Profiles of Success: Joseph Nyodeny

In Kenya it’s really hard to go to college. Either you are really smart and win a scholarship, or you are one of the rich that can afford to pay tuition. Joseph was really smart, and worked his tail off to win himself education in Nairobi, hours away from his small village in western Kenya.

Unlike most individuals, who once they have an opportunity to further themselves seize that opportunity and remain in Nairobi, Joseph returned to his village, Got Kotchola, and started working with an international NGO serving his region. He wanted to use his talents to make a difference for others like himself. As his intelligence and ability became apparent, he eventually took over all the finance and computer issues of the international nonprofit.

When we met him in 2010 his dream was to start a village bank. Joseph wanted to give opportunities to others in his village who he knew could improve their lot in life if only they had a chance. We partnered with Joseph to start Our Future in Kenya, and with just a few thousand dollars and a computer he launched his small savings and loan organization.

With persistence, and dedication, he has grown his portfolio to now lend to over 300 individuals in every village in his region, and is now the largest savings and loan provider in his area. He hopes to expand, as he knows that other nearby villages could benefit from his organization as well.  His story shows the power of hard work, and how decisive action when faced with an opportunity are at the heart of many a man’s success.

5 Things NOT TO DO as a Nonprofit Leader

I can’t say I’m successful at this whole nonprofit thing, but I can say that I have a lot of experience of doing things wrong. And if it’s true that good judgment comes as a result of earlier bad judgment, I might just have something to offer new nonprofit leaders.

Here are some things I wish I knew before I started a nonprofit:

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” –African Proverb.

You want to go far, trust me. One of the things that most nonprofit trainings teach to new nonprofit leaders is the importance of the board. This is probably the most important thing for a nonprofit leader. Initially, your board is your team. Your board serves the role of staff and director until you can afford to pay staff and director. Often people search for board members based upon how they will look on paper, and I’d highly discourage that. When you first start you need help. You need people who are going to roll up their sleeves and help you plan events, fundraise, evangelize, write for grants, make introductions, and leverage the hell out of their networks. You want people who are passionate about the issue, even more so than you. The way to do that is to create the organization with them. Don’t start an organization and then get board members, rather share your vision and allow others to contribute until your idea actually becomes a movement.

People invest in you before they invest in the mission.

I tried to fight this, but eventually I came to terms with it. Before people ever really got our mission, they just wanted to support me. It’s normal. Even investors for profit startups invest with heavy consideration to the leadership. Who is leading the organization is just as important as what the organization offers. Don’t resist this. Embrace that YOU are one of the organization’s greatest assets.

Target your true believers, don’t worry about convincing others.

There are people who just absolutely get your mission. They get the importance of it and are willing to work hard and contribute to make it happen. They want to be involved and it’s a privilege and opportunity. Don’t waste your time trying to explain it to people hoping to convince them. I wasted so much time trying to convince people to see the importance of our mission. With Angels for Angels, people would often say, “why don’t you do things in Seattle instead of Africa?” However those I met with experience in East Africa, or of East African descent themselves really got what we were doing and actually wanted to get involved. It was easier, and I no longer felt like I was selling. If you feel like you’re selling, you’re talking to the wrong people.

Think about money on day one.

I know lots of nonprofits that have failed and dissolved, and the number one reason was that they couldn’t afford to keep their doors open. If you’re not paying yourself a salary, eventually you’ll need to if you want to do this for the long haul. You can’t be just as poor as those you wish to serve. You first have to help yourself to help others.

I ignored any thoughts about finance or sustainability for the first few years and that was a terrible mistake. Having to solve those issues when you are already spread thin is not the way to be successful. Address those issues from day one, and if you can build sustainability into your business model, the impact you have will be greater because you can then afford to do it as long as you desire.

Find a mentor

I read a lot of self-help books on success, and one of the common themes is that successful people follow proven roads to success. A mentor who has been down the road before, and made the mistakes, and had success can save you tons of efforts and struggles. I actually conducted a series of interviews with both successful and unsuccessful nonprofit leaders, and there was one thing that was very clear from the interviews: Successful nonprofit leaders, who were still doing what they set out to do, had a mentor. Unsuccessful ones, who were forced to close their nonprofits, didn’t have a mentor and very much wished they did.

Why Join a State Association

Of all the different choices you face as a nonprofit leader, I think the most important one is where you spend your time. Time is always limited. I’ve never heard a nonprofit leader say, “I wish I had more things to do.”

So of all the things to do, why would one join a nonprofit state association?

1.)    You connect with other nonprofit leaders and resources. Truth of the matter is you’ll never know all there is to know. We’re always learning. We might as well take advantage of people who have gone before us and learn what our predecessors deem is necessary. Plus who knows whether you’ll meet your next hire, boss, funder, business partner or drinking buddy.

2.)    You get the sense that you are in it together, and the emails that come to you let you know of all the other opportunities out there. I remember when I first started I felt so alone. I didn’t know anyone else running a nonprofit, and it was lonely. Getting informed about all the opportunities and events, and then taking advantage of them is really helpful on an otherwise lonely journey.

3.)    You have more power as a group. A lot of nonprofit leaders don’t get the impact of when nonprofits come together and mobilize on particular issues. What I learned in political science was that elected politicians seek re-election. So if you can mobilize what appears to be multiple large constituencies, you can often influence the legal and operational environment.