Tim Lucey is a guest commentator and friend of Avenir For Good. Our whole team admires his commitment to actively engaging with several local nonprofits as a board member, volunteer and supporter. Tim is currently serving on the board of The Turning Point Home for Women in San Diego as well as the First Step House of North County (FSHNC). He enjoys advising and assisting other small non-profits and in recent years has been directly involved in two successful non-profit start-ups.As part of my volunteer work I have encountered lots of good and bad – but mostly good in that I have been privileged to meet and build friendships with many wonderful talented people who have shared my passion for the causes we have supported.
Although the focus of this series is on the charitable non-profit, much of what I discuss will apply to non-profits in general. And please note that these are merely my opinions based upon my personal experiences supporting small non-profits, in particular one of the finest non-profits on the planet, The Turning Point Home of San Diego, dedicated to providing a safe, supportive and structured environment for alcoholic women who themselves are committed to beginning their lives anew. As a result of that experience I have met, shared ideas and collaborated with others doing similar work and have benefited greatly from those associations.
This article is for you if:
- You are an Executive Director (ED) of a non-profit and your board and you are out of synch, or you or they are confused about your respective roles and authority
- You are currently serving on a board that needs to be “matured”
- You have been invited to serve on a non-profit board
- Your non-profit is on the ropes but is worth saving
- You are thinking of supporting a non-profit with your time, money and energy
- You would like to start a non-profit
How To Run A Healthy Small Charitable Non-Profit
Do you have a driving passion for your cause and a love for those who will benefit from your good work? If so, I welcome you to the joyous and rewarding world of philanthropic work and wish you well as you pursue your dreams. Let’s get started!
Here is a list of topics you might consider as you embark on your mission. I will discuss a few of these in detail today and hope to discuss these and other topics with you in more detail in the coming months. Naturally this list will change as I learn more. Please note that I do not claim to be an expert, but I have had the good fortune of knowing and serving with many people who are and who gave freely of their wisdom and their time. So please consider my notes as merely a reflection of my experience, offered for your consideration. And don’t worry if you don’t know the answers to some of the questions posed below. You know more than you realize and there are many people who will be inspired by your cause who will rise up to meet you and to help you find the answers.
I do hope that something I write here will help you as you embark on your mission to make the world a better place. I believe it is within your power to do so.
Before we begin let’s address the big question that you may be asking yourself. If you are not asking it now, I think you will ask it after reading my little missive: Is this worth doing and am I willing to devote 100% to this cause?
The answer may be no. And that could be a good thing. If it is yes, let’s take the position that that will be a very good thing indeed.
My Simple 26-Point List of Things to Worry About
If the answer is yes and you are committed to starting or supporting a non-profit in an official capacity, I believe you will want to have a solid understanding of these topics and you may want to hire specialists or recruit committed volunteers who can fill the gaps in your knowledge. And let’s not worry about these things – let’s do something!
- Your commitment: My first question to anyone thinking of non-compensated board service or starting a non-profit is are you committed? Are you ready to work day and night in the face of failure, rejection, roadblocks and disappointment to fulfill your mission? I hope so, because you have a lot to give and there are people (many whom you probably don’t know and may never meet) who will benefit from the gift of your ideas, time and energy. And on the other side of this is much joy – the joy of giving.
- What is your mission? What are your purpose and objectives? Are you meeting a need in a unique way? How is this different or better than what someone else is doing now? Have you done a needs assessment for your target area or population?
- What is your story? You will need a good one to tell and you must become good at telling it. For most of us this is an acquired skill and requires practice; so start telling (and retelling) it to everyone you meet. “Our dream is…”
- Time horizon and your role: Do you want this effort to continue after you are gone? Do you intend to get it started and turn it over to others? If not, are you prepared to turn control over to the board? They, not you, will have legal control of the organization if you follow best practices in the establishment of your governing documents. (I know, some of you might be saying to yourselves, “Gee, what are governing documents?”)
- Is someone else doing the same thing? Before you embark on starting your own non-profit organization, association or corporation consider alternatives such as collaborating, teaming with or operating under the umbrella of another non-profit organization with a similar or compatible mission. Unsolicited Tip: Find a local non-profit support agency such as Non-Profit Management Solutions (NMS) or San Diego Non-profit Association (SDNA). NMS is where I learned much of what I write here. Both offer workshops and provide resources that are affordable and informative. And they are the perfect place to meet great people like you. Perhaps I will meet you at an NMS seminar or an and SDNA special event. I hope so!
- Support other organizations, especially those with a similar mission. Seek them out, go to their events, introduce yourself, offer your friendship, and trust me, something good will help happen as a result. At a minimum you will be inspired and amazed by what other people are doing in your community. And you will develop friendships that will last a lifetime.
- Do you have a business plan? A strategic plan? Your prospective board members and funders will want to see one or at least know that you are thinking strategically and that you know where you are going even if you don’t yet know how you are going to get there.
- Budget and Financial Statements: Create a budget and follow it frugally; Learn how to read and understand financial statements well enough to monitor revenue and expenses (keeping score) so you know if you are winning or losing. With a little study and effort you will know enough to teach board members and others stakeholders what to look for and to tell your accountant how to structure and tailor your financial reports for board review. (Yes, accountants and other professionals are more effective at helping you if you come prepared.) Please don’t wait for the big funder to ask you for them.
