The Lean, Mean, Fighting Nonprofit Machine

Photo by fondecran

When I worked in a startup nonprofit years ago, one thing I wish I had known then was to stop obsessing over being big.

Just like kids, we wanted to grow up too fast. This produced a lot of headaches for me, more work that could’ve been avoided, and energy spent in the wrong places. It would’ve been easier and efficient if we were to have accepted the fact that we were a startup and started small.

What do you mean “start small?”

Say you’ve got a $30,000 budget. Would it be wiser to spend the $30,000 all in an awesome, state-of-the-art website with all the bells and whistles? Or maybe spend $5,000 on a decent, still aesthetically pleasing website that helps convey your message and the great things your programs have done in the community using the remaining $25,000?

The latter, right?

Starting small when you’re small isn’t a bad thing; in fact, I think it’s a good foundation to set as your nonprofit grows. It makes you lean—which should save you some money—and flexible, which helps you quickly develop programs and respond to the important things. All of these things will give your audience reasons to love you.

Steps to Becoming that Fighting Machine

If I could speak to Past-Ifdy, the one who was sitting in her office at 11pm on a Friday night working on budgets, I’d tell her this:

  1. Be incredibly clear about your mission. This is fundamental. Know exactly what it is you want your organization to accomplish, and don’t be afraid to spend plenty of time thinking of the best way to word it in a 1-2 sentence mission statement. Your mission statement is the lifeblood of your organization. You want your nonprofit’s vision to be so clear it’s instinctual. This will help you make smart decisions about the future of your nonprofit.
  2. Create simple and small programs that are a vital part to achieving your mission. A startup’s first programs are literally paving the path of its future, and though paths can change directions, the first programs you create will set the tone from which future programs will be molded.
  3. Be smart and thorough about what you invest in. Because you don’t have much money to spend, you have to be strategic in the programs you invest in. Design ones that’ll make you look good and are true to your mission so you can attract donors that believe in what you do. This builds trust. Take your time making your debut a good one; you may not have immediate obligations to execute because you’re just starting out, so take advantage of the time you have.
  4. Spending time thanking and reaching out to donors is time well spent. I was easily caught up in program development, reports, budgets, and all the other stuff that makes a nonprofit move forward. But I wish I’d spent more time calling up donors and developing a relationship with them because I would’ve struggled less to recruit help when we issued call-to-actions.
  5. It’s ok to say no. A big nonprofit has more opportunities it can dip its hands into because, naturally, it has more resources. But small nonprofits don’t have that luxury, and that’s not a bad thing. It requires you to be smart about the programs you choose to invest in simply because you have to think twice about it. So if there’s something your organization could live without or postpone, say no. Your energy may be better spent on programs that cost less and have a quick return.

What other thoughts would you add to this list?

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