Passion Is Not Enough: The Most Common Mistakes Startup Nonprofits Make

Starting a nonprofit is difficult, complex,hard work.

I am being kind when I say this.

Its takes vision, guts, a clear mission and a lot of hard work just to get it off the ground. Think marathon race or mountain climbing. Its like a  serene lake that looks calm and relaxing on the top– but  once you are in it-underneath has so many currents all pulling at you at once.

Going from vision to a sustainable and financially healthy nonprofit is not for the weak. Many start organizations, but very few do so without making major mistakes that cost them either time, money,supporters, donors or all of the above. Many worthwhile and needed programs ultimately fail because they were not put together well. When these organizations fail it is the community and clients that suffer.  I did a quick survey with a group of founders who have created viable, strong organizations. These are folks doing great work every day, they are in the trenches. They all said the same thing: Passion is not enough.


They were kind enough to share their wisdom, here is their advice

  • Is there a need for your organization? I always push people on this question. Is there a true need? Set your ego aside and really dig deep– is there a need for another organization. How many other folks are doing the same or a similar program in your community? Could you team up with another, existing nonprofit?   Partnering is a great way to dip your feet in this sector, learn lessons from folks already in the trenches and leverage funds. Have you spoken with your clients about what they really need? What  does that data say– not just your gut, but the hard statistics? Research, research, research. Do your research!!! Funders want  to see data and you will need it  to build it in to your case of support so you might as well understand this from day one. Once you get the data in front of you then ask yourself the most important question: Is a nonprofit the best business structure for your idea?


  • It is harder to start a nonprofit than most people think. It is actually harder to start a nonprofit than a business.  The process of incorporating at the state level and then going  for exempt status with the IRS  can be a tidal wave of  detailed paperwork– and you will need a very good attorney. Looking back many founders wish they would have had more partners helping them instead of trying to do it all on their own. I actually just wrote a blog post about this last week. You can find that one here. Passion is not enough.  Get realistic about what is involved and the time it takes to create a strong, healthy organization.


  • Create a real, functioning board of directors–not one in name only. Boards can make or break your new nonprofit.  You do not just need  a board composed of your friends, sorority sisters and cousin chewy.Your first board members  should be people who have resources, influence, and lots of other connections and contacts to help you move your mission forward.  Your board can not just be friends and family. These folks should believe in your mission and join because they are passionate about it. They should be excited about sharing your mission with others and they should be educated about their responsibility as a board member.  They should be able to do the hard work and make the hard decisions including doing work and fundraising. They should be able to open doors for you, share their skills with and help guide the executive director.You should have a real plan/ strategy  for board recruitment, development and governance.


  • Where will you get the money to  start your organization?   Many founders do not anticipate what it will cost to start their nonprofit– Please see  the 1st nugget of advice in this post. You need money and resources before you ever serve a client or purchase a business card.  Even more importantly every nonprofit startup needs a funding/ financing plan. You will have to decide if  your services will be available for a fee or be free. You will have to figure out how to finance  the work including your own salary. I have not even begun to talk about the accounting/ reporting systems that you will need to put in place once you do have funding. No realistic  funding plan means that you will  unlikely to be able to sustain yourself. Many nonprofits  have  closed their doors because of lack of planning. A nonprofit that has weak funding/development strategy at the beginning sometimes never recover.


I believe our highest calling is  to dedicate our life to service. I hope these nuggets of wisdom from folks in the field are helpful and useful as you explore starting and operating  a nonprofit.



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