Have you ever said, “I want to start a charity or nonprofit”. This blog is for you.

Since 2000 I had been working with world-changing leaders as a life & business coach, speaker and author. However in 2007 I decided to stop volunteering with girls charities and do something bigger with my greatness instead. It was never meant to be a nonprofit or a 501c3 ‘organization’. But once I learned that 7,000 teen girls were getting pregnant each year in my state alone, along with the statistics of girls who dropped out of school, crime, sex trafficking, suicide and the growing trends of cutting, I felt compelled to make a bigger difference.

It wasn’t just the negative statistics that fueled me, but the everyday girl who didn’t know her power, didn’t know her greatness, didn’t know how to grow her own self-esteem and didn’t know her valuable place in the world. We started with one empowerment and leadership workshop and today we have 5 empowerment and leadership programs including a 7 day leadership summer camp and a quarterly mother-daughter summit. It’s a 501c3 called The Girls Rule Foundation with 2 Boards, 5 programs, live events and it keeps me pretty busy. I have a deep passion to ignite greatness in women and girls worldwide through my coaching practice and this nonprofit, I’ve learned so much along the way. My biggest lesson is that ‘being on a board’ for a nonprofit and ‘owning/running a nonprofit’ are two different worlds. 

You might be inspired to ‘start a charity’ but I hope this blog gives you a few pieces to think about so you can determine if it’s the right idea for your life, money, time and gifts. The facts are you won’t be fully funded for 3-5 years – do you have the patience to sustain that time? The logistics, legality, fundraising, leadership, board management, vision, measurment, marketing and programs that are needed to be successful is not for the weak-hearted. You have to bring your courage and your patience along the way especially if you don’t have a Nonprofit Management Degree there is a steep learning curve to running a 501c3.  But many people, like myself get inspired and create their own nonprofit which is an awesome way to share your greatness with the world. So I thought it might be useful to share my top six biggest lessons that I wish I knew before I started a nonprofit, along with 4 additional tips from friends of mine who also started nonprofits.

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10 Things You Must Know Before You Start a Nonprofit: (that most people won’t tell you)

  1. Time allocation: When you are starting a nonprofit you are often being driven by passion or purpose. However, if you become a 501c3 the positive side is that you will make an impact/difference doing the work of your heart. However, you have a tough 1-3 years ahead of you. Often, for the first three years you will probably spend 60% of your time is managing/building the organization, doing the legal work, getting the right nonprofit insurance, figuring out who are your donors, creating systems for reporting on your programs, creating the customer service, learning nonprofit systems, putting policies in place, growing your board, making sure financials are being tracked, learning how to lead volunteers and board, setting up donor systems, creating your donor pitch, creating fundraising plans and finding your nonprofit case.
  2. Recruitment, training and maintaining the board: the board is a huge part of your nonprofit. It’s required and it’s crucial that you and your board work well together. Do your research on building a board (Board Source is good website) and know what kind of people you need and what by laws, policies and training you need in place. The board needs to be passionate about your mission, about fundraising and about building the organization, not themselves.
  3. Fundraising is a full time job: If you are building a nonprofit alone or with one or two cofounders you will have to focus on fundraising. Don’t let the ‘nonprofit tax status’ confuse you. Nonprofits are a business that must make money. The only difference is that the profit that is left over from paying your expenses will go back to the organization, not you (or any people/ceo/founders/board). There are 1.2million nonprofits in America and nonprofits employ 11% of our workforce. Whether your budget is $100k or $5million you must have plans on how you will achieve it. Be clear in the specific ways you are going to raise your budget needed. Depending on what sector you are in depends on where your funds come from (i.e. grants, donations, government, earned revenue). The myth that people “just write checks” for nonprofits isn’t true. Your programs has to be making a big enough impact (people who go through your programs/impacted by your services) to justify donations. Once you have programs working well (and they are measured) you will then be able to fundraise and ask for grants etc.
  4. Programs justify fundraising: one of the biggest mistakes to a new nonprofit founder is that they can raise money without implementing programs. In for-profit businesses, you can get investors who give you money for your “idea”. That is rarely the case here. If you are already wealthy or have friends with wealth who are backing your organization that is fabulous, you then can focus on building your team and your programs. If you don’t and you are bootstrapping your new found nonprofit then please know that the Programs have to have impact (be solving a problem (which is your mission)) and you have to measure your impact somehow. I didn’t know this and we didn’t measure the impact of our programs for the first 3 years (before we became a 501c3). To measure our impact we now give the girls a survey at the end of each workshop/program. It gives us feedback on the program but also gives us the demographic measurements we need to apply for grants, get donations and grow. Focus on fulfilling your mission through your programs and measure your success, THEN your fundraising will be so much more successful. You want to be able to tell stories of success from your programs to donors!
  5. BUILD your board thoughtfully:  It’s a big job that takes focus, leadership and planning. In the for-profit world you sell one customer your service and you fulfill on it. Done! But in non-profit you have two customers: finding those who will fund your organization (donors) and finding those who will utilize your organization/service (clients). The more you know the better you will do!  You first need to know if you will have a working board or a fiduciary/governance board. Recruit board members who know the difference and know how to fundraise. Have a very clear system to help you recruit, onboard, train and sustain your board. Otherwise, it becomes a mess quickly.
  6. Be clear in your mission: As the previous 5 items will show you it takes a lot to start and grow a nonprofit. But when you are CLEAR in your mission and there is a CLEAR NEED for your mission then move forward with velocity. Be unstoppable and have fun doing it! Use resources like Board Source, the Alliance of Nonprofits, the Chronicle of Philanthropy and google to help grow your nonprofit leadership. I learned that my mission was wonderful, however mission is not enought, my nonprofit leadership needed to be equally wonderful. Lastly, I’m always a student and always learning to be a better leader so I can move my movement. So I attend any and all classes on specific skill sets that I need (board management, fundraising, storytelling your mission etc). Keep growing!! When you are clear in your mission you will have doors open for you outside of nonprofit (like collaborations, media, speaking, sponsorships, marketing opportunities).

A few more tips for you, check them out:

From Pam Gaber, CEO and Founder of Gabriel’s Angels: Two things she wishes she knew before she started her nonprofit:

7. The natural complexity of the Nonprofit “Resource Engine” (i.e. Fund Development) requires a profound insight and precise clarity than your average for-profit business. Hire someone who knows how to do fund development if that is not you.

8. I would say to hone your leadership skills to work with a volunteer board of directors.  This form of leadership is “legislative” and not the typical “executive” style leadership seen in corporate America.

Cori  Matheson,  Girls Golf PGA: Two things she wishes she knew before she started her nonprofit:

9. I never knew how much the relationships I have grown (and bridges I have built) would ultimately contribute to the overall success, sustainability and progress of Girls Golf of Phoenix. If the relationships are valuable/positive I can lean on them to grow the business!
10. Have fun!!!!! If I’m having fun so are my members! Creating a fun, energetic and engaging atmosphere empowers ME and my clients! It is up to me to think outside the box, be a little wacky, sprinkle some glitter and trust my creative gut for the progress of FUN!

I hope this helps you succeed in your company or nonprofit/philanthropy projects so that you can continue to change the world. Want more nuggets? Listen to a full podcast episode filled with tips and stories here.

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  • Dena’s passion is to work with leaders and entrepreneurs to structure, market and lead their businesses
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