3 Common Mistakes Nonprofit Startups Make

Updated: Mar 12

The attendees who come to the Stable Moments certification trainings are a mixed bag. Some run very successful for profit and/or nonprofit businesses, others are staff at a smaller facility and some have a desire to start a nonprofit and launch a Stable Moments program.


I find quite a few people need help in the area of nonprofit development, so I will share my top three common mistakes that nonprofit startups make, in an effort to spare you the headache. Trust me, I made all these mistakes - don't learn these the hard way.



1. Choosing Friends and Family as your Board of Directors

Makes sense right? You have an idea that you actually want to develop into a nonprofit organization. You start researching what you need to file for 501 (c) 3 status and part of your articles of incorporation states you need at least, a Chair, Treasurer, and Secretary for a board of directors. It's pretty natural to choose your spouse as chair, and your two closest friends as treasurer and secretary. That was easy, done and done! Now we can file.


But hold on a second. Most nonprofits fail within their first few years. You will need a lot of support to turn this charitable idea into a sustainable and thriving service to those you are called to serve. The best people you can have on your board understand nonprofits and nonprofit development. In your organization's infancy you need a working board, that are familiar with writing bylaws, fundraising, grant writing, creating sustainable revenue. You want a board smarter than you when it comes to business, law, accounting, and startups.


When you choose friends and family, the work is usually on you. After all they are there to support you, but may not have an appropriate background to fit the positon. Board meetings turn into organization updates from the Executive Director, reporting all s/he has done this past month. No, you want your board to ask you questions, give you guidance, present opportunities, develop stategic plans.


Since it is your idea, they will rely on you to hold the overall mission framework, but I can't stress enough, to be very selective of people for their acumen, experience and dedication to your cause. Choose people who have served on boards before so they are familiar with these types of proceeding. This can literally catapult your success.


2. Making services free

I feel like many nonprofits start out this way and quickly learn it simply isn't feasible. Simply by using language like "free" or "no cost" devalues the incredible services you are giving, and if your services involve horses, "no cost" couldn't be farther from the truth.


I started my program with free services. Guess what, people often wouldn't show and it built resentment in me. I had given up everything to serve their kids and they could take it or leave it? On top of that, I had a mentor just hanging out now, with no kid to serve. It was a nightmare. Soon I began charging. I was getting program fees paid through Department of Children and Families for some children, but even those parents knew the cost of the program and how much money the Department was coughing up. This added tremendous value, and even though those parents may not have paid out of pocket, knowing there was some money exchange encouraged them to prioritize their child's time at the barn.


For self-pay parents I had a sliding scale, but they ALWAYs knew the full cost of the program, even if they were paying a nominal fee, and nobody paid nothing. Even if parents qualified for the nominal fee of $10 per month they still were expected to pay. We all need skin in the game, especially when we are relying on a horse and mentor to be free for a full hour.


I am also a firm believer in monthly memberships. I don't charge per session. You pay whether or not you show up. Because this is a 10 month program, I cannot just put another session in a missed timeslot. It's just like the gym, you pay for your membership, it's up to you to show up.


3. Lacking Confidence

You want people to take you, and your organization seriously right? Then act like it is a long standing organization that you just got hired to be the Executive Director at. Separate it from being your little dream, and start treating it like a business, one that will have lots of staff, funding and respect.


Take yourself out of it. Rather than starting a pitch with, "I started a program," start it with, "Hi, I am the Executive Director of _________ and we are seeking _______." It is crazy the response you will get with some confidence. The more you can take yourself out of it being your little project and into the role of being a Chief employee the better, because that's what you are. That's right, there are no owners in nonprofits. The board can choose another ED at any time, and your desire should be to grow the organization enough for you to be able to step down at some point and have it continue on, as your legacy, serving more and more people in the future. No doubt this is your dream, but people don't care about that. They care about how they fit into your dream. How many people will they help you serve with their donation? How much better will the organization be with their volunteer hours?


Gain confidence. State your program fees as simple facts. You believe this is a valuable program, so why would it not be worth fees? Pitch fundable programs and sponsorship opportunities like everyone should want to be a part of what you've got going on.


I hope this helps. As I said, I made all these mistakes. This is your dream, but unless you surround yourself with the right people, understand it is a business and promote it with confidence, it is likely to remain just a dream.


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