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Turn your vision of a better world into a successful nonprofit organization

You have a vision of a better world and have started a nonprofit agency. Congratulations! Now begins one of the biggest journeys and greatest challenges you'll ever face — making your vision a reality. Many start-up nonprofit agencies fail because their focus was all on the dream and not enough on setting the infrastructure to support a growing organization.

Here are a few tips from those of us who have been around the block.

No money, no mission

Don't fool yourself. The dream will not pay for itself. Without a diversified funding stream, you will not be able to buy supplies, hire staff or build your facility. Read a book on nonprofit fundraising strategy or attend a class to help you understand the fundamentals. It's not as easy as throwing a party and it's best to learn that early. Fundraising is a professional skill that has been researched and proven. Learn as much as you can!

Diversify your board

Yes, the rules say you only need three board members to get started and, yes, it's easy to put your husband, best friend and uncle Joe on the board. But remember this: your board can make or break you. Put people on your board who offer skills or connections that you don't have. Choose people who not only care about your nonprofit's mission but are also willing to put in the time and energy to help you oversee the agency (including raising money!). Putting a good board together first is much easier than getting rid of unresponsive or unhelpful board members later (especially if they're family!).

Dream big but scale slowly

No one starts a nonprofit agency with a tiny vision. You probably see life-changing programs with lots of staff and volunteers, maybe even a facility of some kind. Keep that vision and be patient. It's much more productive and exciting to hit small milestones than to beat yourself up because you didn't manage to build that building in year one or two. Good things take time!

Be strategic

Sometimes in our excitement, we fly by the seat of our pants. Develop a strategic plan addressing the next three to five years that includes goals for your nonprofit's programs, fundraising, board development, agency governance and communications/outreach. Set measurable action steps and review them at least quarterly. If something isn't working, reevaluate and try a new strategy.

Lay the groundwork — and put it in writing

OK, it sounds really boring, but you'll need policies and procedures to maintain consistency and ethics and set yourself up for future growth. If you start generating them from the beginning, it's much easier. Consider setting policies and procedures regarding:

  • Board responsibilities
  • Nondiscrimination of clients, staff or volunteers
  • How your programs run
  • How you manage money and deal with donations
  • How you ensure safety and confidentiality for those involved with your organization

Start with the basics and add detail over time as you grow and evolve.

Measure your impact

You have a good program. It helps people. Prove it! Take time to measure not only how many people you serve but how your program impacts their lives. Maybe you help their moods or increase their knowledge or connect them to programs. Maybe you improve their health status or help them maintain housing. Track and survey these outcomes. Your funders and supporters will want to know if their money, time and good will is going to good use.

It's all about relationships

Don't for a second assume that you're the only one working in this space. It doesn't matter what your vision is, there is probably another nonprofit that has worked with a similar population on a similar issue (albeit in a different way). Make connections with those people. It takes all of us together to solve community issues. Quite honestly there is no room for ego and it won't get you far. Join a networking group, reach out to other nonprofit agencies, see who else you might be able to collaborate with or leverage. You'll be glad you did.

Find a mentor

If you've never worked in a nonprofit agency before, find a mentor. Nonprofit-land can be a weird one, especially if you're not familiar with having a board of directors or running a fundraising program. Having an experienced mentor will allow you a place to go when it seems counterintuitive or completely new. Trust me, you'll need a sounding board.

Give yourself a break

Starting a nonprofit agency is hard. Honestly, I'm not joking. It takes time, patience and lots of hard work. You're going to have times when you feel lost and wonder when this darn thing is going to take off, particularly if you're hoping to someday earn a living doing this. Be patient, be methodical, and remember that what you're doing is important. Nonprofit founders are a special breed and your big vision may someday create big impact!

For more from Amy Temperley, visit Temperley Consulting.

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MissionBox editorial content is offered as guidance only, and is not meant, nor should it be construed as, a replacement for certified, professional expertise.

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