4 Tips for Starting a Nonprofit (from the Man Who Caught Red Bull’s Eye)

Skateboarding is a fun hobby for most, but Mike Smith had bigger plans than simply an extracurricular. That’s why he started the nonprofit organization Skate for Change. His goal was to take a local group of skaters and give back to low-income and homeless in the community.

“Skate for Change is a way to help change not only someone else’s life, but change the perspective on skateboarders in general,” Smith says. And what he got was a large support system, including the backing of Red Bull and skateboarding powerhouses like Ryan Sheckler and Joey Brezinski.

So take it from somebody who started from scratch and evolved his nonprofit to something much bigger. Here are some of his tips to get your nonprofit off to a great start and a promising future.

1. Start with Passion

All eager and new good doers want to know the secret to success so that they can dive in and start achieving their missions. And when it comes to starting a nonprofit, the secret to success might be different than you’d think. For Smith, it’s all about something that can’t be imitated—passion.

“It had better be that thing that you lay in bed every night dreaming about,” Smith says. He explains that your passion must be strong because you are devoting such a large amount of time and taking on different roles within the nonprofit—whether it’s the janitor, marketer or finance person. That’s why it has to be a cause where you’re willing to donate countless hours.

2. Think Innovative and Creative

Sure, you can say that you’re fully passionate and committed. But it’s time to prove it. Take a lesson from Smith, who decided to go big with his first fundraising event. In order to raise $10,000, Smith vowed to sleep outside underneath a bridge until the money was raised. For 27 nights, he slept under the bridge in temperatures that got as low as negative 14 degrees. Not only was his goal met, but his passion was evident and his efforts directly related to the people he was trying to reach.

Another of his creative stunts, Smith decided to skateboard across Nebraska as a fundraiser. He gained financial support from friends, people sponsoring a donation per mile and later he went after larger corporate sponsorship.

You’ve sat through the silent auctions, the banquets and other generic fundraisers. So how will you be creative with your next fundraising effort? Be bold, and think outside the box.

3. Find Your Network

You obviously care about your mission, and there are other people out there who will care. Smith says Red Bull saw value in Skate for Change. That’s why they were able to get funding and sponsorship from the corporate world. If you can make others see value in what you’re doing, you’ll be able to find people who are willing to make contributions to your cause. “Our biggest struggle early was raising funds and raising support,” Smith says. That’s why branching out your network will help you find the right people to donate and volunteer.

4. Learn from Your Mistakes

Smith admits that he made many mistakes along the way. One of those may have been that he opened his nonprofit a bit too early, he says. With only $300 in the checking account, the nonprofit was launched and he says he knew the nonprofit would be hurting. But instead of calling it quits, Smith had a different perspective. “That was one of those things that kept me humble and kept me hungry,” he says.

By keeping that same attitude, work your way through the mistakes that are inevitable along the way. Any time you start a new venture, mistakes are sure to follow. But it’s how you handle those mistakes that will decide the success of your nonprofit.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you made starting a nonprofit and how did you overcome them?

Check out this short video of Mike Smith explaining Skate for Change’s mission and their launch with Ryan Sheckler and Red Bull.

Skate for Change- Ryan Sheckler & Joey Brezinski from Ronnie Romero on Vimeo.


Lyndsey Hrabik

Lyndsey is a former editor for Nonprofit Hub and Nonprofit Hub Magazine. She now serves as a guest contributor, writing on topics such as social media, technology, marketing and starting a nonprofit.

August 28, 2012

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