Ten things Non-Profits can learn from Startups

I had the good fortune of spending three glorious days down at the Old Port of Montreal with my team last week attending the 5th Annual International Startup Festival.

I’ve known for years that startups and non-profits have a lot in common. They both:

  • are passionate about their cause/product/service
  • have big, innovative ideas
  • struggle to get a lot done with very little resources

In recent years I’ve seen a huge shift in the not-for-profit space that is elevating the level of professionalism within the sector and encouraging more learning and collaborating amongst colleagues. While this is encouraging, we still have a long way to go in terms of innovation and creating real, sustainable change.

“[Startups] embody a new vision of the working world: fast but flexible living, casual dress, innovative thinking and a commitment to do no evil. They are seen as more visionary, more inspiring, bolder and more exciting; qualities that serve as strong predictors of future brand growth” says Leslie Pascaud, Executive VP of Branding and Sustainable Innovation at Added Value.

This description is closely akin to how non-profits are viewed, or should be viewed, for all of the hard work and success they accomplish in helping “future world (not brand) growth”. If the brand is the world we create for ourselves, non-profits are strong predictors of a healthier future.

The top ten things non-profits can learn from startups may appear simple at first, but for most community oriented or philanthropic groups, these may be easier said than done.. Change is slow and counterintuitively can be made slower by trying to achieve transformation too quickly. Start implementing change by having conversations with members of your team surrounding what these cultural improvements look like and the steps you can put in place to enact them. My advice: be patient and go little by little.

  1. Set big, audacious goals. Many organizations struggle to define their mission and vision. While the vision should be big, the mission should be practical but memorable. How else can you convince others to get involved?
  2. Take risks. By “risk” I’m not suggesting anyone act irresponsibly! Entrepreneurs are generally more comfortable with risk than non-profits. You don’t get what you don’t ask for and if more non-profits walked that talk , they may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
  3. Protect the passion and motivation. Many non-profits are tackling very serious medical issues or are looking to solve complex social problems. With limited funding and a long laundry list of things to get done, it’s hard to stay optimistic. Look for ways to draw inspiration from others. Allow time and space for employees to recharge.
  4. Never stop trying. In fundraising, just as in product development or lead generation, you have to be persistent. Learn from your experiences: measure, document each step and re-align when necessary. Not everything will go according to plan and that’s okay. Learn and grow.  
  5. Know and take care of your donors. Non-profits have a wealth of technological solutions available to help keep track and grow relationships. Keeping tabs on stakeholders has never been easier or affordable with smart CRM tools and proper data management.
  6. Hire caring employees. As in any startup, organizations are only as strong as their team. Select candidates who believe in and share your vision and are willing to go the distance. Never ignore your gut.
  7. Create learning opportunities for employees by investing in their knowledge. Send them to conferences on change, give them time to research topics of their personal interest that will pay off in their contribution to the organization and the world.
  8. Establish a winning culture. Remind your staff, volunteers and stakeholders of all the small and not-so-small victories along the way. Share stories and testimonials to keep spirits high and keep everyone’s eye on the prize.
  9. Call upon mentors. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Look to other professionals in and outside the sector. Identify your weak spots and seek guidance in those areas.
  10. Communicate constantly. Define your brand. Set up an internal and external marketing and communication strategy that strengthens the brand so everyone is in the loop. The time and money spent will be returned tenfold.

Shawn Parr, CEO of Bulldog Drummond, an innovation and design consultancy headquartered in San Diego says  “Leaders who spend their time people pleasing, positioning, and politicking create cultures that don’t move [organizations] to realize their full potential. It takes a courageous leader to set a vision and challenge the team to define a path, stay the course, and not get distracted by the small stuff. Establishing a clear vision focuses your entire team on a destination they can all take pride in building together.”

What can non-profits do to be more like a lean and mean startup?

  • Get “startup” people on your board.  Look for people with an entrepreneurial spirit that will help your organization create a culture that values innovation and creativity.
  • Review and revise your mission statement. A vision statement lasts a lifetime, but an organization’s mission can and should be revisited every few years as the organization evolves.
  • Have a strong team mentality. No more silos. Limit the meetings by department only, have regular “open” meetings where you can get cross-pollination across internal groups. Make sure everyone is on the same page, working towards the same common goal.
  • Plan for play time. Startups work hard and play hard. Non-profits tend to work hard, and forget or forego the “play”. Schedule outings and activities for your team that have nothing to do with work.
  • Attend more tech conferences, especially ones that focus on the not for profit sector, so you can have a better idea of where the industry is going, what systems and tools are available to save your organization time and money.
  • Invest in developing a culture of learning within your organization. Conferences and trainings do cost money, but they are not nearly as costly as failing to create sustainable change.

Michael Hayman, co-founder of StartUp Britain wrote: “Martin Luther King captured the essence of the startup spirit when he spoke of the ‘fierce urgency of now.’ The startup culture is about fierce activity, urgently undertaken with the keenest sense of its impact on the present. It galvanises young firms to achieve incredible feats through the power of belief.”

I believe non-profits share that same startup spirit and there has never been a stronger sense of fierce urgency to collectively make our world a better place than right now. When non-profits fully embrace the “test and learn” approach to innovation we will begin to see some acceleration   in the philanthropic sector.