Be The Change: Avoid the Five Pitfalls to Nonprofit Success

Nonprofit organizations are filled with passionate and well-meaning people who dedicate their lives, often for less-than-average pay, to improving the world we live in. In the animal protection and vegetarian advocacy sectors, nonprofit employees perform grueling undercover investigations inside factory farms, rescue family pets who have been dumped at county shelters, stand outside for hours handing out thousands of leaflets to passersby, and petition our government for changes in the law which would protect animals from abuse. This is all challenging, heartbreaking, vital, and heroic work that no government agency or business would ever take on.

Today there are over 1.5 million tax exempt organizations legally registered in the United States. With competition for charitable dollars outpacing increases in giving, today’s nonprofits have to be more strategic than ever before. In my work as a consultant and board advisor I see animal protection organizations continually making the same basic mistakes—mistakes that ultimately deprive these organizations of vital resources, thereby reducing their ability to save lives. So avoid the top five pitfalls I’ve detailed below in running or starting your nonprofit and do your good work on a foundation built for success.

Pitfall #1: Unnecessarily duplicating services

Couple your enthusiasm for your chosen cause with some fundamental research and avoid pitfall number one: creating a nonprofit to do work that others are already doing. When you fail to research how your nonprofit will impact the greater landscape of organizations working on your particular issue, you stand a great chance of causing more harm than good. This is a particularly important message for organizations involved with animal protection because the overall pool of donors willing to give to this cause is a pittance compared to the vast outlay of charitable giving directed to other issues. And money that is spread too thin across numerous organizations is money that isn’t being effectively used.

Important questions to ask yourself, even if you have already filed to become an official 501(c)3 charitable organization:

  • Are there other organizations already servicing this issue?
  • Have I reached out to those organizations to find out if there is some way to assist, get involved with, or open a branch or chapter in my area?
  • Have I consulted with others who are knowledgeable in the field to obtain their input?
  • Do I “need” to be the boss?
  • Do I honestly think I have the time and specific skills required to run an organization?

These questions aren’t easy or straightforward to answer but they are critical to your success—so don’t rush into forming a nonprofit before you have adequately addressed them. Ensuring that you have done your due diligence before forming your nonprofit is, ultimately, the kindest thing you can do for the animals and the best way to save the most lives.

Pitfall #2: Operating without a business plan

While you are researching whether you should become a nonprofit, be sure to also research how to run a nonprofit. Nonprofits are just like any other business venture: they require planning and capital. If you expect people to invest in your idea, you need to be clear about what your idea is, what your measurable results are going to be, and how you are going to achieve those results. You also need to describe the methods by which you are going to determine whether you’ve been successful in meeting your aim.

Imagine yourself in this scenario: you are sitting at lunch with a friend and one of their business colleagues when the subject of your new nonprofit comes up. Turns out, your friend’s colleague also has a passion for animal advocacy…and money to help put your plans into action. He asks you what you plan to accomplish this year, how you envision your project growing, and how much it is going to cost. Do you have clear and direct answers?

Start at the beginning—create a mission statement that succinctly describes the purpose of your organization. Once it is complete, create broad goals that reflect the purpose of your nonprofit as described in your mission statement. Take it further: where do you see organization in a year, five years, and ten years?

You must also be able to confidently express how much it will cost to accomplish your goals and have a notion of where the monies to cover those costs are going to come from. Create a budget for your organization. Be able to speak about and justify each of its line items and describe why they are necessary to accomplishing your goal. Once you understand your expenses, you will be able to tackle your fundraising program (more on that topic in Pitfall #4).

Pitfall #3: Not seeking help

No matter how well you prepared during your research stage, there are tasks related to running a nonprofit that you simply won’t be able to accomplish on your own. Nonprofits typically have two main options for acquiring this assistance: volunteers and paid help.

Since your fledgling nonprofit is likely small and underfunded, you probably won’t have the cash to hire experts, so you must prioritize investing time to attract and maintain a dedicated pool of volunteers. When you develop your business plan and analyze your own skill set, make note of the areas in which you lack expertise. How handy are you with bookkeeping, marketing, fundraising, or web design? Be sure to attract volunteers who can not only assist you with implementing and running your organization’s programs, but also those who can assist you with the hard-to-find skills vital for running your organization.

As a nonprofit, you are legally required to have a Board of Directors. Your board is your organization’s core and most devoted volunteer pool and must be carefully considered and developed. Be strategic when you build your board—look for individuals who can make a solid contribution to your organization. Engage individuals who are willing to provide professional skills or advice where you need them. Board members are also critical in expanding awareness about your organization to their friends and business associates. If someone isn’t going to contribute to your organization in an indispensable way—if they aren’t “doing, donating, or opening doors”—they don’t belong on your board.

