When I was starting a nonprofit over a decade ago, I knew next to nothing about how to do it.
I’d done a lot of volunteering and worked with nonprofit organizations in small ways, but could only guess what I didn’t know about launching and running a nonprofit organization successfully.
The result? I made a ton of mistakes along the way.
When I look back, I see how help and knowledge in 7 key areas could have saved me and the organization I launched years of struggling.
If you’re thinking of starting a nonprofit or have just started one, I want to you to benefit as much as possible from the mistakes I made so you can get a handle on the business side of running your organization and get back to the most important part: Making an impact!
That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? Here are 7 of the biggest mistakes I made starting my nonprofit organization — and how you can avoid them.
Starting a Nonprofit Mistake #1: An unclear vision
When I was first getting started, I had a notion that I wanted people to be kind to each other and volunteer to help a variety of causes in our community that needed help. But this vague concept was not nearly enough to get people to understand who we were and what we were about and why they should help us.
When you are starting a nonprofit and tackling a social issue, your goal should ultimately be to put yourself out of business one day. What I mean by that is this: Nonprofits should meet community needs and aim to solve community problems.
How would you behave, learn, grow, and operate as a nonprofit if you were consistently working towards a world where [insert problem here: food insecurity, human trafficking, racism, etc.] didn’t exist anymore?
You need to know what “success” looks like by having a clear “end game” vision for your organization.
Want to do a quick gut check to make sure your end game vision is clear for your new nonprofit? Try this:
Imagine that you wake up tomorrow to a changed world. The work you’ve been doing through your nonprofit has succeeded, and now, as a result, the world is a different place. So — what does the world look like, now that you’ve changed it?
Need an example of a clear, specific answer? Here’s one:
“(Now that we’ve changed the community / state / world), food insecurity is nonexistent in the state of California.”
You can use this as the foundation of your organization’s ultimate vision statement, which should be even more specific, and add measurable, relevant goals — ideally, if possible, by a deadline. For example:
“Our vision is the eradication of food insecurity in California by 2030.”
If you’re unable to craft a clear, specific vision statement along those lines, you might face challenges trying to convince others to join your cause — after all, if they don’t know exactly where you’re going, how can they follow?
By not starting with a clear vision and creating a business plan around that vision, you won’t be forced to think through your “end game” and the steps it will really take to accomplish your mission.
Starting a Nonprofit Mistake #2: Waiting too long to think through a revenue model
We figured as a nonprofit the money would just appear or we’d get grants. But many of the most successful nonprofits have a lot of diverse ways to get funding that don’t rely on a single stream of revenue.
One of the biggest misconceptions I hear about getting funding for a nonprofit is that grants are highly available and easy to obtain — and both of those things are just not true. Grants are typically very competitive, and a lot of nonprofits are trying to apply for them — so it’s vital to think of other ways to generate revenue for your nonprofit — through individual donations, “earned income”, fundraising events, and more.
Once I started doing this for my nonprofit — our annual budget quadrupled within 4 years, I was able to come on to do this work that I love full time, and we were even able to bring on a few other staff members. And in turn, this increase in our capacity led us to be able to make an even bigger impact on our community.
Starting a Nonprofit Mistake #3: Underestimating the value of our brand
When we first got started, we had no idea what a “brand” was, how it related to things like our logo or marketing language, or why it was even that important at all to being able to achieve our mission.
We learned the hard way. Our nonprofit’s first name was an acronym, “ME³” (one ‘M’ and three ‘E’s, essentially — representing words we chose from a thesaurus we though embodied our cause: Motivate, Educate, Empower, and Engage). The problem? This was difficult to for people to say and write, and most importantly, hard to understand and remember.
If people don’t understand the spirit or mission of your nonprofit from it’s name, they will have to think extra hard to form an emotional connection to your cause. If people can’t write or remember your nonprofit’s name correctly, they can’t share it with others, recall what to search online to find you, and internet search algorithms will make you very hard to discover.
Because of this decision we thought was no big deal at the time, people couldn’t find us online and the media spelled our name incorrectly for years, hindering hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of people from reaching us and supporting our cause.
Five years after starting, we finally rebranded and chose a new name. We came up with a fresh name, fresh logo, and new approach in our marketing and outreach language that matched this new brand. We made sure our new name had an available domain name and social media handles, and made everything consistent and cohesive across the board. Within just a year or two of rebranding, we’d grown our volunteer and supporter base from just a few hundred to a few thousand.
Starting a Nonprofit Mistake #4: Not staying laser-focused
Advice I’ve heard often about business and other aspects of life applies to nonprofits, too: Saying “yes” to everything can mean saying “no” to what truly matters.
