10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Running a Non-Profit — Reflections On My First Year at the Greater Foundation #begreater

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Photo credit: Amazon Black Employee Network (BEN)

I have just made it to my first year as COO of the Greater Foundation (begreater.org). I’ve had a wild ride so far, with some proud successes and certainly a few major hurdles cleared a long the way.

Below are ten lessons I’ve learned along the way, mostly through trial by fire.

1. Fundraising is about who you know. Period.

Until my thirties, I’ve lived close to the poverty line. If I ever donated anything, it was my time, volunteering for causes I believed in. Now that I’ve a disposable income, I find myself in a position to give, and do what I can.

What is it like to be able to truly give? I’ve attended a few fundraisers now where people are asked to give in the tens of thousands, and they can and will. Who are these people, and how can I make them my friends?

Donating on a large scale is a new world for me. Yet I know the donors are definitely out there, so I’ll need to start networking on a new level.

2. Data is priceless. Collect it (ethically).

For-profit companies are measured by the bottom line: how much money did you make ? Non-profit companies, however, are measured by impact.

While a lot of the work we do is intangible and makes for a lot of great, inspirational stories, I can’t emphasize this enough: the qualitative must be coupled with quantitative, objective measurements.

A lot of people, especially those who think entirely in numbers, want to know we’re making the right impact. I’m pretty insistent on conducting surveys, evaluating our successes, and failures, and improving based on that data.

Lastly, and I must make this point clear, is that we’re working with sensitive populations (young, underrepresented, disenfranchised). We strive to collect it with a mindfulness for protecting our community rather than for our own personal gain.

3. Be ambitious … but within reason.

I like to set moonshots for myself. I’m otherwise bored and will move onto a new challenge. I think this is a symptom of working in the entrepreneurial world for so long, but I think we are the kind of company that should always stretch just a little beyond our present reach to stay motivated and humble.

In my view, substance is everything. However, don’t lead with goals that don’t have a clear theoretical path to success. Your team and donors will figure it out and start to think your efforts are all a facade.

4. Hire only the best. You’ll need them.

Without going into details, we’ve had to go through a lot of re-organization in the last year. Once we realized our forecasted potential, it made more sense to focus on a scrappy team versus stacking a lot of underused talent.

This is a bad habit of many startup companies. Bigger teams mean more management, and without an established culture to onboard and incorporate them, leaders are bogged down with excessive work, not actual productivity.

Aside from a contractor or two, I’ve yet to hire someone to join the Greater team since I started last year. We don’t quite have the work to warrant more than the team we have at the moment, but when we get there, I’ll be looking for someone excellent.

5. You’re not perfect for the job. That’s okay.

Someone once told me that a person who is not a member of the community should never be the face of it. I’m not sure I agree. While I’ve had a challenging life, I’ve never known the challenges of some of our youth who question whether they’ll find food, shelter, and comfort each night.

That doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference. Sometimes we have to look past our differences and just do something, especially when the motivations are met with a will to act. I’ve had mentors ask me if it’s okay to help even though they don’t fully identify with our youth community.

I always reply, “if you can help, then you should.” The rest is up to us to provide them with the means to do something important.

6. Give first, but give strategically.

In Marcel Mauss’s famous historical ethnography The Gift, he talks about how long-lasting reciprocal and equitable economic exchanges begin first among unfamiliar communities … with a gift.

For some presumed time later, the recipient must return the favor, and the cycle continues and thrives. The nonprofit world is no exception: giving is expected, but there must be a balance, especially with other nonprofits.

We will give, but within reason, and with the hopes of others returning the favor in ways that support our mutual goal to help our communities thrive. If anyone shares that vision, I’m open to the conversation.

Otherwise, the cycle is broken, and then we’ll all be fighting over yams. It’s a whole thing.

7. Be inclusive, transparent, and protective.

I’ve known too many organizations where some things are on a “need to know” basis, and I didn’t always know until it was too late. I promised myself I’d work to change that if I had the opportunity. It’s how I earn trust and respect with others, hoping they’d return the favor.

Another way to explain my aspired leadership and communication style: Toby Ziegler, for your consideration.

However, it’s not always the best idea to be completely forthcoming. Some truths are difficult to handle, and often times could lead to more problems than solutions. In those circumstances, I must choose my words carefully.

8. Don’t compromise your values.

I’ve been challenged a lot about what kind of organization the Greater Foundation is. Are we a charity? A youth program? Do we work in empowering communities, and if so, how?

Instead of debating what we are, I prefer to talk about what we should be.

Yes, I want Greater to be open, generous, inclusive, and accessible, but that alone is not enough to create real, meaningful change. Thus, we’ve created a list of seven values here on our website to get started.

For those who want to join our movement, we ask for three things in return.

  1. Show up.
  2. Do the work.
  3. Be respectful.

That’s it. If there’s any lesson I can teach the next generation, it’s that life will likely get much better for them if they do the above. That goes the same for us within the organization as well — we practice what we preach.

As a leader — how I conduct myself personally and professionally echoes throughout the organization. I have to be responsible and set the example.

9. Keep your messaging simple.

It’s really easy to get lost in the noise of information these days. I’ve struggled in the early days to explain the Greater Foundation to other people because, well, there’s a lot to explain about its history and operations.

Fortunately, I’m in a position to simplify that pitch… and now it’s this:

“The Greater Foundation is a education non-profit that helps underserved youth by offering programs in leadership, technology, and entrepreneurship.”

That’s all. Nice and easy. How do we do this? Three ways.

  1. Startup Kickoff: a one-day ideation competition that covers the basics of entrepreneurship and technology where youth work with a community of mentors and are evaluated by local professionals.
  2. Training Camp: a multi-week competitive course that dives deeper into technology and offers school and training credit for participants.
  3. Greater Bowl: a single-day competition featuring the top graduates of the Training Camp who pitch for a scholarship prize.

These programs correspond with an overall journey we want to create for our youth communities: discover, immerse, and achieve.

Let me know if it’s still unclear. Seriously.

10. Create a story worth telling.

From end to end, we at the organization have to compel people, whether it’s to participate in something potentially life changing or donating their time, money, and energy worth happening.

Fortunately for us, we’re pretty fixated on the craft of storytelling and hope to create experiences worth sharing for other people. In those stories there must be challenges, obstacles, highs and lows. By the end, there must be change.

If you’ve read this article to the very end, thank you! I’d love your thoughts as well on what else people should know before jumping into a non-profit. This is tough work, but it’s worth it if you find a cause that matters.

— Lee

Write with intention. Think with compassion.

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