- Bookkeeping: Do you need an accountant? Are you prepared to keep accurate records for timely and accurate reporting? Did you know that some funders as well as some government programs require audited financials before they will consider your funding request? Keep in mind that a financial audit may be something you do down the road but please start with sound basic bookkeeping practices and you will thank yourself later. Unsolicited but helpful Tip #x: It is much easier to attract a volunteer bookkeeper if you are somewhat organized.
- Cash requirements: Know your costs and the cash flow required for sustained operations. Once you sign a lease, subscribe to a service or hire someone, you will begin incurring expenses that must be paid and won’t stop until you cease operations or your bookkeeper runs off to Barbados. And please take these obligations seriously. If you don’t know what you are doing and you are not operating under the protective corporate veil, (Yes, take note to Google “coporate veil;” you’ll what to know what that means and how to preserve it) you may be (and probably should be) personally liable for these obligations. Plan for a reserve to deal with emergent requirements and hard times. And this raises the obvious question. Where will you get the cash to get started and to meet your never-ending short-term obligations? Don’t worry, there is an answer to this question and you will discover it for yourself as you tell your story!
- Funding: Are you good at asking for help? If not, are you willing to do it anyway? Do you understand how to identify funders? Do you know the information required and have the skills needed to write a winning grant request? Did you know that many funders will not consider your funding request unless you have been operating for 3 or more years?
- Communications: How will you plan, write and distribute your annual appeal letters, newsletters, announcements and press releases?
- Web presence: Who will design, build and maintain your web site?
- Social media: Who will manage, monitor and maintain your social media campaigns and engagements?
- Donor management: How will you document, track, acknowledge and report your cash, volunteer professional service and in-kind donations?
- Cyber security? How will you protect your organization, your stakeholders and your supporters from hackers and thieves?
- Event management: How will you plan, fund and staff your events?
- Meeting management: Where will you conduct your meetings? How will you control and document them? Nothing kills the spirit of volunteers like a poorly run meeting.
- Board development: (I can think of few things more important than this.) Do you know the skills and experience needed to fulfill the board duties of governance, oversight and fiduciary? Have you served on a non-profit or do you have people willing to serve on your board who have? You will want at least one person on your board who has been involved in a non-profit start-up or the successful turn-around of a failing non-profit organization. How will you recruit, train, engage and keep the great people you will need to protect, maintain, grow and govern your organization? If this sounds hard, that’s because it is!
- Volunteers: How will you attract, engage, recruit and train your volunteers? Consider different levels and types of volunteers. Some volunteers may be needed to support your mission (providing services, perhaps) while others may support/advise on board related matters such as events, legal matters, IT, newsletter etc. How will you screen and vet them? (Beware of “cause confusion;” some well-meaning but misguided board prospects may have their own agenda – their own cause – which may not align with your organization’s purpose.) And how will you communicate with them and keep them informed and interested after they say yes?
- Staff: Will you need employees? If so, you will want to brush up on HR matters starting with the definition of an employee in your state.
- Legal: Is your brother-in-law an attorney with a heart of gold and is he married to an HR expert? If not, be prepared to pay for good legal advice on a wide variety of matters. And spend the time to study enough aspects of the law to know when you need an attorney. I’m not suggesting you practice law without a license, but you can be your own advocate – an hour of research might save you hundreds of dollars in legal fees.
- Insurance: You will need insurance to protect yourself, your stakeholders and your volunteers. See item 22.
- Forming a corporation: Do you understand the advantages and disadvantages of forming a corporation? Lawyers spend years learning about such matters and a lifetime perfecting their knowledge, but you can learn the basics in a few hours with a book from NOLO.
- Non-profit status: Do you know how to acquire and maintain your non-profit status? Do you know how to fill out IRS form 990? Are you familiar with the IRS policy guidelines and which ones are required for your organization? Which ones are unneeded or ill-advised? For instance you may need to have a conflict of interest policy but a whistle blower policy, might be overkill and an irritant. Ask your brother-in-law to explain that to you.
- Plant, facilities, offices and equipment: Where will you conduct your non-profit operations? There are many non-profits that have operated effectively for years out of a spare bedroom or garage, or at Starbucks for that matter, but some of them are stagnant or dying or already dead. And yes, some of them (properly managed and well led) are doing just fine! And some organizations put too much emphasis on décor and image. And they have the 990s to prove it! In any case a virtual office could be a great solution for you if you are willing to invest in and learn how to use some of the low-cost sharing and collaboration tools out there like Drop Box, Basecamp, Skype and others. Salesforce.com for instance is offered free to non-profits. It is a great and powerful tool but it is free like a puppy is free.
P.S. If after reading this you still want to pursue your dream, I say do your homework, roll up your sleeves and get started. There is much to do! And keep in mind it is ok to learn as you go, it may be the only way to do this stuff. I knew little about any of this when I took a seat at my first board meeting. I am so glad I said yes when they asked me , but I do wish I had taken that class at NMS sooner.
My last piece of advice is courtesy of Mother Teresa, who knew a thing or two about the joy of giving. I hope you will consider it when contemplating the ocean of suffering and need in our community:
“Don’t get lost in numbers. Begin humbly. Begin with one or two. Even if the ocean is lessened by one drop, it is still worth doing.”