Monday, April 14, 2014

Donor Development and the Entrepreneurial Mindset

The word entrepreneur conjures up a vision of a person who plans to start and run a for-profit business. Actually, the definition in Webster’s is “one who organizes, manages and assumes the risk of a business or enterprise”. (italics added)

The skills and vision needed to start and manage a successful nonprofit are not very different from those needed to start any business.

You need a goal (mission and vision), a market niche (statement of need), product or service (program), a business plan (strategic plan) and  investors (donors)  for you to stay around long enough to succeed.

So why is it that most fledgling nonprofits can’t accept the idea that they have to have good planning and sound structure to succeed? Why do they approach donors with a vision but no way to make it happen?

There seems to be a sort of “build it and they( the donors) will come” mentality among nonprofit start-ups. Sometimes that works in business…the first personal computer was conceived of and  built long before the investors arrived. More often though, new nonprofits are more like some of the ill-conceived niche carmakers. The DeLorean was a good marketing  concept but it was a lousy car mechanically, and it didn’t capture the market share needed to survive.

Taking your nonprofit from concept to functioning entity requires so much more than just a passion to help someone or something.

Chickens don’t come out of the egg fully feathered and ready to lay eggs, small businesses don’t begin as multi-million dollar corporations and nonprofits don’t attract millions in donations in the first few years, if ever.

In “Climbing the Ladder to Nonprofit Success” I try to prepare new nonprofits for the realities of becoming the next successful  local,  national or global nonprofit. I get a lot of nice feedback from people, but I also get a lot of “you don’t understand the mentality of a nonprofit founder”.

Oh yes, Virginia, I do. That’s why I wrote the darn thing. Every person that strikes out on their own has a dream, but not all of them realize it. The difference is that at some point,  the successful ones learn to borrow from or assimilate existing knowledge to succeed.

There is a “reality” show on TV about prospective small businesses competing to win backing from a group of investors. Yeah, it’s dramatized, but in many ways it is very much like the donor development environment. There has to be value in it for both sides.

For instance, both donors and investors (including social impact investors)  look hard at your team. For nonprofits, that’s your board, your CEO, your CFO, and your program administrators. Let’s face it, there are tens of thousands of nonprofits all targeting exactly the same problems. Donors are going to pick the organization with the best chance to have an impact and the quality of the team is what determines that, not how much money you have.

Telling or showing  donors  that you are the only working and involved member of the team is the kiss of death for your grant application or donor recruitment.

Donors want to know that you have a solid path to success. They want to be a part of that success, but they don’t want to own your nonprofit. On your side, you need to be able to use donations to build your organization’s impact, not just keep the lights on.

Thinking like an entrepreneur isn’t counter-intuitive to achieving mission success. The skills needed to succeed can be learned and developed. Marketing, publicity, planning, results reporting, program design and financial controls translate very well from the for-profit to the nonprofit world.

Want your new nonprofit to succeed?  Start thinking like an entrepreneur.

Need more information on planning to succeed? Drop me a line at  Let’s talk! 

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