What Every Founder Needs to Know Before Starting a Nonprofit

When your future nonprofit is just a gleam in your eye, it’s hard to understand the craziness that really lies ahead.

Entrepreneur and writer Oliver Emberton wrote an awesome Quora post for entrepreneurs starting their dream organization. We were inspired by his no-nonsense message about starting an organization and wanted to share some of his ideas.

While a mission statement and board of directors have to happen eventually, those things aren’t what will make or break you. These are.

What All Founders Should Know Before Starting A Nonprofit

Firstly, do it.
Along the journey from mere idea to functioning nonprofit organization, you’ll have people who won’t support you (and others who will support you only when everything is rosy). Not everyone believes in the effectiveness of charities to change the world, nor in your specific cause. At the end of the day, remember this: “If you feel compelled to do it, don’t let anyone stop you, and don’t expect anyone to support you either.”

Start with total brutal honesty.
Does the world need your nonprofit? Will it create real change? Is another org already doing this job–and could you help them do it better instead of competing for funds? Wrestle with these questions (with 100% honesty) before starting your organization, and you’ll be better off later. “Everybody deludes themselves in some way – and in groups it can often be easiest to delude each other. But the more honestly you can see the world, the better your decisions will be.”

Practice saying no. A lot.
While it’s true there are a million great programs that you can come up with and jumpstart (otherwise there wouldn’t be 1.5 million unique nonprofits operating in the US) you just can’t do everything. Do a few things excellently. “You need to focus on doing a very small number of things really well, and that means saying no to 1,000 other things. This is harder than you think, and far more powerful than you can imagine.”

On Your Mission

Don’t be afraid to change tacks.
“There is a saying that no business plan survives first contact with the customer.” While a great mission statement can help you avoid mission creep, your programs will need to change and be agile. Don’t get stuck in a rut. Do what actually serves your mission, not what you feel locked into doing.

A successful nonprofit is needed (and to your specific audience, loved).
Nonprofits address the needs of the world that the free market doesn’t have the ability to address. In other words, you have to be needed by the people you serve if you want to (and deserve to) survive. Donor dollars are too important to be spent on programs that are unnecessary. “Ensure you’re essential or utterly irresistible.”

Imagine being an impartial donor who needs to maximize his money’s impact.
While you aren’t trying to make a profit, you ARE trying to create the greatest impact on the world for your money. In other words, donors are really your investors, and you are accountable to them to produce amazing outcomes. “Pretend to be someone with a lot of self-made money but not much time. Meet yourself right now, and listen to your own explaination of your [organization]. What do you think? Does it sound like a good investment? Once again – be honest.”

Align with your passions.
While passion isn’t enough to sustain an organization, it’s often the key to creating a truly remarkable experience for your donors and staff. “True passion is infectious. It will win over doubting prospects. It can make staff loyal to you. Passion will give you boundless energy and keep you going when others would throw in the towel.”

On Fundraising and Marketing

Marketing (and fundraising) isn’t about changing people’s minds.
Convincing donors to fund your mission isn’t about changing their minds–it’s about crossing the empathy gap and helping people see where their existing passions already match your mission. In other words, you aren’t taking their money–you are helping connect them with the things they value. “Your job isn’t to convince people to want what you’re offering. It’s to help your prospects convince themselves that what you’re offering will help them get what they really want.”

Fundraising coach Marc Pitman is one of the people who best expresses this fundraising principle:

A few things not to skimp on.
I’m just going to quote Emberton directly here: “Your logo, tagline and website are utterly essential; they’re the first impression you’ll make to most people, and your only message while you’re not there. … Don’t be tempted to hire your teenage nephew, or do it yourself. This is akin to being your own lawyer, and equally disastrous. You don’t have to pay a fortune – just keep your requirements simple and emphasize quality over quantity.” Check out this video series about what makes nonprofit websites effective.

Advertising is a tax you pay for being unremarkable.
Getting other people connected to your nonprofit is more about learning to tell amazing stories than it is about brochures, TV spots and billboards. “A good idea is easy to sell; a great one will sell and spread itself. The harder you have to work to explain and sell what you do, the more your idea needs work.” Our friend Lori Jacobwith on nonprofit storytelling:

Finally, remember these words: “Everyone I know who has ever tried had a single common refrain: they wish they did it sooner. If you think it’s your calling, what’s your excuse?

Thanks to Oliver Emberton for the material that inspired this post. For more ridiculously great insights, follow his posts on Quora or visit his blog.

What else do nonprofit founders need to know about starting a nonprofit?

fundraising strategies

Marc Koenig

Marc Koenig is a regular contributor of Nonprofit Hub. Marc believes smart, ethical marketing can make the world a better place, and strives to create content that helps nonprofits tell better stories, push their organizations to excel and do work that matters. You'll find him writing Nonprofit Hub featured posts, brainstorming infographics and tweeting up a storm at @npmarc - follow him and say hi!

May 8, 2013

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