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“Quiet Conversations” Series Blog: The Messy Challenge of Being a Nonprofit Founder

New organizations and founders are like seedlings that need support to grow.

Founders of nonprofits, or program builders, share a quality in common with successful artists—they first envision their mission and then build their idea into reality. From my standpoint, entrepreneurs are a different category of visionaries where the chief desired outcome is profit.


When you are creating a piece of art or a program that serves others, even if money is a result, the goal is the expression, engagement or the impact produced. Many founders get nervous and hold themselves back from succeeding to their fullest potential with premature, unrealistic standards of perfection. Measuring outcomes well as you are program-building is tremendously difficult and takes time. 


It takes incredible energy and discipline to build a program from the bottom up. Often, there are so few resources that the founder is covering all administrative and programmatic facets just to get up and running. As a result, details get dropped, and identifying which goals and tasks will happen first will be determined by the biggest fire that needs to be put out. The initial objective is to get the program started and improve your systems as you develop (while upholding financial and administrative compliance standards).


Nonprofits in start-up mode are a messy exercise and it takes bravery to pursue your sole-driven mission because you are building the plane as you fly it. The foundation of organizational structure and governance needs to be set through nuanced bylaws that address your specific organization. I often hear founders describe to me how they copy an example of bylaws they found online and they don’t know if they really apply well to their organizations. It Is crucial to get help on your organizational constitution because that will guide the rest of your organizational and board development. 


When you first establish your board, the crystal ball cannot forecast the magic formula needed to produce a supportive board culture. Boards often start in a very task-oriented, hands-on role  to get the engine of the organization running. But, once the organization is moving forward under your tutelage, it’s important for the board to get out of the way of the day-to-day operations and provide the governmental and financial oversight as they are legally obligated.


Thoughtful and customized bylaws can make it easier to develop the board of your dreams with clear expectations and term limits (also an important element to long term success) clearly thought out. One thing to note is that the founding board will naturally turn over with the organization’s evolution. A good lawyer and old-fashioned technical assistance can be crucial to developing your bylaws. Online resources are helpful, but should never be the yardstick by which you measure your bylaws.


Often, founders start their boards from the people who are closest to them without a lot of thought as to whether the person is the right fit for board leadership. For instance, I would encourage omitting family members and taking the extra time necessary to find the right board candidate. It takes patience and flexibility to be a supportive board member of an emerging organization.


In some ways, the founder, the board member and the organization are all growing up together to face unexpected challenges along the way. The founding board needs to be ready to serve as the chief cheerleaders, supporters, hands-on-deck, and experts on the organization’s governance and financial needs. Once the bylaws are in place, executive and board roles need to be defined, including the creation of job descriptions, at the same time that policies and procedures are being developed for the organization.   Most importantly, founders and board members need to understand what they have capacity to do and where they need to bring in help—from lawyers, fundraisers or additional nonprofit experts. Communities often have free resources available, if one takes a look around. For example, I met a lady on vacation while in Mexico and she mentioned that she was starting a nonprofit in her home state of Michigan. She told me about her mission and where she lived. I started by looking online for nonprofit resources at her local library and gave her a name to reach out to directly to learn how to start her nonprofit. Sometimes community fellowships, mentoring programs and free legal help are available as well.


When I’m talking to a founder in the infant stages of the process, I encourage them to write a short memo that lays out exactly what they have in mind. It helps them develop their 30-second elevator speech that they will be repeating over and over as they figure out what pieces they need to put in place to get started.


Founders also will want to find kindred spirits in donors that understand and appreciate the dynamics of building a new program. Donors on the other hand need to demonstrate patience and appreciation for the work that it takes to build something new. Start-up organizations with messy challenges are not necessarily a good match for a donor who expects an immediate “thank you” and an updated impact report on their contribution.


Founders should take some donor impatience with a grain of salt and use each “mistake” as a learning opportunity. There are often simply too many things to do to have the bandwidth to worry about the ruffled feathers of an entitled, impatient donor. Other fundraisers will chide me for this mentality or administrative permissiveness. We could write another article on the negative implication of donor entitlement—I’ll save that blog for later.


New organizations and founders are like seedlings that need support to grow programmatically, emotionally and financially. Founders, give yourself some grace and be open to failing every day, learning and listening in the process and improving as you go forward—that’s how a great program is built. Evaluation. Application. Testing. Failing. Changing. Improving. Then, you start the process all over again.


One might ask when the start-up-phase ends. That’s tough to answer and is relative to each organization. Most of the organizations I like to work with are small and are overly accustomed to being in the start-up-phase mode. They are surprised to learn that they are on the cusp of becoming “established” or that their current state of operations will be a detriment to the continued growth and depth of their work. This is a great time to bring in an outside eye to measure what is working and what needs to change. This assessment is my favorite part of the process—give me a call.

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