Starting a nonprofit is far from sexy. Many folks start out with a dream that often has them playing the role of a metaphorical knight in shining armor slaying the dragons of oppression, but the reality is often far from exciting. Though painful at times, unsexy issues such as defining your mission, setting goals, exploring funding, registering with the secretary of state, getting a federal tax ID, writing bylaws and related tasks are essential if you want to make a go of it.
You can click on this link to read an expanded version of the chapter I wrote for “Counseling With Confidence,” which explores those issues (and others) in greater depth. However, for this column, I want to focus on the more human element of the plan for your nonprofit.
What is your passion? What is it that got you into the counseling profession in the first place? What makes you want to get up in the morning, and what are you often thinking about when you go to bed at night? Starting a nonprofit is tough. It requires countless hours and many sacrifices, so if you hope to be successful, you need to have something that you are passionate about. Otherwise, you may find yourself running out of steam even before you find yourself opening your doors. Don’t be afraid to be creative and to color outside the lines.
Who do you know that can help? Try as you might, you can’t do everything alone. I tend to work 70-90 hours per week and am very inventive, yet I reach out to others as often as I possibly can. Many times, the doors will remain closed to you, but you only need a handful to open to make a real and lasting change.
Do you know anyone who shares at least part of your passion? Do you know folks who may not get the whole “nonprofit thing” but who have a passion that somehow overlaps with yours? In my experience, I enlisted folks who did not necessarily care about mental health but who were passionate about creating new spaces, gardening or woodworking. By matching their passions to our needs, it has worked well for all.
To get and keep these folks involved, you’ll need to do what you can to make sure they are getting their needs met as well. Let them engage in their passion while you engage in yours. A balanced relationship is typically a healthy one, and nonprofits depend greatly on volunteers to meet their goals. To keep these volunteers, do what you can to make them feel appreciated, valued and stimulated. Match passions with tasks instead of trying to force volunteers into positions that they do not care about.
Where do you want to do it? Are you an office dweller? A country stroller? Someplace in between? Are you looking for a homey place, a sterile place, a place that matches a specific theme or one that will grow with you? When writing your plan, you need to do more than consider your target audience; you also need to consider the proper type of space to conduct the activities of your nonprofit. Be creative! An old warehouse might offer a clean canvas that can be painted and changed with minimal cost. It can be trendy, yet timeless, and often much cheaper than formal office parks. Likewise, an old home can be remodeled and serve you well. Just be sure to check your local zoning laws.
As a way to save costs, we remodeled what essentially was a two-family home (we built a second floor on an existing home) into an office. The first floor has a dedicated office with a waiting area, several offices, a bathroom, storage etc. The second floor has a dedicated home for my family and me. This arrangement allowed for one mortgage payment instead of two. This price savings helped us to do well in the lean years and eventually grow into a much larger program.
Don’t be afraid to start small. Funding is often hard to find. A realist recognizes this and is not afraid to open in a humble office instead of a massive castle. Do what you do well, and you have the potential to grow steadily. It took us seven years after opening to buy our farm. In those years, we remodeled the original office and expanded it as much as we could. Now we have two very workable offices that serve a great number of folks, although each office (Community Counseling of Central Connecticut and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm) has its own flavor and feel.
Is there a genuine need? Passion is great, but is it realistic? Do folks in your area really need you? If not, are you willing to relocate? Is your area saturated with similar programming already? Is there a sufficient population within driving distance that will utilize your services? Our farm is in a town of about 17,000 people, but neighboring towns offer the potential of a few hundred thousand folks collectively.
If the need for your nonprofit does not appear to exist as originally developed, tweak as needed and do so without fear. This is a natural development. It is also a good thing to consider as the program continues to develop over its life span. Great ideas sometimes have expiration dates, so adjust your course as needed. Although you will rarely abandon your original focus, you will often find that some roads are closed, some roads lead you to other destinations and still other roads will be built as your clientele changes.
Our program added animal-assisted programming as a direct result of client requests. We also changed our website name from www.cccofcentralct.org to www.docwarren.org after clients complained that our website was too complicated. They said, “You’re Doc Warren. Why can’t I type that and get your site?” Until that time, I didn’t even realize that that was what people tended to call me. Clients often have the best insights into what you can do as a program to improve services. Listen to them and do what you can to implement the best ideas.
What potential funding sources are available? Search for grants, search for potential donors, search for programming and search for folks with whom to potentially partner. Even a few dollars can help you meet your goals. Just be sure to check the fine print. You don’t want to accidently trade your ability to be creative and free for any amount of money, let alone a few thousand bucks.
Is anyone else doing what you want to do? If so, how will you be different? Why should folks use you? Differentiating yourself, even when doing what might be very similar to what others are doing, can mean the difference between success and failure. What sets you apart? In what ways are you not a cookie-cutter program?
If you have a tiny budget, it isn’t wise to go head to head with a large program. Instead, use those programs as a guide for how to change the game. See what they may be missing, and then focus your nonprofit on providing that.
For us, it was using names not numbers; it was being homey instead of sterile; it was being a “real” person instead of a “corporate” one. Our biggest competition, which has often been referred to as the Walmart of mental health, helped us define who we are. We are the noncorporate alternative for mental health. While our competition spends more money, month after month, to advertise all its programming, we’ve never spent anything to speak of on advertising — unless you count pens and cards — yet we continue to build. Folks love our alternative programming and love to tell others. This has been very good for us and great for those we serve.
What are the weaknesses of your plan, and how can they be improved upon? As touched on above, it is important to do what you can to turn a weakness into a strength. When reviewing our plans, we saw that we could never compete head to head with the Walmart of counseling, so we decided not to. But instead of looking at our size as a weakness, we viewed it as an opportunity to be dynamic and homey. Instead of bemoaning our lack of money for equipment and supplies, we honed in on building a program that could truly focus on the individual without the need for gimmicks or distractions. Instead of seeing our lack of employees as a bad thing, we designed a program that would be client centered and allow clinicians to make their own calls and do their own scheduling, prescreenings, intakes and assessments. This personalized service resonated with our clientele, many of whom had been used to seeing two to three people before finally reaching their clinician, only to have to teach that clinician what they had already explained to several other folks at the big box programs. We have retained this style even after hiring dedicated people (one exception is having interns return some initial calls so they can gain experience).
When developing a plan for your nonprofit, it is important to take care of the nuts and bolts (which can be found at the link above). It is equally important to remember to be creative, passionate and pragmatic. Everyone can have a dynamic program if they remember that there is more to service than making money — just as you cannot serve freely without the ability to meet your financial obligations. Be creative. Be passionate. Be smart.
“Doc Warren” Corson III is a counselor, educator, writer and the founder, developer, and clinical and executive director of Community Counseling of Central Connecticut Inc. (docwarren.org) and Pillwillop Therapeutic Farm (pillwillop.org). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, particularly to let him know which topics you’d like him to cover in future columns.
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