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.