So You Want to Start A Non-Profit? A Cynical Approach

My purse is full of sleeping pills, an intention to sue (me), books, no money, and little scraps of paper that say things no one understands but me and instantly stress me out.

This is where starting an non-profit landed me.

Honesty guys.

Yes, some days are filled with happy kids and moms that get it and staff that blow me away with their skills and things that just work and I stand back and I feel pride and joy. But those aren’t most days.

The harsh reality is hiding behind the beautiful instagram photos of kids laughing during water play Wednesday. The harsh reality is that this is the hardest things i’ve ever done and often i’m falling apart.

I think about the way parents talk about the joys of parenting and how much they love their kids but then when you excitedly say, “I can’t wait to be a mom!” they smile awkwardly and say, “uh-huh”, as if what they really want to say is , “no, don’t do it. Yes it’s worth it, yes they’re great., yes I love them, but this is the hardest things i’ve ever done and i’m so tired I could sleep forever”.

Every once in a while someone tells me they want to start a non-profit and what advice would I give them? And I smile and say “uh huh” and rattle off some mediocre advice. But what I really want to say?

No, don’t do it. Yes, it’s worth it, yes the people I serve are great, yes, I love Abide, but this is the hardest thing i’ve ever done and i’m so tired I could sleep forever.

Take a year or two and sit on the idea. Do some research, build some good connections, think about it. And then if after a year or more you still cannot shake the passion and drive then maybe start to take some steps.

But first know these things:

There will be days you want to quite. So many days. In fact in the beginning you will have more days where you want to quit then days where you want to keep going. Do you have what it takes to push through?

Are you someone who handles failure well? Because you will fail. Over and over again. Even when you start to think you might have reached the “success” level and that those major failures are behind you a fundraising campaign will completely tank, a benefit dinner will have no one show up, your most promising case will crack into pieces, the people you thought you could trust will betray you.

Can you delegate well? Are you aware of your strengths and, more importantly, your weaknesses? If you are a control freak who thinks you have no flaws walk away now. Being the founder of a non-profit requires you be an expert at EVERYTHING- accounting, management, design, marketing, media, human resources, policy writing, time management, fundraising, networking, etc… which of course is impossible. Learn [often painfully] where your weaknesses are and bring people in to fill those. Let go of control. Delegate. Trust your staff.

Are you passionate about the reason your non-profit exists? Good, you’ll need that. Do you love to do the work your non-profit will be doing?  Sorry, you won’t be doing much of that. Being a founder means you get to answer e-mails, fundraise, hire, fire, manage, sit in long boring meetings where people say the same things over and over again. The day will end way sooner than you think where you’re actually doing the work your non-profit does. I haven’t gone on a home visit in years. I wrote my first set of case notes the other day [which honestly only happened because I failed to delegate, it was a poor leadership move]. I don’t even know the names of every mother in our program. My degree in Child and Family Studies is mostly useless,  I should have gone to school for business or organizational management.

Is your idea for a non-profit actually a good one? Whenever I critique a model I usually come back to one thing: STRATEGY. So many organizations lack strategy, and without that your work is lacking.

Follow these steps:

Step one: identify the problem. Step two: identify the reason behind the problem. Step three: Create a plan to address the problem

Then answer these questions:

– Who will receive your services? How will you evaluate them to make sure they really need them?

– What [exactly] will you do? What [exactly] will you not do? How will you do it?

– How will you work towards independence for the people you work with? How will you define independence?

– How will you evaluate your model to make sure it is working?

– Who will you partner with?

– What are all the possible outcomes from the help you give? Possible effects on the community, local economy, families, etc…?

– What would happen if you had to shut down tomorrow? What would happen if you, the leader, had to leave suddenly? Could the project sustain itself?

If you read all of that and are still ready to jump in, more power to you. Do it. Go change lives. And join the scores of us standing back and thinking, “what the hell did we get ourselves into?”

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6 thoughts on “So You Want to Start A Non-Profit? A Cynical Approach

  1. love your honest approach–more people need to know this stuff & then the people who DO start non-profits will go in it w/ their head screwed on a little straighter & there won’t be as many failures.
    thanks for sharing w/ honesty!
    –Londa E.

  2. Good post. Also I think it’s important to consult with the people you’re trying to help. Our western mindset on problems doesn’t always match up with what the local people perceive to be the most important issues and needs that they’re dealing with.

  3. Meg,

    I just read your “cynical approach” message. I find it, as usual, remarkable for its insight, organization and clarity. It exemplifies in superb fashion the old saying that “experience is the best teacher”. You have, however, taken the next step and spelled out that process in extremely helpful fashion. It should go out broadly to the non-profit thinkers, although I suspect that your thinking apllies even more broadly. Is there any way to get it out there?

    Once again you have proven to me that you are a genuinely extraordinary person. I know that it is sometimes painful, but I am afraid that you are stuck with it.

    Looking forward to seeing you shortly.

    Bapa

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