I’m often asked for advice by people heading up their first NGOs. They come to me bubbling with conviction and hope that I will have a million dollars for them. Instead they get some counsel on how to get started. It may not give them all the answers put it can save them some wahalla.
Invest in yourself – your organization will only grow as fast as you do.
So if your public speaking leaves something to be desired, take some classes. If you are naturally disorganized, buy the right software or hire the right people and don’t screw things up for them. If you are worried about being judged and avoiding an impact assessment bite the bullet. Investing in your-self means: upgrade your skills, overcome your fears and get professional help so you don’t slow things down.
Create an exit strategy – for your program, yourself and your partners.
Exit strategies set the bar and the rules of the game so things never get out of control and acrimonious. For example you might agree that everyone puts in 100,000 but no more than 200,000 in the first two years. If people want to leave before end of year two, they only owe the team the first 100,000. This means people can back out and the team has a minimum amount of funds they can rely on. Also it’s easier to make decisions on how things will end before emotions and frustrations set in and all the assets are depleted.
Don’t do the work to feed your soul. Instead, focus on learning your business and run it like a boss.
Nonprofits and social enterprises are businesses, they just have a different funding model and unique cash flow cycles. Understand this and you will know how to stay afloat and prioritize your money needs. Imagine it’s only about the babies, animals or farmers and you’ll be paying to ‘save them’ out of your retirement fund before the second year is done.
Decide on your moral compass before you start and stick to it.
There are many ways to get that money, that support, that legitimacy. You decide before you start which paths you won’t take. For example: will publish failure or hide it? Say you discover in an audit that there is corruption in your local offices. Don’t be too quick to jump on the ‘it’s the local culture’ bandwagon. Sorry bro/boo, they learned to lie from you when every annual report you put out didn’t use their numbers, when you sold your product as doing more than it does, when they watched you look the other way then they bribed officials on your behalf. By deciding where the line is early you will push creativity, innovation and learning early as you and your team fight harder to get real results though new ways of doing things, innovative partnerships and sharpening the scope of where you truly can add value.
These four pieces of advice will support you in the long-term. If you have a habit of investing in yourself it will become part of your organizational culture to grow, learn, adapt and seek help. You won’t be constrained by fear and mediocrity. Exit strategies set the bar for success. So many people have unwittingly set the bar at survival. Finally, there is nothing worse than working hard and not noticing the depths to which your associates have compromised to get you there. The moral compass discussion is not about religion or idealism, it’s about your work being discredited, black listed, de-funded just because you didn’t set the rules of the game on HOW you would reach your targets.
That said, I usually end my discussions with an additional piece of advice, just try and have some fun. Life is too short and your work too meaningful to not take the chance.