10 Things I Wish I’d Known about Running a Non Profit

March 03, 2016

running a non profit

In my coaching sessions with missionaries and global aid workers, one of the things I find increasingly common is that most of these brave souls are also non-profit or NGO founders, like I was, trying to manage an impossible list of tasks in a developing country. They are carrying the additional burden of running an organization, responding to a Board, raising finances, hiring and training staff, and dealing with emergencies and government corruption.

If you’ve ever run a non-profit you understand the stress that can accompany carrying an organization on your own two shoulders.

There are the vision and strategy meetings, the late night emergency phone calls from the children’s home, the staff accountability issues, running Board meetings, and the constant drive to raise more funds so you can stay afloat.

It’s no wonder why so many cross cultural workers are burning out at an alarming rate.

Here are 10 things I wish I’d known about running a non profit which I’ve learned over the last decade:

1. Don’t starve your non profit

One of the hardest things for a compassionate leader to do is to invest in overhead. You feel the tension of a donor’s unreasonable expectations that every cent “go to the children,” and the fact that you need systems in place to run efficiently. You also really want every cent to go to the children, which is why so many leaders starve their non profits to death. The reality is, you will need to spend money on salaries, accounting systems, and fundraising efforts, you will need to invest if you want to grow.

The average non profit overhead appears to be within 25-30% and anything less than that is either under-reporting or leading to the slow demise of the agency.

To read more check out this article by Stanford and this one. Another issue is so many non profit directors don’t take salaries, which forces them to take on other work to survive, which leads to burnout and the crumbling of the organization over time. Don’t feel bad. You work hard. Raise enough money to take a salary and convince your Board why it’s important.

2. Do the job you love

One of the issues that led to my own compassion fatigue, was that gradually I let the overarching demands of the ministry take the place of doing the day to day work that I loved. I was relational, I loved being with the women and children and discipling them. I loved running counseling workshops. That was life giving to me. Being stuck behind the desk with spreadsheets, was killing the very calling I’d come to fulfill. Towards the end, I had to just decide that I was going to prioritize every day doing a part of the job I was passionate about. The other stuff would have to wait.

Without passion, you will suffer and the organization will suffer too.

So train someone else up to do the spreadsheets so you can do the thing you came to do.

3. Hire a second version of yourself

So many of my friends overseas, including myself, are constantly battling what I like to call the “Non-Profit Founder’s dilemma,” which is the strong desire to clone yourself because you constantly need to be in two places at once: on the field developing a strong staff and monitoring quality control, and back in the States spreading the vision and raising funds so you can keep changing lives. It’s hard to balance being on the ground and vision casting. My personal belief is that in the beginning you need to spend as much time on the ground as possible living there day in and day out and developing trustworthy, healthy national staff who you mentor to eventually replace you. Over the years, as they take more leadership you may be able to travel more for speaking engagements at churches, etc. But ideally, you would hire another person like you to fill the void in either the States or overseas. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a Westerner, and it shouldn’t be a volunteer. You need a compassionate, committed team member who gets the vision and can spread it.

Through experience, I learned to rely more on my local national staff than on Western volunteers for dedication and longevity.

If you want the organization to reflect your empathetic values, and be built with quality, I believe as the Founder you need to spend the majority of your time on the ground connecting with the local people. Get Board members or Ambassadors to raise funds and cast vision in the States.

4. Focus your energies

One of the biggest mistakes I see non profits make all the time is losing the focus of the original vision and over extending into areas that “meet needs” rather than fulfill their call and their area of expertise. There is a reason that we are called “The Body of Christ,” and what that means is we are all called to a particular function. Rather than try to do it all yourself, partner with other organizations who are more skilled at a particular area you aren’t. Ask for help.

Realize if you want to holistically meet the needs of your beneficiaries you can’t do it all yourself; you have to partner.

Otherwise you become an unwieldy wheel that isn’t particularly good at any one thing. It’s better to specialize in one area than try to be good at everything.

I see too much competition among NGO’s when really we should be extending help to one another from best practices and lessons learned so we can reach more people.

If you rehabilitate girls from sex trafficking you might want to partner with a local business to hire them, or a different income generation project to teach them a trade skill. Unless you have someone who knows how to run a business on your team, don’t expand into areas you know nothing about. Maybe you provide counseling and Bible studies for their people and in turn trade for training in agriculture. I see too many non profits spinning off new projects that they have no prior knowledge about and no one to run. Eventually all the pressure will fall back on the Founder as the organization slowly bleeds out. Stay on vision.

5. Build a trusted national staff

I know this can sometimes seem like a waste of your time, but it isn’t I assure you. This will free you up to be able to delegate and handle less responsibility. I know you’re been stolen from and burned before by someone who was desperate and living more for what they needed today. But there are good people out there.

I’ve found that most loyalty is built out of love. 

