Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leading a nonprofit 10: building and leading the nonprofit startup 2

Posted in career development, job search and career development, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on December 2, 2012

This is my tenth installment in a new series on leading a nonprofit (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 267-275 for Parts 1-9.) This is also my second posting to this series on founding a nonprofit (see Part 9 in which focused on the motivating mission and vision as a foundation point.) I turn here to the issues of building a founding team, and I begin that by sharing a fundamentally important point of observation:

• No one person can do everything. That is because we all have individual strengths and weaknesses that limit and define what we can do, and expertly. It is because even when we could in principle do more, we are all limited to 24 hour days and 7 day weeks – and when taking on massive, open-ended challenges such as founding a nonprofit we need help. So if founding a nonprofit has to be grounded in mission and vision and what it would seek to do to fulfill them, actually following through on that and founding a nonprofit means building a team.

A great many issues and challenges are touched upon and perhaps glossed over in that bullet point and operationally and strategically, building a successful nonprofit means unraveling and addressing the details to that. So my goal in this posting is simply to begin breaking out and discussing the implicit details. And I begin that by citing a core founder challenge and requirement:

• A nonprofit founder, like the founder of any successful startup, has to be brutally honest with themselves as to what they can and cannot do, and both by range of skills and ability, and by limitations of time and energy. And even there, they need to know when sharing the workload with the right people can instill a real sense of buy-in and commitment, and yes of ownership in them that would be needed to build that dedicated team.

I will pick up on that with a specific example that I in fact mentioned in passing in Part 9 when focusing on mission and vision. Not all nonprofit founders are equipped by skills, experience or temperament to build and run a successfully working business per se, and whether for-profit or nonprofit. You might be the right person to develop and convey a shared vision and mission for what can and should be done, but not be the person needed to operationally lead that happening. There is no reason why a driving-force founder cannot work with a business-side partner in building the organization at the most senior executive level, with a skilled and appropriate business leader stepping in as president and day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter operational leader, and with the founder focusing on overall strategy and vision. That can mean their taking the title chief executive officer with a separate and significantly empowered president, or it can mean their leading the board of directors with an organizationally and operationally expert CEO/President working with them to manage the business side of the nonprofit. The core idea here is self-honesty and the core requirement is one of leaving egos at the door.

In follow up to this I cite a more general startup oriented posting that I initially wrote and posted in follow-up to conversations and meetings held with a for-profit business founder, I was then working with: Maintaining a Vision While Loosening Our Grip. That founder’s efforts failed, and in large part because he was never willing or able to loosen his grip and give the members of the team he was building, a real sense of involvement or ownership. He was never willing to trust the value or meaning of his vision so he was never willing to trust the people he needed if it were to be realized as a successful enterprise.

For purpose of this discussion and to keep it focused I will simply assume in how I continue on, that the founder can loosen their grip and work with others in building a real, effective team. And for simplicity I will assume they are going to lead and both as holder and conveyer of mission and vision, and as business leader too. So if you are founding a nonprofit under circumstances where those tasks are divided out to more than one set of hands, think you plural, where I write you singular, and divide out what I write of accordingly as to who would do what and be responsible for what.

I am going to continue this discussion with a more detailed look into building a team to cover all of the core functional requirements, while keeping headcount lean and communications and decision making easy. I will also be discussing the issues of building a board, which is an essential step for building that team. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings at my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2. I have also posted extensively on jobs and careers-related topics in my first Guide directory page on Job Search and Career Development. You can also find this and related postings at Nonprofits and Social Networking.

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