The prompt for Day 13 of the National Blog Posting Month is:
Teach your readers how to do something. Write a simple “how-to” post to show your readers how to do something useful.
We’d like to cross-post our co-founder Claire’s article on the Levo League on “How to Start Your Own Small Non-Profit“.
In 2010, I co-founded a leadership development organization for young women in Kathmandu, Nepal. The idea for Women LEAD was born in a dorm room, with my co-founder and close friend, Claire. We were juniors at Georgetown University, passionate about women’s leadership, and motivated by the discrimination we had witnessed women face in our home countries of Singapore and Nepal.
In January 2010, we found out about a summer opportunity to start a community project through our school. With that, the seed was planted: here was an opportunity for us to do something, not just talk about what we’d like to do. We knew that we wanted to start a project in Nepal, where we could support girls as they transformed the injustices in their schools and communities.
In one year, we’ve grown from a two-week leadership course serving 28 high-school students to a full-fledged organization with multiple programs and staff serving more than 200 young women. Ours is not yet a success story — we still have many challenges to overcome before we become a sustainable organization — but the past year has taught us many lessons that are important to know before launching your own non-profit.
1. Assess Your Readiness
Are you ready to devote the time and energy needed to launch your own organization? Here are some things to consider:
- You will clock-in insane hours. You might have to work at odd times of the day (I have my weekly Skype calls with Nepal staff at midnight). Your work schedule will not remotely resemble a normal 9-to-5 work day. You will be juggling many hats, being the administrative assistant, the executive director, the program manager and the fundraising director all at once.
- You will have to go through long periods of unstable finances, maybe even months without pay. Finding funds for startup organizations, especially overhead costs, is very difficult. You need to think of the financial sacrifices you’re willing to take. Before you consider quitting your current job to launch your organization, think of the repercussions on your finances.
- You will often have to do dull work. Despite working for your passion, you might not always be doing things that you are passionate about. I don’t particularly enjoy balancing budgets, filing papers and dealing with legal issues, but I know it needs to be done.
- You will have to get used to a schedule and lifestyle that are completely different from your peers. Being a social entrepreneur, especially at a young age, can be isolating. (Though there are many networks, like this one and this one, that I would encourage you to join to meet people who are on a similar path as you are.)
- You will need to set your own deadlines. Though you are accountable to your co-founder, staff, the people you serve, and your board, you are your own boss. Whether a project gets done on time is entirely up to you.
Ultimately, you will need to have enough determination and motivation to face the unusual working conditions you will face as a non-profit startup founder.
2. Assess the Need
Although you may have an idea for an organization in your community or city, you need to make sure that no other organizations exist that would offer similar services. A good place to start is Guidestar.org.
With millions of registered non-profits in the U.S., it’s likely that someone in your area is already addressing the issue you want to tackle. Ask yourself: Is creating a non-profit the best way to solve this issue? You need to ascertain whether it would be more effective for you to join existing organizations, either as a volunteer, or by creating a local chapter. Be sure you’re not duplicating any other model.
Another option is to start a program under an existing organization. Organizations, such as the Tides Foundation can act as your fiscal sponsor. They offer to house your program in their organization and you can use their infrastructure to support your operations (charitable status, financial administration, human resources management, for example).
If you believe that your organization is addressing an unfilled need, you want to lay the groundwork showing how your method of responding to the need is innovative and sustainable. Your organization will be serving a specific age group or community, and your first step (if you’re not a part of the community) is to reach out to other organizations and people who work with or are a part of your target group. You will want to involve your community in every phase of your organization, from shaping your programs to evaluating their impact. Understanding your community’s needs is important for your programming and for your potential investors, who will want to see your organization’s ability to identify and address a specific problem.
3. Determine Your Vision
I started Women LEAD because I was motivated by the lack of women leaders around the world. You need to ask yourself: Why should people care about my organization or cause?
Knowing the answer to that question will be important for you, your organization and your supporters to know what you’re working on and fighting for. Your vision will give you a long-term goal.
When I struggle through getting Women LEAD off the ground, I stay motivated by remembering what our vision is. Each step I take, each obstacle that I have to overcome, is just bringing me closer to our vision to empower women to be 50 percent of the leaders around the world.
Your vision will be your guiding post as you begin your startup adventure.
4. Research, Research, Research
Learn from your others in your field. As you start building your organization, researching organizations that are doing similar work will provide you with valuable insights.
As I was learning about fundraising for Women LEAD, I reached out to people in my network who had experience or contacts in that field. I sought out meetings with alumni from my university, attended networking events and slowly built a new network of social entrepreneurs and non-profit founders. I figured out which major conferences on women’s empowerment I could attend and what groups I could join.
Speaking to people with experience in the field enabled me to learn about their organizations’ history, who their funding partners are, and how they reach out to their community of supporters. Looking at the media and social media covering these organizations helped me identify the writers and bloggers in the field.
5. Determine the Available Resources
Assess what resources you have available to you now (your strengths, your networks and what contacts) and what you will need to build up.
Your network of support (whether it’s your family, friends, work colleagues or networking contacts) will be crucial in the first few years of your organization. They will be your first donors, advocates and cheerleaders. You will be amazed at how many people step up with offers to help with their time and skills when you reach out to them. One of our first big grants was through our university. We also recruited our board members through our alumni community.
See who you can reach out to as you start building your organization, and don’t hesitate to ask for help. The most important lesson I have learned in the past year is that I need to be doggedly and (almost shamelessly) persistent in asking for support for Women LEAD. Don’t be afraid to ask several times — the worst that could happen is to not get a response, or to be told no.
These are just the first steps in starting your own non-profit. Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll discuss how you can find partners, how to tell your organization’s story and the basics of fundraising.
Do you want to start your own non profit? Let us know in the comments section!