Five Lessons We Learned Starting a Nonprofit
We started this journey five years ago and have learned more along the way than we could have ever predicted. Building a nonprofit is full of surprises, so if you are thinking of starting a nonprofit of your own we want to share five things we’ve learned from co-founding and running Blue Trunk.
1. You aren’t an expert in everything
When we started Blue Trunk we quickly realized how many areas of expertise were needed to have a successful business. It is impossible for any one person to be an expert in every field, and we learned when we needed to seek outside support. There are many ways to get professional assistance, from consultants for individual projects, to advisors, to professional organizations. We have a vision for our organization, and enlisting the support of experts in law, human resources, web development, social media, and other fields has helped us achieve our goals. We aren’t experts in everything, and we don’t expect to be.
2. Be honest about where you are and be willing to ask for help
This lesson is especially important for nonprofits. Throughout our growth we have had to not just get professional support, like we discussed above, but we’ve also required financial support. As a new and small nonprofit we didn’t have the finances to get all the expertise we needed, so it was important for us to share our vision and be honest about what assistance we required to get there. For us that meant helping others to see the importance of inclusive travel, but whatever your mission is you will have to be able to get others to buy into your idea. Over the past five years we have needed to ask people for financial assistance, whether that’s in the form of pro-bono work or discounted services. It’s important to remember that many people are willing to help growing organizations if you ask.
3. Don’t sell yourself short
When you are navigating fractional support and financial assistance it may be easy to begin selling yourself short. But asking for support doesn’t mean you should think less of yourself or your business. You started your organization because you believe in it, it’s essential to share that enthusiasm when you ask for help. Show that momentum and show where the organization is going. You aren’t selling you, you are promoting the business. This is especially true if it’s a nonprofit--you are selling your cause. A wonderful mentor, the late Amy Gannon from Doyenne, reminded us that we aren’t selling ourselves and we have to keep that in mind as we solicit support. The organization is its own entity, and that’s what you have to focus on.
4. Talk to everybody
You never know who might be interested in your organization or who they may know. Conversations help guide the growth of your organization especially in its early stages. Many of our connections have been made through striking up conversations with strangers at events, meeting with friends of friends, talking to professional colleagues, and connecting with mentors. There are so many people around you who can grow to be part of your organization. If you think you don’t know enough people don’t panic; you don’t have to know a whole network! Your network can start small, and you can build it by continuing to make connections. Joining professional organizations and getting involved in mentorship programs is a great way to do this. We have made several connections through the Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Charlottesville, and we were also extremely lucky to get involved with Doyenne in Madison.
5. Things take longer than you think, but….
That’s not necessarily bad, slow is ok (and sometimes better)! When pitching your organization to others be honest about where you are and why. Slow isn’t bad, but you need to be transparent. While starting Blue Trunk we took our time with establishing a legal foundation, usability testing, and building out our network. When starting a business there is a lot to do on the backend, from HR to branding to technology, and it can take a while to get through. A lot of the work that needs to happen on the backend isn’t always visible to others. It can be discouraging to hear about “new” businesses that just came onto the scene. It seems like they popped up overnight, but a lot of them put in years of work to reach that level of success.
We often look back and are shocked at how much we’ve learned over the past five years. Building an organization means constantly learning, and we are excited to see what the next five years have in store.
Photo credit: Charlottesville Tomorrow