Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Leading a nonprofit 11: building and leading the nonprofit startup 3

Posted in career development, job search and career development, nonprofits by Timothy Platt on December 7, 2012

This is my eleventh installment in a series on leading a nonprofit (see my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development – 2, postings 267-276 for Parts 1-10.) This is also my third installment to deal with the issues and decisions that go into founding a nonprofit as a going enterprise (see Part 9 and Part 10.)

I began a discussion of building a founding team in Part 10 where I focused on finding the right business manager and leader to head the organization for its operational planning and execution, and how that might or might not be the same person as the founder who brings everyone together around a shared mission and vision. I continue that here, turning to consider the other functional chairs that would have to be filled, and the areas of skill and expertise that would be needed early on and from the beginning as the nonprofit forms.

As I noted at the end of Part 10, to keep the discussion more straightforward I will simply write this as if the mission and vision-driving founder and the business leader who would run this organization day-to-day were the same person. With that grammatical housekeeping detail in mind, I start with a basic list of functional areas that might be considered for active inclusion here, and proceed from that. And I begin with the basics. The two most important immediate goals that a just-forming nonprofit startup needs to address are:

• Having a compelling stated purpose to offer that is marketable as a mission and vision goal, that could bring in revenue from donors, and
• The liquidity needed to follow through on that potential until a positive cash flow can be developed, with sufficient income to meet operating expenses while still allocating a high enough percentage of incoming revenue to mission and vision to meet statutory requirements for being a nonprofit.

So a forming nonprofit has to fill the necessary chairs, but limit headcount to that and with a minimum number of participants covering all necessary functional and work load requirements. What are the most important starting skills? What most critically has to be done, and as a series of highest priority tasks?

• As already discussed in earlier series installments, the basic goals of the organization as its mission and vision have to be brought into a focus that can be expressed clearly and succinctly (see Part 3: missions, visions and corporate cultures. But this means more than simply drafting the mission and vision statements. It means developing calls to action that can be shared with specific potential team members, outlining how their contributions could significantly contribute towards the nonprofit’s goals.
• An initial outreach has to be made to bring in and involve a core group of participants as a founding community. This means finding people who can, and are willing to offer hands-on skills, and from clerical work through high level strategic planning and financial and legal advice. And it means bringing in initial seed funding.
• Networking is a key requirement here and for both sides of this initial effort, and developing initial momentum for getting the word out, and help with actually doing so is crucial. Increasingly that means making more effective use of social media and interactive online connectivity.
• Financial and legal advice and help are going to be needed and early, for getting the paperwork going for actually setting the organization up as a nonprofit. And advice from people with startup experience, nonprofit experience or both would be invaluable.

When the organization is just starting and the founding group is small enough to be able to meet sitting around a table, there is not going to be a lot of need for complex or comprehensive organizational structure or for the operational and table of organization systems that would contain that. That has to be prepared for but as a goal to work towards as addressing its issues become necessary.

Marketing and communications are important, and so is fundraising but at the very beginning these are primarily going to be carried out by the founder and any early team joiners, who would be selected both for their skills and experience and for their concern for the basic goals of the forming mission and vision statements. I add that this concern makes joining and working on this founder team a largely self-selecting process where the right people decide that working with this group is important enough for what this startup nonprofit seeks to do, to be worth their time and effort to help make it possible.

• So knowing what does not have to be done at first and certainly to the level of anything like formal operational structure, can be as important as knowing what does have to be done first and with specific assignment and even specifically assigned positions and titles.
• This is a situation where strategy as knowing what not to do, is as important as knowing what to do.

Most nonprofits start, as far as finances are concerned, through self-funding by the founder and a small group around them and from seed money from a small circle. Like any startup, these organizations begin with a small team and with many founding participants holding down separate full-time jobs. So they can only devote part of their overall time and effort into this – even if they devote significantly for both.

• Long-tern success means breaking out of that small initial circle of those who know of this effort and who are willing to support it, to reach and connect with a larger involved community.

That is essential if this effort is to become a sustaining organization with ongoing funding and the financial capacity to continue on. And organizational size and structure would expand out as financial capability to support it does, and with a wider range of functional areas assigned to specific individuals as members of the expanding overall team as that becomes fiscally sound and sustainable too.

I said at the end of Part 10 that I would discuss the early and founding stage board of directors, and with that posting and this as background for that discussion, I will do so in my next series installment. 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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