Starting your own nonprofit is a huge task. It’s daunting, frustrating, and it’s going to feel like you’re going against the world. Veracity Media’s been working with nonprofits since we started, and while we would never say, “We’ve seen it all,” we have seen our fair share of ups, downs, what works, and what’s fallen flat.
Every organization is different - there is no one-size-fits-all strategy - but we think there’s a lot to be gleaned from our experience, and we want to share it with you.
1. Build Coalitions
The fastest way to get your name out there is learning about other organizations in your space and reaching out to them. Offer to promote other organizations’ content and activities, and offer them some content of your own to promote, too. Join events where other groups are already on board. Push to get involved in different events, and speak on panels. Getting recognized can be a group effort.
That said, keep track of these groups. Build a "rolodex," or a spreadsheet of other organizations and note whether they support your mission, their point person, and contact information. When you have an event, reach out to these people, and be open to them reaching out to you. You should feel like you’re building, or entering into, a community of like-minded organizers when you grow your coalition.
Coalition building is essential not only to learn about what others in your field are doing, but in working together towards a common goal. There is strength in numbers, and learning from others while combining forces and resources where it makes sense will push your organization on to the map and build credibility. Work to see similar organizations as allies and build support together instead of competitors fighting for the same supporters and grants. This will be mutually beneficial and is an important quality that can lead to success.
2. Do a few things, and do them well
When you’re just getting started, you might have a million ideas and zero outlets to push them on. That’s okay - we all learn to “think big, and play small” at some point or another. It’s only natural to have to focus and find what you’re good at, and to get even better at it. Fine-tuning your goals will allow you to be a leader on a given issue, put on better events, and push for a stronger presence in the area you’re working in.
3. Enlist dedicated volunteers
While you build your network, start to push your agenda, and do the work of a nonprofit, you’ll find yourself needing another set of hands sometimes. When you start building relationships, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Can someone make 100 color copies of a flyer? Maybe they can help plan and carry out an event. Can you ask a supporter to reach out to their friends and family? Does your growing circle include caterers? Designers? Or even just people who hand out flyers on the street?
Getting more people onboard at the volunteer level will help shape the future of your organization, from the bottom to the very top. If you’re going to build a board (especially if you’re building a dedicated 501(c)(3)) you’re going to need real people who can help you make strategic decisions, vote on issues, and take on greater fundraising responsibilities. The joys and struggles of having a board is its own challenge, and not an altogether bad challenge to have to take on.
Being able to identify your most dedicated and hard working volunteers, and being able to segment your email list by your strongest supporters, will exponentially increase your capacity to do great work.
4. Consider your mission
Your organization may start off with an original mission, but often times that mission will grow and change as you work. An ongoing obstacle for any organization is being able to tackle mission creep, or the expansion of your goals beyond their initial successes. This can be its own challenge when you have to balance the needs of your organization with its mission and the demands of the people or organizations that give you funding. It can be a major challenge to keep your focus on what you set out to do, but if you succeed this is a win for your organization.
Do your best to remember your mission, and stick to it!
5. Be topical
That said, if something not entirely relevant to your mission happens in the media, be prepared to respond. Take a stand, and act to pivot the conversation in your direction. Events unfold all the time, and are rarely going to be the absolute perfect issue for you to speak to. Therefore, strive to shape the conversation, both online and with traditional communication channels!
This can be a whole new blog, but unless you’re starting with an existing revenue stream, you’ll need to make a central focus from the beginning. You’re probably going to be asking your board, your friends, your family, your friends’ families, and their dogs for money. Structuring and delegating the duties of fundraising will make life easier. Create host committees for fundraising events and goals. Build a base of recurring donors for your calls and personal asks. Add a fundraising link to every email you send (even if you aren’t sending a fundraising email). Monitor where on the “ladder of engagement” your supporters are, and find the openings you need to finally make an ask of financial support to them.
Remember the organization and coalition building you’ve been doing? Study their fundraising methods. Don’t ask all your supporters to max out their credit cards for you. Ask for smaller sums from more people, and thank your small donors for their support. Apply for grants, do research, ask for sponsorships - there are a million ways to keep fundraising afloat.
7. Love What You Do
This might be the most important piece of the puzzle, even if it isn’t really about day-to-day operations or your mission. There’s an incredibly important question to ask yourself, and that’s, “Do I love this? All things considered, is this something I’m willing to do for free?”
Over time, you’ll have built a community of people willing to work for free and volunteer their time, so it’s incredibly important that you are willing to put in the same enthusiasm to make it worth it for them, too. This also means knowing when to scrap a project, cancel an event, and throw in the towel if things aren’t working. When you find joy in your mission and your events, so will everyone else on your team.
8. Don’t reinvent the wheel
You’ve looked at the landscape in front of you, you’ve built a coalition, and have started building a movement around it. Excellent- but have you checked to see if someone has already created something similar?
There are a lot of people out there with great ideas. Sometimes when you’re passionate about your cause you want to own it completely and do it your way. But when thinking about starting your own nonprofit, it’s worth making sure there isn’t a structure already in place that you could team up with. If you check this and then decide to go your own way, make sure you understand why your nonprofit is unique. Be sure to serve a different audience and recognize what separates it from the other orgs and coalitions that exist.
There’s a lot of value to new ideas, but don’t forget the value that can be found by teaming up with someone equally awesome - sometimes the mix of ideas or perspectives can create one stronger organization, rather than two weaker ones.
Starting and building a nonprofit is one of the most exciting things you'll ever do. Just remember: Keep these tips in mind at the beginning of the process to help you throughout the entire journey.
For more resources, check out Grantcraft: http://www.grantcraft.org/ and the Nonprofit Resource Center: http://www.nprcenter.org/ And don't be afraid to ask others in your field to sit down with you for coffee to ask them about their experiences. Last but not least, Veracity Media excels at strategic organizing with a focus on digital - the direct line of communication to your supporters.
Our work with nonprofits has been both exciting and demanding. We’ve navigated these waters and understand these challenges. If you’re interested in how we bring a digital-first strategy to life, use the form below to get in touch!