Building an Effective, Manageable, and Ethical Nonprofit Organization
This morning a friend asked me for advice on starting a nonprofit.
This question has come multiple times each year and I have finally decided it is time to stop writing individual emails and create a single post with what I've learned.
That said, I will not pretend to be an expert on nonprofit organizations...in any way.
I had the wonderful blessing to launch The Deaf Dream nonprofit (having no idea what I was doing and receiving a lot of divine help along the way). But in the last decade, I have also been able to work with over 30 nonprofits in various capacities; each with their unique goals, niches, locations, and needs.
My hope is that my recommendations below will simply help your idea blossom into an effective, manageable and (most importantly) ethical nonprofit organization.
1. Build a Simple Organization
If you want to create an effective and manageable nonprofit, I recommend you keep it simple:
A. Start small...no, start TINY.
Ask yourself: "What is the ONE thing we can do right now that will have the biggest impact?"
When I started The Deaf Dream, our motto was Educate. Employ. Empower. (I.E. Fix alllllll the problems facing the international Deaf community.)
Eventually I burnt out and we had made very little progress. I identified the ONE thing we could do (and do well) that would have the biggest impact: Sponsor 1-2 Deaf college students per developing nation.
B. Don't bring on partners or a big team or a large board unless you ABSOLUTELY need to.
More people = slower organization = most of your time goes into babysitting your team rather than on what really matters.
I say this gently, but I have learned that there are a lot of people who want to help...and very few who have the time or drive to make positive change themselves.
Recommended Reading: REWORK
C. Keep your overhead costs low.
There are a myriad of free resources, platforms, and programs available online. Do some research before slapping down money for a service. Keep your fixed costs low.
If possible, my recommendation is to stick to just a website if at all possible.
It is your solemn responsibility to make sure your donors' money goes directly to the recipients. Plus, it's unethical, in my book, to use 30-90% of your donations on paying salaries and increasing fundraising like many large organizations. (See the #3 section below.)
D. Decide early on how much time you'll invest per week.
I started out investing 40+ hours into The Deaf Dream, doing a million different things and getting nowhere.
When I simplified the organization, I realized I really didn't need more than 1 hour of FULLY focused and committed time each week. Now I've even got it down to about 15 minutes per week with 2-3 hours every few months when the semesters are starting and ending for our students.
Sure, I could do a lot more, there is always more we can do, but by doing this, I ensure that I'll never burn out, live happier, and keep focused on what matters most.
Recommended Reading: Again, Essentialism
2. Thoughtfully create a 30 second pitch.
Six years ago, I pitched my idea for The Deaf Dream to a BYU professor who said, "You can always tell a founder because they cannot give a pitch without sharing EVERYTHING." Best advice ever!
Even the nicest person in the world doesn't want to hear everything about an organization right off the bat.
I recommend your basic pitch contains your what, who, how, and why. (Your organization name, the specific niche you will help, the ONE main way you will reach that goal, and why it's critical to reach that goal.)
For example, mine starts with:
"The Deaf Dream sponsors scholarships for the first Deaf college students in developing nations, empowering them to improve and lead their communities."
What: The Deaf Dream
Who: first Deaf college students in developing nations
How: college scholarships
Why: empowering them to improve and lead their communities
They do not need to know that my position is often to convince universities to accept their first Deaf college students, that the students are studying without interpreters, and any other interesting, but irrelevant, information in that moment.
Your pitch is what you share with your donors over and over. It needs to communicate everything in one sentence. And they need to know EXACTLY where their money is going and how it is used.
After I say the above statement, I then finish my 30 second pitch with:
"Our goal is to sponsor one male and one female student per country. Thankfully, their degrees only cost about $1000-3000 depending on location and our overhead is just $150 per year for a website. We need $250 for Khiem's tuition this semester...do you want to sponsor his education?"
This portion does three things:
Communicates how attainable our big goal is: "sponsor one male and one female student per country" and "degrees are only about $1000-3000"
Shows how responsibly we're running the organization by keeping our overhead down (so they don't feel we would waste their money): "our overhead is simply $150 per year for a website"
Indicates, clearly, an affordable way they can immediately help out: "We need $250 for Khiem's tuition in Vietnam"
Invites them to act: "do you want to sponsor his education?" I'm asking them to do something very meaningful. And I give them both the option of donating for en entire degree or "just" a semester of $250.
But, in full disclosure, I rarely ask this question. I just share my "pitch" and then, if they haven't indicated they're uninterested in what I'm sharing, I immediately tell the story of one of our Deaf Dreamers.
In this case, it would be Khiem:
"He takes everything he learns at college and teaches the 350 Deaf in his group in Ho Chi Minh City. They don't have a big enough place to meet in so he teaches them in a park. So, yes, we're technically sponsoring one degree, but it's actually educating 350 people."
Also, I want to just point out that I hate the word pitch. It sounds "salesy" and implies that you have to craft something just right otherwise no person will be tricked into buying.
For me, I've never worked on crafting a "pitch" - I've simply tried to think of the simplest way to communicate:
Why these students are amazing and worth investing in.
Why even small donations go a long way.
Why we're so much more than an organization.
Why I jump out of bed with joy when I get an email from my students expressing gratitude.
3. Consider the impact and the repercussions of your organization.
Most, if not all, organizations start with the best intentions at heart and a desire to make a real difference.
But, unfortunately, I have seen too many nonprofits that have struggled with:
(You can glance through what I've written below
or just cut to the chase and read Toxic Charity.)
A) Ensuring funding actually gets to the beneficiaries.
