Three Simple Tips for Start-Up Non-Profits

One of the things I have the privilege to do outside of work is serve on the board of an Christian church in Brookline called Highrock. The church was founded less than 2 years ago, and it’s been a pleasure watching this “startup” develop.

I’ve also been able to see the operations of a few other non profits over the years. Many are well run by unbelievably talented and inspirational people. But there are a few best practices I’ve seen that I think could be very helpful, especially for startup non-profits. These seem like common sense (especially for folks who have worked in well managed businesses), but it’s easy for all of us to let basic principles slip.

1. Be Very Careful About Hiring Your Friends. 

 Starting anything is an intimidating endeavor, and it’s hard to do it alone. When building an early team, it’s very tempting to draw from your friends, especially since they are likely to share similar passions and have social chemistry with you. As a general rule however, I think it’s very very dangerous to work with or hire friends. Working with friends makes it very difficult to be objective and to give and receive feedback. It’s comfortable when things go well, but much more complicated when things go wrong (and all startups face major obstacles along the way). I think that team building should always be about determining what are the most important jobs to be done, and finding the best people possible to get those jobs done. In a world of limited resources, team decisions are very precious and hard to reverse, so before hiring a friend, be very sure you’ve determined objectively that he/she is the best person for for the job.

2. Establish a Culture and Process Around Performance and Accountability

Starting a non-profit often feels like a thankless job.  One of love and sacrifice.  As a result, I think leaders are often reluctant to institute basic management processes around performance and accountability.  I think this is a mistake.  Most workers do best with some level of structure around strategic priorities, measurable objectives, and specific feedback.  These practices not only result in higher performance, but usually in a more harmonious team.  A couple very simple things that I recommend:

a. Establish mid-term priorities for each person (6 months – 1 year).  Limit these priorities to fewer than 5. Make it crystal clear how these priorities tie to the top priorities for the non-profit as a whole. 

b. Create measurable goals as much as possible.  Measurable goals create accountability, and allows you to track progress along the way.  I find that people tend to get uncomfortable when there is a number tied to their work.  But that’s the point.  I wouldn’t be religious about “hitting numbers”, but I would make sure to track progress towards goals and have an ongoing discussion about why the person is tracking ahead or behind.

c. Establish weekly 1:1’s.  Pretty standard practice in companies.  Meet with team members 1:1 to troubleshoot, provide feedback, and make sure that everyday activities are building up to the mid-term priorities.  It also gives a team member air time to give you feedback on your leadership and the direction of the enterprise. 

d. Give feedback. It’s important to be very straightforward about both exceptional and sub-par performance.  The structures above probably give you enough opportunity for rapid feedback, but if not, carve out some time to do this.  There are lots of different ways to do this (and a lot of ways to waste time doing this). Doing a drawn out annual review is probably a mistake, but figure out what works well for your team and don’t avoid difficult conversations.  The earlier and more direct the feedback, the better. 

3. Be Diligent and Conservative about Budgeting and Planning

All startups are capital constrained and non-profits even more so.  Funding sources may be fickle with very limited long term visibility.  This would be a hard operating environment for anyone, but to make matters worse, managing an effective budget often does not match the skill-set of the founders.  My recommendation in this case is to establish some sort of an advisory board and make sure there someone with real P&L experience commits to helping the team with budgeting and planning. This person is not supposed to be a bookeeper, but someone to talk to about major purchases/hires, income forecasting, cash management, establishing a sound budgeting process, etc.  Don’t let your board members treat their participation as a token good deed of the quarter.  Give them assignments, and make budgeting and planning a major responsibility for at least one of your board members.  

Rob Go

Thanks for reading! Here’s a quick background on who I am: 1. My name is Rob, I live in Lexington, MA 2. I’m married and have two young daughters. My wife and I met in college at Duke University - Go Blue Devils! 3. We really love our church in Arlington, MA. It’s called Highrock and it’s a wonderful and vibrant community.  Email me if you want to visit! 4. I grew up in the Philippines (ages 0-9) and Hong Kong (ages 9-17). 5. I am a cofounder of NextView Ventures, a seed stage investment firm focused on internet enabled innovation. I try to spend as much time as possible working with entrepreneurs and investing in businesses that are trying to solve important problems for everyday people.   6. The best way to reach me is by email: rob at nextviewventures dot com