Many individuals I have encountered in my career view a job at a non-profit as something you do once you’ve made your money in the ‘for profit’ sector and are ready to give back. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth, and while profit is obviously not the main objective in the non-profit sector, it can be a viable career choice for anyone.
People who are passionate about something generally want to spend as much of their time and energy as possible pursuing that passion. Your passion can range in anything from animal rights, adoption advocacy, support for breast cancer awareness, feeding the poor, curing AIDS, reducing homelessness, and the list could go on.
A non-profit can support virtually any advocacy platform worth rallying behind.
A non-profit organization helps to focus your efforts, gives you a platform that is easily recognizable, gives you the legal status to raise money without paying taxes, and can mobilize large numbers of people towards your common goal. The beauty of a non-profit organization is that you are able to gather and raise support for your cause from hundreds or hopefully thousands of like-minded individuals from around the world. You won’t be going it alone.
My wife and I made the decision five years ago to start a non-profit organization in support of adoption. We are passionate about domestic adoption, and wanted to form an organization to raise money to help families overcome the financial barriers that domestic adoption often poses.
It was a struggle to get the organization off of the ground, but we learned many invaluable lessons along the way. Here are the lessons we learned, and a few pitfalls to avoid, to ensure that your non-profit organization launches successfully.
Plan, Plan, Plan and Set Your Vision
You may have heard that the success is in the details; and it really is. As with any business idea, starting a non-profit organization can be complicated and frustrating. To ensure the future success of your non-profit you will need to set a clear vision and then make a plan to reach that vision.
My wife and I decided to create our non-profit in support of families attempting to adopt a child in the U.S. From the beginning, we had a clear vision of what we wanted our organization to do. We knew that we needed to focus on the U.S. instead of international, and we knew that we wanted to financially support adoptive families who could otherwise not adopt. This allowed us to focus our efforts on raising support, and fundraising that would help us reach our goal.
Your vision will likely be different. Your vision will be unique to the non-profit you want to create. That is great! Regardless of what your vision is however, you will still need a concrete plan to help you reach that vision. The more precise and specific you can make your vision, the easier you will find it to raise support for your cause.
Craft Your Mission Statement
Once you have settled on a vision and a plan, next comes writing your mission statement. Your mission statement is the guiding principles of your organization. It can be viewed as the heart and the motivation behind why you started this non-profit organization.. Your mission statement should include three things: what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how you plan to accomplish that.
A mission statement should evoke strong emotions in you and the volunteers with your organization. The mission statement should be a banner under which your entire organization can rally and reflect on the true mission that you all signed on for. This might sound like an insurmountable task but it really can be simple. Speak from the heart. This is your vision and passion, and all you need to do is funnel that passion into a few short sentences.
Choose a Leadership Team
As you are organizing your non-profit you want to begin thinking about people in your community or national leaders that you can recruit to be on your leadership team. The leadership team will be the ones who make the difficult decisions down the road. They will also be instrumental in giving you advice and direction in the beginning stages of your non-profit.
You should look for proven leaders who have experience working in the field you wish to serve, or others who have successfully led other organizations. Also look for proven business leaders who can help you manage your growing non-profit.
You should also look for people who are very good at fundraising and who could bring a large network of support to help in your cause. Your organization will only be as good as the leadership team that is behind it.
Secure a Legal Entity
When you make the decision to start a non-profit organization you will have to secure a legal entity for your organization. This will likely be a 501(3)(c) corporation. This will give you tax exempt status and allow you to be recognized as a legal entity.
The paperwork for becoming a legal non-profit will be found through your Secretary of State’s Office. There will be a filing fee (differs in every state) and a lot of paperwork. You will also need to choose a legal name during this process, so make sure that you have settled on that already.
Begin to Fundraise
Once you have created a legal entity, created your vision and mission statement and secured your leadership team, you can begin to fundraise! Fundraising is the backbone of any non-profit.
Since you won’t be in business to make a profit, you have to find money from somewhere. This can take a million different approaches as to the best way to fundraise. That is why it is critical that you get someone on your leadership team with fundraising experience.
Once of the easiest ideas is to organize a 5K run/walk in your local community. This will help you raise money and it will also promote your organization within your community. You can recruit corporate sponsors and if done correctly, you can raise thousands of dollars for your cause! That is just one idea of thousands. The more creative, the better success you might see.
There are hundreds of well-articulated articles on this subject, so a quick Google search should give you plenty of ideas for profitable fundraisers!
Surround Yourself with Talented People
Just as with your leadership team, the quality of people you choose to help you run your non-profit will determine how successful it will be. At first, you may only start with volunteers. Eventually, you will get to a point where you can pay some folks a small wage to work at your non-profit. Regardless, you want people who are also passionate about your cause. They must agree with your vision and mission statement and they must be willing to go the extra mile to help your non-profit succeed.
Hiring employees or recruiting volunteers can be intimidating if you have not done it before, but just remember that you need to protect your mission statement and hire people who will help you reach your vision. That should make your selection process a little bit easier.
Finally, you just need to have fun. It is very important to remember the passion that caused you to start your non-profit in the first place. With all of the minutia of starting a non-profit, hiring staff, fundraising and managing, you might get lost in the details.
Be creative, share your passion with everyone, and remember the joy that caused you to start your non-profit in the first place. If you focus on these things, you will be successful and make the world a better place!
DJ works in financial services at a large public university. He lives in the Southeast with his wife and young daughter.