When I was first getting started with our nonprofit, whenever someone reached out to us with any sort of interest — interest in partnering, participating, collaborating, etc. — I was immediately enthralled. After all, someone was showing interest in our cause!
This excitement led to me agreeing to a lot of activities, events, and collaborations that ended up not truly moving our mission forward in meaningful ways. I was so enthusiastic that anybody cared about us at all, that I allowed us to agree to too many opportunities that were not actually helpful.
It took a long time — and is still a work in progress — but I’ve learned how to more easily identify which opportunities, events, and partnerships align best with our work. I’ve also learned how to politely say “no” in a way that doesn’t alienate people.
My advice: Be able to articulate your short and long-term goals for your nonprofit at any given time. When a new opportunity comes along, assess its ability to meet those goals, and muster up the discipline to say “no” when it doesn’t fit.
Starting a Nonprofit Mistake #5: Not being clear enough in our expectations of Board members and volunteers
When our nonprofit was first getting up and running, we were so eager and excited to have anybody’s help that we encouraged everyone to jump in and participate before considering the most effective ways each person could support our mission.
In other words, we didn’t set any real, concrete expectations for our Board members and volunteers.
The result? People were confused and frustrated, unsure what they were supposed to do. And when their own expectations of what being involved should look like were not met, they left the organization. Frequent resignations and departures led to a cycle of recruiting, time spent orienting people, time spent clarifying things, and dissatisfaction all around.
We failed to set expectations up front — before people joined in.
Here’s how we addressed this: We created written Board of Directors and volunteer job descriptions, complete with expected time commitments, duties, expectations of conduct, and more. While this did lower the number of participants we had at first because it screened out people who were not able or willing to meet those expectations, it vastly improved the fit, commitment level, and retention of the people who did join up.
When you are clear on your expectations of others up front, the people who can meet those expectations will get and stay involved.
Starting a Nonprofit Mistake #6: Trying to do it all myself
Yikes, this was a big one.
When you are first starting a nonprofit, you quickly realized just how much is involved in getting it up and running: The legal paperwork, the policy writing, the fundraising, the branding, the marketing, the recruiting and volunteer management, creating a website, the Board governance… it’s a lot!
And if you’re starting solo, with barely a dollar in your new nonprofit’s bank account, it starts to feel like if you’re going to make this happen at all, you’re going to have to learn how to manage every aspect of running a nonprofit yourself.
That’s exactly what I did. For a long time, I did a lot of everything, and if I didn’t know how to do something, I taught myself how (with mixed results). I created our organization’s first website, ran our social media, led volunteer meetings… the list goes on.
While some aspects of this can make you feel like an empowered, badass boss, let me tell you: It gets old and exhausting real fast. Trying to do everything myself had several negative consequences, including:
1. Some things were not done as effectively as they could have been, because instead of trying to find help from an expert or skilled supporter, I muddled through it with my own limited abilities (I know it’s hard to believe, but there are real people out there who like accounting!).
2. Though unintended, this inadvertently disempowered others on our team. Instead of trusting them to use their unique skills to own a task or aspect of our organization’s work, I insisted on doing it all myself. This created a culture in which others felt they couldn’t step up —which was bad for long-term growth.
3. I became prone to burnout more quickly.
Starting a Nonprofit Mistake #7: Thinking things will happen overnight
Finally, one of the biggest mistakes — or rather a misconception I had starting out — is that social change happens quickly.
We live in a world in which we expect instant results, and that translates to expecting social change over night. While there are certainly outliers and large scale events that transform the world quickly for better or worse (the COVID-19 pandemic, for example), most social change takes years, usually decades, and sometimes unfortunately centuries, to fully realize.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t wish that’s how it was. If anyone comes up with a miraculous way to change the world at rapid speed that doesn’t involve violence or infringing on peoples’ liberties, please impart your knowledge, wise one(s).
The problem with expecting results overnight is that you get disappointed quickly when progress takes longer than you hope. And when you get too discouraged, you’re more likely to quit.
The world needs you to not quit. There are too many problems out there. But there are also many good people, like you, eager to work hard to tackle them.
My advice for building patience for the long-haul that is nonprofit work? First, study other social impact movements; see and find encouragement in how progress was made over time. Secondly, don’t compare yourself or your organization to others that may appear on the surface to be moving at a different pace than you; every mission, cause, and community in which the work is being done is different and complex. Third, practice gratitude and look back on all you’ve accomplished each year — look at how far you’ve come! Finally, take care of yourself. Take time to rest without guilt. Ask for help when you need it.
Ultimately, I have no regrets. Learning-by-doing — mistakes and all — taught me more than any class could! And how our organization is growing and thriving and is on the right path to creating the impact I always dreamed it would.
Are you thinking of starting a nonprofit, or already in the process of doing so? Share what you’re up to in the comments!
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