For over 20 years I had the luxury of helping organizations plan, design, implement and evaluate their programs and processes. That meant I went in and got out, leaving the major decisions to the leadership. Then almost two years ago I created, resourced, implemented, led and evaluated a program that was seen as a successful disaster recovery model. I took everything I had learned as a consultant, used the knowledge base of current thinking and a little bit of intuition to prove that those who teach, per se, can also do. It expanded my knowledge and thinking about nonprofits and how they are operated. This article represents the sum of my core beliefs as a consultant, funder and director about how to successfully start up and manage a nonprofit or grass roots initiative in today’s market.

  1. Unite around a common purpose and passion: Have a clear mission, vision and values that are shared by all internally, and understood by all externally. This common purpose, and its potential impact, shapes how you present yourself to strategic partners, investors, funders, the community and your clients.
  2. Plan for long term sustainability while focusing on the big picture. Sustainability involves several things; diversified income, leadership succession planning, and ability to create, transform or adapt services. But if you remain focused on why you exist, who you serve and to what end, it will allow you the flexibility to do things differently when you need to.
  3. Articulate outcomes using a theory of change. A large piece of both common purpose and sustainability is defining your long term outcomes, i.e., the ultimate impact you expect to have on the people you serve. Working backward, you then define the intermediate (mid-term) and immediate (short-term) outcomes. The determination of those outcomes should not be based on a guess, but on a theory of change. A theory of change explains the process of change by outlining causal linkages in those outcomes, i.e., why one outcome is thought to be a prerequisite for another. A common theory of change is that awareness or knowledge leads to seeking out new skills leads to a change in behaviors. It is best to base theories of change on researched based or tested models when possible.
  4. Always be ready to change: The populations you serve shift and change, as do resources and partners. So build in flexibility and pivot when you need to. Flexibility allows you to respond to the unpredictability of what leads to social change and gives you the space to be innovative and creative when you need to. Remember that nonprofits are always trying to work their way out of being needed because problems are solved. To truly do this your programs and services should look different over time.
  5. Work outside job descriptions and functions: Create teams where people use their skills and strengths and give them the power to make decisions. Cross train and build teams around tasks instead of being rigid with specific job functions. Not only will it lead to better processes and plans, it will help maintain your knowledge base when people leave the organization.
  6. Always build the work around your customers or clients—their needs, strengths, wants, perspectives, etc. This is called human centered design. Basically, it puts the population you are serving at the center of your work. It forces you to challenge assumptions you make about what you think you know. It promotes embracing discovery and inquiry, to better understand, and therefore better respond, to issues and needs identified by people in the communities we serve.
  7. Build in measures of performance and impact: Build in data points using tools like intakes, surveys, performance reviews, assessments, etc. that give you quick and constant feedback about how you are doing. Gathering and evaluating information is the only way to improve processes and programs. As the saying goes, “what gets measured, gets managed”. And it is the only way to determine if what you are doing is working and having the results you expected. Remember the sequence Plan, Do, Study, Act. Acting means making the tweaks and adjustments needed to improve.
  8. Market Yourself. With social media strategies it is now relatively cheap to reach many populations. You can combine social marketing strategies to create attitude or behavior change while marketing your organization. People tend to support organizations that are familiar to them. Follow strategies of for profit startups for guidance. Spend some money on the production, go cheap on the distribution. Use a form of brand ambassadors (which could be a role for your Board)-just as a startup would. And raise funds through crowdfunding sites like Indiegogo, Kickstarter and Rally.
  9. Build Strategic Partnerships: We always say that “it takes a village”. So be on the lookout for potential partners in multiple sectors. Partnerships can be used for myriad purposes; creating revenue streams, locating clients, creating wrap around services, exchanging content and sharing audiences.
  10. Rethink the Purpose of your Board: Boards should be proactively and strategically exploring options, whether they be new programs, strategies or revenue sources. A Board meeting should be filled with questioning and discussion, much like an episode of Shark Tank. The Board should fully buy into the mission and vision of the organization, especially because they can be your biggest brand ambassadors. Lastly, because the needs of the organization will change as you go through your life cycle, Board members and their skill sets should change too.

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