So you want to start a nonprofit? God bless you! And yes, I really do mean that. I don’t want to live in a world that is only about the bottom line.
But a world run only by passionate mission-focused visionaries poses it’s own problems. We need both. And neglecting basics about the bottom line has resulted in many a nonprofit failing to realize its full potential, or flat out failing.
There are lots of things to consider before beginning a nonprofit. Not for nothing do they have entire advanced degrees in nonprofit management! But before you dive in to become the change you want to see, here are six big questions that you don’t have to go back to school to ask yourself:
1. What’s your USP?
The web enables anyone with a mission or passion to affect change from anywhere. That is enormously empowering for millions, worldwide. But it also makes for a very crowded marketplace. So unless you’ve truly stumbled upon an issue absolutely no one else is aware of, chances are there are other, well-established organizations who share your mission. So ask yourself, what is your Unique Selling Proposition? What do you do that the others don’t? What do you do better? Why will you succeed where they, of equally good intentions and commitment, have failed? The answers are key. To just about everything else that follows.
2. What’s your URL?
Start with your URL first, name your company second. Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? But think about it. Your website is how everyone checks you out. Which means it has to be short, memorable, not taken, and finally, connected to your company name. Because there is nothing like naming your company something unique, only to find out that someone else has snagged the matching URL. (Even worse is to find out that they do something diametrically opposite to your values and ethics. Unless you look forward to spending the first few minutes of every conversation, networking event, pitch meeting, or phone call saying who you are *not*.) Which leads to…
3. What’s in a name?
Brevity and clarity! In the absence of connections, fame, or a fat marketing budget, you’re going to be doing a lot of outreach to raise visibility and awareness. So if you have a company name, mission, and vision that doesn’t translate to short, sweet, and clear, stop and re-think things. I know several awesome companies with unique, poetic, or longish names that make perfect sense … if you have the time to listen to the backstory of how they came about. Needless to say, the vanity urls are a mess and there are plenty of ways to spell the names wrong. The marketing folks take advantage of the “Wuh?” factor to chat up people and spin it into the perfect icebreaker. But the rest of the staff who aren’t natural marketers and communicators (a.k.a. 90% of the companies) struggle. They spend as much time telling people how to say the company’s name as what it actually does.
Really? Yes! Get your legal stuff out of the way first. The well-funded machine that hires employees for a healthy living wage? A productive, envied place of work where the people like what they do and change the world for the better as you envisioned it? You need a solid foundation for that. It doesn’t matter if you start with nothing. Someday, hopefully, you will have a lot more. Even if you don’t, or perhaps because you do (partners, investors, a board) you want to be able to dissolve and end things cleanly. So get thee to a lawyer and an accountant–the kind that specialize in non-profits and small businesses–and get the administrivia of your EIN, tax classification, bylaws, financial structure and whatever else out of the way first and thoroughly. That tedium is the foundation upon which you get to build a strong house that your organization can live in for a long time.
5. How are you going to fund your mission?
This is where your USP comes into play. Unless you are independently wealthy (in which case you’re reading this… why?) your nonprofit is going to have to either make money or raise funds. Because, very simply, without a revenue stream, you’re not going to make change, much less change the world. And you’ll find out soon enough that fundraising never ends, which is why even big, well-funded organizations continue to raise money. Your financial challenge is made that much easier if you have a USP that makes your donor’s contribution a clear choice: your pitch over everyone else’s.
6. What is your pitch?
Einstein said it best: “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.” This is why elevator speeches are a good test. I loathe how reductive they make the mission feel, but they make for a really good exercise. Because if you can’t tell me what you do in half a minute–especially if you’re fired up about how right your cause is–do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go back to the drawing board so you can tell me, simply, clearly, and quickly, what it is you do. You want my attention, don’t you?