With crucial projects like fundraising, develop a small committee to be led by an individual with experience in the given field. Committee work is communal and therefore more enjoyable to many, and takes the pressure off of a single individual to succeed. It also has the added benefit of broadening the pool of volunteers who are closely tied to your organization without adding additional members to your board. Local business “mixers”, Rotary clubs, and universities are great places to source volunteers with expertise.

Remember: “it takes a village”—and your organization’s village is your volunteer pool, especially your board and your committee members. Treat them well and respect the donation of time they are making to your organization as if it were gold.

Pitfall #4: Failing to implement a fundraising program

Do you have a database which contains names and addresses of people who are in some way associated with your organization and which details any financial contributions they’ve made? This is the core of your fundraising program, and, if you’ve started a nonprofit and you want it to succeed—one of your primary responsibilities is fundraising.

There is no conceivable way to overstate the importance of developing a solid fundraising program for your organization. Time and again I see nonprofits limping along often solely funded by the person who started the organization. If you are not allocating a significant portion of your time to building the relationships that will bring volunteers and donations to your organization, whatever problem you are trying to address with your 501(c)3 will probably never be solved.

Here are the basics of your fundraising program: create a donor database—no matter how bare-bones (there are free resources online for small groups); use your donor database—find ways to ask those people to make charitable contributions to support your organization’s work at least once per year; continually develop your donor database or “friendraise”—plan fundraising events and engage in other opportunities that allow you to share your work with others.

But what about the big grant that was going to fund all of your work? Here’s a timesaver for you: your organization will have about as much luck acquiring it as you would by taking a trip to Vegas, putting all of your money on 27, and spinning the wheel. Here’s why: as a new nonprofit you have little or no funding history to draw upon, and animal protection and food advocacy funding foundations are few and far between.

After this harsh dose of reality, it’s time for the good news: fundraising is easy when you love your work because you engage in it naturally! Build relationships with individuals, speak passionately with them about your mission, engage them with your organization’s “clients”—be they cows, guinea pigs, or humans—and always enable your new contacts to become part of your organization’s success.

If you are polite and respectful, it never hurts to ask. In fact, if you ask for nothing the only thing you can legitimately expect is nothing! Allow people the opportunity to join you in creating a better world.

Pitfall #5: Keeping your good work to yourself

Don’t keep all of your hard work to yourself. Share it widely with everyone you know! Today telling everyone you know about your organization’s programs requires a multi-pronged, multimedia approach:

  • A website
  • Facebook fan pages and Twitter
  • Building relationships with other organizations whose work relates to yours
  • Building relationships with funding organizations in your region
  • Familiarity with free local media outlets
  • Building connections with influential people from TV, radio, and the web
  • Maintaining a presence at events and conferences, both regional and national, if appropriate
  • Holding events that showcase your organization’s work
  • Sending out newsletters to everyone in your database, asking them to forward and share
  • Leafleting, flyering, postering, t-shirts, and utilizing every other means you can think of to get your name and your work out into the public eye.

Yes, in addition to all of the other roles you’ve taken on in building a nonprofit, you’re now also a marketing guru. And every marketing guru knows that no one is going to remember you or invest in your product until they’ve seen it seven times. Be creative, be able to express your organization’s mission in a brief 20-30 second soundbite (the so-called “elevator pitch”), and say it again, and again, and again to anyone who will listen. If you do this regularly, you will find the donors and volunteers you need to help your organization thrive and prosper.

Go on, get to work already!

A stable organization requires a well-built foundation. Acknowledge and accept from the start that the business of social change requires both time and money be directed to your organization’s activities and to maintaining the organization itself. From your nonprofit’s inception, dedicate 20-35% of your time and efforts to your “administrative” duties. Be organized, methodical, thoughtful, and strategic. Surround yourself with others who can help get the work done and don’t forget to ask for contributions. Be kind. Celebrate your successes. Spread the good word. And always, ALWAYS remember to say thank you as often as you possibly can.

Thank you for the work you are doing and the energy you are putting into making this world a better place for us all!

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A former academic, Carrie LeBlanc shifted her focus to nonprofits and fundraising in 2005 and since that time has assisted or consulted for dozens of local and national nonprofits. She is also the director of Go Vegan USA, co-founder of the Animal Rescue Fund of Santa Barbara, a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and a board advisor for several nonprofits dealing with animal protection issues.