Seeing Beyond the Fog in Nonprofit Startup Environments

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When an executive is called upon to address an existing or evolving need in society at a brand-new nonprofit, there are many challenges that he or she faces in promoting the organization’s mission, especially if there are limited resources, systems and staff. This is also a rare opportunity for a visionary leader to mold an organization and its future.

Executives who are tasked with leading a new organization often walk into a situation where an organization is nothing more than an IRS ruling letter, a bank account, and a mission statement. Some leaders have benefited from being in a startup environment in nonprofit. They have made a case for themselves by establishing their ability to see through organizational fog and ambiguity and create form and structure. They also recognize that the early stages of an organization’s development are sink-or-swim moments that demand a healthy appetite for calculated risks and a resounding understanding of the power of relationships. None of these things can be achieved without strong leadership.

Since a new organization typically lacks systems, programs and a track record of success, which are necessary to establish credibility, a vision is oftentimes the only thing that the leader has to solicit support. Through shared values and vision, the CEO is able to paint a vivid picture of the organization’s future so that others can recognize its potential and also participate in building the foundation for its success.

Driving outcomes through relationship-building and collaborations

Inaugural CEOs can make the process of leading a brand-new nonprofit smoother by identifying opportunities to team up with compatible brands, corporations, government, agencies, institutions, or groups doing similar work to further the organization’s cause and visibility in the sector. While it may seem admirable to build an organization from the ground up without any help, the relationships that a proven leader cultivates along the way will be a contributing factor in an organization’s longevity and overall success since one of the most important accountabilities of inaugural CEOs is growing their organization’s networks. As Russell M. Linden explains in Working Across Boundaries: Making Collaborations Work in Government and Nonprofit Organizations: “When you’re accountable for real results, and the issue is complex, the best way to achieve them is often through collaborations with other professionals.”

An effective leader who is skilled at building relationships will not only reflect on how the organization’s goals align with those of a potential collaborator. He or she will identify the things that make the new organization unique. Second, the leader will recognize the importance of having a creative approach in working with the philanthropists who are funding this initiative. The reason that those philanthropists have chosen to start a new organization is because their vision is probably not being addressed by other organizations. Therefore, approaching the work with traditional methods is not likely to produce the kind of outcome that sets the organization apart. It’s pivotal to have leadership that can think imaginatively about how the relationships that they’re building can help the organization to stand out in the larger community. This requires a leader who embraces a “big tent” philosophy or opportunities that bring diverse ideas and groups of people to the organization’s work.

Providing a collaborative environment that invites others to contribute to an organization’s mission may help it gain leverage. Leverage comes from having resources. Resources may include capital, collaborators, volunteers and systems. Startup foundations often have just a few of these resources, but not enough to create wide impact. Successful nonprofit startups benefit from combining their resources with the resources of other organizations that have shared values and an aligned mission.

Balancing shared values, resources, risks and downsides

While it’s implicit that these strategic collaborations comprise shared values and resources, shared risks and downsides are also major components that inaugural leaders must know how to navigate and manage if a collaboration doesn’t work out.

Still, the ability to create a network of like-minded individuals and organizations is paramount. No nonprofit startup, regardless of how well funded, can succeed alone. Inaugural leaders who are the most successful in these roles are not just effective at driving results in complex or ambiguous environments. They are able to create movements that begin to have a life on its own through the energy, commitment, and belief in their organization’s mission from a myriad of partners who they have built valuable connections with from the onset of their nonprofit’s journey.

About David Cheng

David Hinsley Cheng is the Managing Partner of DRG and a central player in realizing the firm's vision to provide expert and ongoing counsel to organizations navigating a C-suite transition. He has more than 20 years of experience across all areas of the nonprofit sector, including human services, associations, advocacy organizations, voluntary health organizations and hospital foundations.

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