The Hardest Lessons I Learned as a Nonprofit Founder.

Apr 16, 2018 · 5 min read

When you first set your mind to changing the world, a feeling of invincibility that wraps its arms around you. You don’t see obstacles; you see options. Your slate is clear, unmarred by the mistakes you’ll one day make. The future is filled with possibility.

This article was written by featured writer Amber Smith.

For many, the act of starting up is a most exciting phase. Developing a vision and working to plot out each exciting step leading up to that vision’s ultimate being is a thrilling act of creation. This thrill is what draws many to founding their own businesses or nonprofits. But what many learn not too far along is that starting is the easy part — it’s keeping things going, sustainably, that is the real challenge. This is especially true in a world in which approximately half of nonprofits are destined to fail.

As a nonprofit founder, I’ve made my share of mistakes. I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons. The organization I created is now running fairly well and on its way to true sustainability, but any founder will tell you it’s irresistible to look back and consider that if they’d just done this or that a little differently, their cause might have progressed farther along than it already has.

So for those just getting started, here are a few of the most important lessons I learned along the way:

When I was first getting started, I couldn’t stand the thought of putting aside one idea for a project or program to focus on a single other idea. It felt like a betrayal. Impatient, I feared that if I focused on only one single project or effort to address my cause, that we wouldn’t get very far, because that effort only addressed a small part of the problem. I gave into temptation many times, taking on several projects or programs at once, thinking that by doing so I was putting forth my greatest effort to address my cause. I was wrong. By trying to do everything at once, I spread myself and our team thin. We were unable to focus, and each of our projects were diluted and less effective.

Successful entrepreneurs will tell you that the key to their success was focusing on one small, simple thing first. They might say that having the patience to understand that you can add more projects as you grow, and that you’ll get the chance to expand to new and exciting programs as you succeed at your first ones is how they were able to make it past the myriad barriers to growth and eventually achieve sustainability.

So don’t worry if you can’t launch all of your ideas at the outset. If you start with one thing that makes a dent and succeed at it with flying colors, your team will ride that feeling of accomplishment to success at the next project, and the next. And all the while, your supporters’ faith in your efforts to serve your cause will grow with every victory, no matter how small.

When I first pictured running a new nonprofit, all of the best aspects of the work came to mind. I would daydream about seeing the smiles on the faces of those whose lives we’d changed. I’d envision the excitement of a crowd I’d motivated to support our work. I dreamed of late nights working hard alongside a dedicated team, and celebrating with them when we achieved our impacts.

I didn’t think of having to file our annual 990s, writing human resources handbooks, or filling out pages upon pages of grant reports. I learned the unfortunate truth that these things comprise the business side of running an organization, and they are necessary evils. I also learned that the worst thing you can do is give in to the disappointment of finding out that changing the world involves a lot of paperwork.

Don’t despair. Instead, cultivate supporters and volunteers who can help with these aspects of the organization right from the start. I’ve learned that there are folks out there with special skills happy to support a cause they love by helping manage these aspects of the work. So make friends early and often, and the business-side of making an impact won’t seem so bad after all.

When I was first getting started, I was eager to include everyone in every aspect of running the organization. My heart was in the right place; I strived to be inclusive and welcoming. I invited a variety of folks, often folks without the skills we needed, to lead and vote on the future of the cause. For a time, we even held board meetings that were open to the general public. The vision was lofty, but the results were unfortunate. By opening the gates for anyone to join our leadership, even without the skills and connections we needed at the time, I slowed down our effectiveness and diluted our focus. Leadership meetings went off on tangents.

Around that time in our organization’s growth, I received wise advice from a friend, advice that I reflect on and share with new founders to this day. The advice was this: To move forward and attract talent to lead the cause that will stick around and be effective, raise the bar, don’t lower it. Take a moment to understand the needs of you organization for that year, and the three to five years that will follow it. Does your organization need to raise funds? Grow a volunteer base? Get the word out about its programs? Take stock of what you need, then note the talent it will take to meet those needs. If your cause requires highly-skilled people who can make a long-term commitment to succeed, don’t shy away from that; state it up front. You’ll weed out those who aren’t a good fit right away. But more importantly, only those who can meet the true needs of the cause will step forward.

The hardest lesson I had to learn as a founder was patience, and the resilience that comes with it. Throughout my decade plus of running a nonprofit, I’ve heard probably ten rejections for every ‘yes’. Learning to shrug off a rejection and keep trying is a difficult, but vital skill.

I’ve spoken to many would-be founders who believed their organizations would become financially sustainable, grow to fifty staff members, and end poverty or war or violence in a short time-span. Learning patience is difficult in our line of work, especially. In the social impact world, we crave results, and everyone around us demands those results, regardless of the resources we’ve been equipped with to create them. It is easy to feel like you’re falling behind or failing without seeing big, mindblowing results quickly. But if you can withstand the pain of making mistakes, being rejected, and yes — sometimes failing — the resilience you’ve built up will ensure you can make it for the long haul and ultimately affect the change you want to see in the world.

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