is that you need help from friends and family to get this thing off the ground.
So, before you do anything you need to name your team. Who are the people who will be your ride or die crew? Be sure you have a mix of talent among these people. You need visionaries, communicators, administrators, and doers. Find people who are smarter than you. Your team should have plenty of heart, but choose people who won’t always agree with you.
Remember that you can’t do it all, so do what you do best and outsource the rest. (I couldn’t definitively determine who actually said that first, but it wasn’t me…) Pay people for the things that matter most like your legal paperwork, your branding and website, and anything else you are not good at. Yes, it’s expensive, but you will learn quickly that when it comes to services, you can get it good, fast, and free, but you are going to have to pick only two of the three. It can be good and fast, but it won’t be free. And if it’s free is will either not be good or you will have to wait an undetermined amount of time to get it. Ifyou want it fast and good— PAY FOR IT. (Again, no idea who said that first, but dang it if it isn’t true…)
Oh, you don’t have a random non-profit-start-up-fund? If you are funding the initial stages of your NPO from your own bank account, don’t be afraid to raise funds before your idea is fully formed. Ask the people closest to you, the ones who care about what you care about and believe in you to contribute to the initial costs. Those people are probably your founding board members anyway.
I suggest you GET COMFORTABLE ASKING PEOPLE FOR MONEY. You are going to be asking people for money like it’s your job. Because henceforth and forevermore it IS your job. If that makes your squirm or shut down, you’re going to have to suck it up and get used to the idea. (Or see #1.)
4) You might lose a few friends.
All that asking for money is going to rub some people the wrong way. And so be it. If you are passionate enough to go to the trouble of starting a nonprofit, you are likely going to wear some people out. If this is your life’s purpose, it is going to consume your every thought. And you will likely not be able to stop talking about it.
I have to be super real here and tell you that your passion will become annoying to some people. There are also going to be people in your life who think you’re crazy. Others will be so uncomfortable with their own unwillingness to follow their dreams or act on their passion that they don’t want to be around you anymore. Pray for them and press on.
Not everyone will care about your cause. IT’S NOT PERSONAL. But it will feel personal. When someone doesn’t get it you will feel like they don’t want to play with you on the playground and that rejection will hurt your feelings.
You can keep important relationships in tact if you remember that your nonprofit is not your identity. Just because someone doesn’t care about what you’re doing doesn’t mean they don’t care about YOU. Repeat that to yourself as needed.
You might also get frustrated with well-meaning people who commit to helping you. The truth is, some people are not going to do what they said they would do. When this happens, please remember this: never let relationships become transactional. People should always come before programs, projects, or products. Always remember that there is a fine line between strategy and manipulation. The distinction is your motive.
5) You’re actually starting a business.
Eventually your organization will have to be run like a business, so you might as well look at it that way from the beginning. You’re going to need an income plan with multiple revenue streams and a budget with detailed capital and operational expenses. You’ll need a communications strategy (AKA: a marketing plan) and creative campaign ideas. You’ll find yourself feeling like an accountant with all the talk of balance sheets and cash flow forecasts. Maybe you already live in that world because of your day job, but for many people looking to start a non-profit, this is all new.
The bottom line here is that you are now a money chaser. Whether you’re hunting leads for funding sources or following the paper trail of how disbursements were spent, you will spend an inordinate amount of time finding, allocating, and tracking money.
The hardest truth to swallow here: You are going to spend way more time running the business than actually helping the people.
6) You are going to fail.
Every NPO has failures. Look at failure as learning. Getting it wrong is one step closer to getting it right. The truth is, all grassroots NPOs are making it up as they go along and they’re all a complete mess behind the curtain. Be willing to talk to other organizations about your failures and shortcomings and maybe they will share theirs, too. We can all learn from one another if we will just show up and share honestly.
When you do fail, you must not to give way to Impostor Syndrome. You will certainly hear the lie of who-do-you-think-you-are whispered in your ear at some point, if not every single day. Refuse to listen. Stand up and start again. You were strategically placed for this work at this time and you must not give up.
7) It won’t always belong to you.
Begin with the end in mind. What if it works?! Will you need an exit strategy? What if it outlives you? Who will replace you when it’s time for you to leave?
You should always aim to work yourself our of a job and operate with a succession plan for you as a founder and for your best leaders as well.
Listen carefully, there will come a time when you will either hand the work off to your now highly capable recipients, or you will no longer be able to propel the organization forward. In some cases, if you remain in top leadership, you will actually hold it back. You will have to trust the people who feel as much ownership of your life’s work as you do; your staff, your board, your top volunteers.
Do not be discouraged from getting after your idea or dream. But please do consider these realities as you collaborate with God and with others to do something great and for the greater good. I hope that in telling you all of this, I can help you avoid some of the disillusionment and disappointment that so many before you have experienced. I hope you’re walking away with new determination and/or a better understanding of how you should proceed.
Whether you end up starting a non-profit or not, this is the very best advice I can pass along:
Is there an idea that I could help you vet? It would be my pleasure! Check out my coaching page to learn more about how I help people like you pursue their dreams.
Do you feel like there's something growing inside of you that you can't quite picture, but that you already love? Like you might burst at any moment? Are you both exhilarated and terrified to think of what it will be like to have this thing out of you and in the world?
I spent years as a labor and delivery nurse coaching parents through the birth process, nurturing them through the scary and joyful moments of walking, waiting, working harder than they'd ever imagined and then finally watching as the precious thing they conceived came to life in the outside world.
My experience, reassurance, encouragement, and knowledge of what to do in case of an emergency gave them the confidence to put on brave faces and get through the sometimes tumultuous process of labor and delivery. When it was all said and done, I wished them well and sent them out to enjoy the product of all their hard work and preparation. Though I'm no longer working as a nurse in the hospital, it's my great joy to continue coaching people, but instead of babies I'm helping people just like you give birth to their dreams every day!