Nicole's Five Tips for Starting a Nonprofit Organization

Nicole speaking during Generation Hope's kick-off event, "Access in Action" in April 2011As soon as our story aired on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, we started receiving messages and calls about Generation Hope.  One of the top questions was "How can I start a chapter of Generation Hope in my city?".   When we started this organization, we knew that the need for our services was everywhere, but we were pleasantly surprised that so many others agree.  We have plans to expand Generation Hope to other locations across the country, but first we have to become a fully-funded organization here in the D.C. area.  You can help us do this by making a donation.    

Another popular question pertained to how to go about starting a nonprofit organization.  After holding a few calls with people, I thought it would be better to post my advice here for all to see.  These are my top tips for starting a nonprofit. 

1.  Do your research.

The idea of changing the world can be intoxicating and alluring, but a successful nonprofit venture has to be rooted in research.   First, do a thorough investigation of existing nonprofits in your area.  Are they offering services that are similar to what you'd like to offer?  If so, it might be better to create a program within that organization as opposed to starting a brand new entity.  You could meet with their leadership to determine if they'd be open to this.  This is important because if you start your own organization and it is too similar to something else, you might end up competing with a well-established organization for donations, media exposure, and volunteers.  That's not good.  Also, I think it's important that as social entrepreneurs we focus on filling the gaps -- the most critical needs -- as opposed to duplicating services.  Your brilliance could be focused on strengthening a current initiative that needs you.  That's a worthy effort!  The first place I would start in your research is your state's nonprofit organization.  Originally, we thought we would incorporate in Maryland so we went to the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations.

2.  Surround yourself with the BEST people you can find.

I think many people start a nonprofit wanting to be all things -- CEO, Founder, Board President, Program Director, etc.  This is to the detriment of your mission.  You may have the idea, but you can't implement it by yourself, and you need talented, intelligent people from all backgrounds who can make that idea even better.  Build a diverse board of directors that represents your constituents, your community partners, and the people who will fund you.  Hire a talented programmatic person who can put your idea into action.  You can't do it all, and if you try to, you will fail.

3.  If you're not a good fundraiser and communicator, find someone who is.

Nonprofits need money.  They can't survive without it.  In order to raise money, you have to be an awesome communicator and marketer.  If these talents aren't in your toolkit, quickly hire someone or find a dedicated volunteer who can assist you with this.  I see great causes with really poor websites every day.  You don't need a ton of money to look good, but you do need the know-how.  Similarly, fundraising is a talent that not everyone has.  It requires strategy and skill.  Make this a priority.

4.  Whether you like it or not, you're running a business.

Yes, you're in the business of changing the world.  Notice the word business.  As nonprofit leaders, we have to run our organizations with basic business principals as they pertain to every area (customer service, transparency, financial oversight, marketing, program evaluation, etc.).  I follow the Harvard Business Review on Twitter.  I get daily alerts from the Washington Business Journal.  I want to know how to run a better, more efficient organization.  We often start nonprofits thinking that business principals don't apply.  That's a mistake.

5.  Have a thick skin.

When a Scholar comes to me and tells me that Generation Hope is a blessing and that we're the reason she has stayed in college, it's a great feeling.  I have to hold onto that feeling because on an average day, I hear a lot more NO's than I do YES's.  You'll hear rejections from funders, donors, people who don't want to join your board, reporters who don't want to feature your next event, and on and on and on.  You have to have a thick skin to make it as a nonprofit leader.   Everyone won't love your organization, and your grant application will get turned down.  It takes faith in God and a belief in our Scholars and our program for me to not let the rejection sink in.  Our Director of Operations & Programming, Kendria Jackson, always says, "That's okay.  We've got this" (this is why #2 is so important).  She's right.  Someone will say YES.

I hope these tips are helpful to you as you think about your nonprofit venture.  It takes special people to work in the nonprofit world so I applaud you for wanting to make a difference in whatever shape or form. 

Best wishes!