Spend your time caring for, encouraging, and offering resources and professional development for your staff. Love them day in and day out. Go to their homes when they are sick, and meet their children. Become a family. Don’t be harsh with cultural differences, but understanding and patient. Let them into your life and you enter theirs. Have good employment policies, competitive pay, and vacation times. Be honest with them. Remember they are people with needs and worries and they need to learn self care as well. Train them in financial accountability. Have systems in place. Don’t just hand someone more money than they’ve ever seen in their life and expect them not to steal it. If you don’t know how to do that check with your local NGO board or another organization you respect. Meet with a local accountant and have him come up with one for you. Put the checks and balances in place so there isn’t an opportunity for someone to steal. You can’t afford not to. For more on building an accountability system.

6. Have boundaries

I’ve written a ton around burnout, compassion fatigue, and self care, but I cannot stress the importance of boundaries enough, otherwise you’ll just become another broken workaholic whose family is falling apart.  Learn to delegate and ask for help from others. Get counseling for your perfectionism. It might mean setting a time at the end of every workday where you’ll stop opening your computer. That means communicating with your board and your staff that you’re committed to self care and list the areas where you need to take a step back. That means having times when you are not “on call.” That might mean 3 day weekends or once a month vacations to a local resting spot. That means saying no, and realizing your worth is not dependent on what you do. You are valuable because you are a child of God. I am reminded of what Jesus said,” You will always have the poor with you.” And even Jesus went off to the mountains because He needed rest. So, that means you go for a run even though you haven’t finished that to do list.

Here’s a hint: The to do list is never done when you are a Founder.

All you can do is the best you can, and surrender the rest to God because it will never be over. At the end of every day, breathe, and let go. No matter how much you love your work, if you don’t learn to stop, people around you will suffer.

7. Build recurring revenue

So my husband is a techy business guy and I have him to thank for this little tidbit. I wasted so many years on one time donations! Learn to build a recurring revenue stream through one to one child sponsorships, or through artisan work. Through Imani, our jewelry business, we did a monthly club where sponsors got a new piece of jewelry in the mail every month. People are more likely to pay for something that does good for someone else. Push your supporters to join a monthly giving option so you have money you know you can rely on. Ask your churches to give monthly. Don’t just rely on those one time donations. We need to be using social media, but how about writing your top donors a handwritten note or making a phone call to extend your gratitude and ask how they are. If you remember your donors they will feel more invested in what you are doing and be more likely to give on a monthly basis.

8. Be a team player

None of us was made to do this work alone, and yet so many non profit founder’s tend to be strong, determined, independent individuals who have learned how to get things done by themselves. We like being needed and we like being the only one who can do it. We have to let go of this individualistic identity if we want our non profit to prosper.

Taking time to build relationships with people and getting to know them before we place them on our Board or ask them to volunteer is really essential.

Caring for them as a person and having consistent gratitude is so important to them not feeling used. Get to know other leaders of your local organizations. Share ideas and resources. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel. Someone has probably done what you want to do before you. Find them and tell them you don’t know what you’re doing. Humility is a key that can open many doors. 

9. Understand important vs. urgent

In Stephen Covey’s time management matrix based on Dwight Eisenhower in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he talks about ensuring that we don’t let the daily interruptions or the “urgent fires” take over putting our time where it should be going: into strategic planning and budgeting and training staff that is most important but often gets swept under the rug of the immediate. We spend most of our day in the “urgent but not important” category which means we get less done in our time management and end up feeling like we didn’t accomplish what we wanted to. If we can learn to not let interruptions sidetrack us, then we’ll be more efficient and feel more productive at the end of the day.

10. Don’t lose your sense of humor

One of the first things to go during stressful times is our sense of humor. We forget to laugh, we forget to play, we forget to make jokes. We become too serious and begin to get snappy with our significant others and staff. Decide that laughter is good medicine for your bones. Build some fun staff days into your team culture. Do a ropes course together or a zip line. Watch funny TV shows online. Go play with some kids. Try and remember to smile at every one you see. Don’t forget that “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Tap into His joy by spending time with Him, and experiencing His love yourself, and give that joy away to others. It will massively improve your day and your team culture.

What lessons have you learned running a non profit?

**I’m now providing Skype coaching and pastoral counseling for non profit founders/directors, missionaries and other global aid workers to help you process and effectively meet the demands on your shoulders. I understand, I’ve been there. Contact saritahartz@gmail.com today to schedule a free 30 minute consult.

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  • Deborah

    Sarita, Thanks for another “right on point” article. I partticularly resonated with “build a trusted national staff” and “focus your energies.” You are so right on with your observation about NGOs competing with each other rather than partnering so that each can focus on what they do best. This also drains resources that could be compounding impact.

    As for a trusted national staff – I think that if we don’t do that our NGO is bound to fail because when the founder walks away (or wears out or dies), the org. can not carry on for very long. When I go into an NGO I always go in with the question – what is my exit strategy? This means that I am looking to build a great local staff so that I can move onto more strategic roles and/or other projects.

    All of your other 8 points will be very helpful to people starting NGOs or those in the trees who need help stepping back to look at the forest. Blessings

    • Thanks Deborah I completely agree we should always being thinking about the “exit strategy,” and empowering a strong national staff. Thanks for sharing your insights!