For some reason, as an organization grows, they are more and more tempted to use their funding in ways other than the original cause. ("If we're giving 3 million to help underprivileged children, who cares that 7 million is keeping our employees happy and growing our donor base.")
Like I mentioned above, large organizations like the March of Dimes and many cancer charities have used the majority of their funding to pay for more fundraising, exuberant salaries and off-the-record benefits for executives.
CharityWatch.org and CharityNavigator.org help identify where a donor's money actually goes.
B. Making sure their "help" doesn't cause more problems than it solves.
Giving free shoes to kids sounds like a great thing until you see that over time TOMS charity has completely destroyed the shoe and shoe repair industry in several nations in Africa. (Not to mention the fact that the shoes don't last long, have little impact on the children wearing them, and are quite irreparable.)
Building a school sounds incredible (and is relatively easy to fundraise for) but without skilled teachers or long-term funding, some of these schools are abandoned and others have little impact on their students.
Yes, bringing affluent "voluntourists" to help can be a tantalizing fundraising and awareness tool. But wouldn't it be better to pay local skilled workers to build homes (and thus support their families) rather than bringing in outsiders with little to no skills? Not all volunteer work is bad, but it can easily cause havoc in communities and perpetuate poverty cycles. (I won't go into the research behind orphanage visits and their tendency to keep the children in harsh conditions to ensure the pity of visiting tourists with money.)
Look at the short and long-term impact of your "help" and make sure you recognize and assess both the good and bad repercussions your idea may have.
I recommend asking yourself three questions:
Are our services / products further entrenching problems in the community?
At first I wanted to bring our Deaf students to Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. but (thankfully) the costs of attendance was astronomical. As good of an experience as it would have been for these students to attend the only Deaf university in the world, we almost missed the opportunity to have these students attend universities in their countries thus proving to the hearing community that they're capable of higher education and opening doors for future Deaf students. When Khiem started university in his country, he was regularly interviewed by local and national news stations. He has become the face for disability rights in Vietnam.
Are we empowering people to help themselves or going into a community to "fix" them?
When I started The Deaf Dream, I was terrified of becoming that stereotypical "white American" who walks into a country, points out everything that is wrong, and "fixes" it. I wanted to make sure that we were finding leaders who were already doing good in their countries and give them one more tool - a degree - to empower them to create change themselves. Since earning his degree, Khiem has put on nationwide disability conferences and continues to grow his own Deaf organization in Vietnam. We have no part in his impact over there and, as weird as it sounds, I'm quite proud of that.
Are we building ourselves out of the equation?
This is a good thing...as counter-intuitive as it may seem. I'd rather have a nonprofit that's dying because it is no longer needed than a flourishing organization so entrenched in a community that the economy depends on it. In my effort to empower capable Deaf leaders to improve their own nations, I have had to say "no" to many, many opportunities that would have expanded and created a system that would have ensured our survival at the risk of trumping the self-reliance of those we served. Of course there are many nonprofits out there with a variety of goals, but I think having a positive exit strategy - where we are no longer needed because change is happening on it's own - is a good goal for all of us to aim for.
C. Including the recipients in the solution.
It can be tempting to cover all the costs required for your recipients, but a wonderful opportunity is missed.
Let me share a small example from my life.
In my Church, a large number of the youth go on 18 month to 2 year missions when they are 18 and 19 years old. We are encouraged to save up for this mission and, growing up, I put away at least 10% of all that I made. When it was finally my turn to go, I did not have enough to pay for my entire mission. My wonderful parents recognized the sacrifices I had made to go and said they would pay for the other portion.
My mission experience in Hungary was so much more meaningful to me because of the hard work and sacrifice before hand to get out of school debt and earn money for my living expenses.
Yes, this example isn't exactly a fit for the point I am trying to make, but it's important to recognize that people retain dignity and develop appreciation when they can take part in the solution.
With The Deaf Dream, our students are not passively receiving funding. Yes, we cover their tuition, exams, and materials / books, but they have to cover housing, medical, transportation and other fees associated to schooling. They are also navigating college without interpreters - a nominal feat (that I hope is remedied one day with qualified interpreters!) They are hard-working and their families / guardians / mentors are investing much into them as well.
Allow your recipients to take part or lead the efforts to find a solution.
4. Don't invent the wheel...focus on what you can do and connect existing resources.
My final bit of advice (which I probably should have put first) is to work with what's already out there. If you have an idea, chances are others have had similar ideas.
I recognized at the start of The Deaf Dream that Deaf high school education in many developing nations was deplorable. In essence, it was babysitting. One teacher told me "What's the point [of teaching] when the kids are going to graduate and beg [on the streets] anyway?"
I was tempted to try and "fix" the entire system. (I hadn't learned to keep things simple yet, obviously.) But I realized that by giving select students scholarships to attend university, other students would be inspired to follow suit and high school teachers would have a reason to truly teach their students.
I didn't have to reinvent the entire system. I simply did what I could.
Then I reached out to organizations who were already doing their best to improve high school education (and knew the issues and areas intimately) to encourage their students to apply for our scholarships.
Some of the best and most successful nonprofits out there (read: successful: meaning having the greatest impact, not those who have the most donors) are those that identify already available resources, identify a gap where services or products are needed, and focus their effort on meeting very specific needs.
Starting a nonprofit can be overwhelming, but everyday I receive word from our students, I am eternally grateful I doing my best to make the world a better place.
I hope my recommendations help you build the kind of organization you can be proud of!
I would love to hear from you if this post has been helpful or if you have other recommendations for new nonprofit organizations. Feel free to comment below.
P.S. Links in this post go to safe relevant resources or Amazon links (in the case of the books).