I know. It sounds very ironic, considering I’ve already helped start two.
But here’s the reality. I’ve taken numerous requests for “chats” about starting nonprofits. I want to help, but I’ve noticed I’m telling everyone the same thing. So in an effort to still be a nice person, and the reality that I haven’t slept in four months, I’ve decided to multitask and move all my “chats” online. I will not have all the answers, but I’ll try.
But before launching into the gritty details of starting a nonprofit, I need to preface it with an important piece of advice. “Just Don’t Do It.”
At least without being properly warned. If you haven’t launched a nonprofit, or haven’t worked for one before, here are six things you should prepare for:
1. Prepare to be broke.
An important fact usually unknown by the general public. In truth, most founders and early staff don’t take salaries for at least the first year of the start-ups life-cycle. Sometimes longer.
I’ve heard countless founder war stories about sleeping on couches, or taking calls from our living rooms as we say, “Or… why don’t we meet at your office?” Invisible Children took advantage of being children, and moved back in with their parents. Krochet Kids spent nights crocheting, and waiting tables. Even though I joined charity: water nine months into their life-cycle, I joined the unpaid crew and made ends meet by babysitting at night and occasionally foot modeling (which is an entirely different blog post). Nothing says, “I just got my Masters Degree” like trying on other people’s shoes.
Apparently, you have to become poor to help the poor. You can’t offer equity, take a small business loan, or go after VC funding – so be prepared to eat a lot of mac and cheese, and take deep breaths as your credit card bill creeps passed your savings.
2. Prepare for the stress.
If you’re comfortable having your jaw permanently clenched in a state of anxiety, then maybe start-ups are for you. For many people, it’s the stress kills them. And it’s usually the stupid stuff. Like why ONE FREAKING PHOTO won’t upload on your website, that makes you want to take a hammer to your iPad.
You will be expected to do more with less, and move mountains to get there. So make a good to-do list.
3. Prepare for it to be 1,000 times harder.
“I’ve heard launching a non-profit is 1000 times harder than you think, but 1000 times more rewarding.” A few people have referenced this myth. My take: Yes, it is 1,000 times harder. But no, it’s not 1,000 times more rewarding. Ok fine. It’s rewarding. But not ONE-THOUSAND TIMES. At least not at the start.
Ask me again in three years, once we’ve helped a million people, and I can sleep through the night without checking our paypal account balance.
4. Prepare for the “no.”
This is the biggest ego crusher for most start-ups, and why so many fail. You start with wide eyes and big dreams and think, “Everyone’s going to want to help me!” The truth is, nope. In fact, some of your close friends may not help, and that’s ok.
An old intern, Jenny Risch, who now works in nonprofit fundraising, has a good mantra. She says, “I’m prepared for three out of four people to turn me down. But I know eventually someone will say, “yes.” So I just keep asking.”
Don’t let the ‘no’s’ crush you. And don’t be offended when the world doesn’t shift rotations to help you find volunteers for your bingo night. Persistence is key.
5. Prepare to be boring.
Should be obvious, but if you’re working 15-hour days without pay, you generally have to give up the excitement and glamor. Other founders may be able to dodge this one, but I’ve embraced it. A guy asked me a few months ago what I do for fun. I told him I’m launching a start-up.
He said, “No, besides work.”
I stood stupefied for an awkward ten seconds before responding, “Drink. Sometimes I drink. With friends.” Pretty mortifying that the only thing I could think of made me sound like an alcoholic. But it’s better than what I usually do for fun. Which is go downstairs to the deli, buy the large $3.29 bag of SmartPuff popcorn and eat the entire bag for dinner, while answering emails and watching The Mentalist.
Prepare for 80-hour work weeks and ok with your social life sucking for a few years.
6. Prepare for the “why.”
There are approximately 300 million people living in the US and 1 million registered charities. Not sure why we need one charity for every 300 people, but you better have a good reason for why you’re worthwhile. What do you offer that’s different, and why do you deliver services better than anyone else?
For me, I’ve worked for some of the best orgs in the world, and spent years working across Africa. I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t – and think Americans can channel their funds into better endeavors. I know, in the bottom of my heart, if we fund the solutions The Adventure Project’s working on, we can save millions more lives each year. If you don’t have the same passion and conviction as I do, then you might not survive your 26th box of mac and cheese.
Here’s my main point. Think long and hard before jumping in. 90% of all start-ups fail within the first few years. So make sure you have the energy, tenacity, and wisdom necessary for sustaining a start-up. Don’t launch a nonprofit for the glory or because you want to “help people.” The real heroes are the 300 people who donate to that one nonprofit. They have the brains to know that their dollars have the most impact by investing in visionaries crazy enough to start nonprofits.