How to Build the Future of your Nonprofit

Recently I was reading a book called Zero to One by Pete Thiel.

In it, Thiel writes about misconceptions of the tech bubble in the late nineties. He talks about how people wanted to bet on a sure thing, people didn’t want to plan, how they didn’t have to worry about competition, and that sales would just sort of spontaneously happen. When in fact the reverse is true.

He writes:

1. It is better to risk boldness than triviality.
2. A bad plan is better than no plan.
3. Competitive markets destroy profits.
4. Sales matters just as much as product.


What does this have to do with your nonprofit?

1. It is better to risk boldness than triviality in your nonprofit.

Are you afraid of trying new ways to get the word out about your cause?

Are you afraid donors will label you wasteful if you spend money on marketing?

Are you afraid to be fired if you ask for money for marketing your nonprofit?

Are you worried that people will turn away from your nonprofit if you take programs in a new direction?

Are you having to talk around the problem because people seem to be only willing to give to one specific thing?

Are you actively discouraged from innovating in your fundraising program?

Are you afraid to ask for a finalized budget for your fundraising program?

Have you ever wanted to send out four appeal letters per year, and an enewsletter per month, but gotten pushback from leadership that you should “not waste time and money”?

People have told me they like my brand because it is “different.” And other people have told me they don’t like how I show some cleavage because it offends them. People have told me my jokes offend them as well. And that when I highlighted nonprofits selling sex toys as an earned income stream, it made them uncomfortable and was unprofessional. I am definitely not everyone’s taste. And after some initial squirming, I revel in that.  So the point is not to wait for everyone to like you, because that is never going to happen.

How could you make your nonprofit more bold, more innovative?

2. A bad fundraising plan is better than no plan.

When it comes to planning, how much do you plan?

Do you plan at all?

Do you make a plan at the beginning of the year and then forget about it?

Do you have a basic plan that no one wants to read?

Do you follow a plan, but feel like no one else in the agency is following a plan?

Are you asked to fundraise for “unforseen” program expenses or for a new program that you weren’t consulted on?

Do you feel like there’s a planning culture at your nonprofit, or do you feel like they all fly by the seat of their pants?

When you make a plan with deadlines and who is doing what, you are saying, “This is going to happen.” I check out my plan all the time, to see if I am following it, and to see what I need to focus on for the week.  I’m not saying I do this all the time, or that I’m perfect, or that I haven’t abandoned plans halfway through the year, because seriously I have made the mistake of not planning too.

But even a bad, half-executed plan is better than no plan.

What’s even worth more than the planning is the evaluation after you’ve done everything in a particular campaign. What worked, what didn’t work? What will you try again?

3. Competitive markets destroy profits, aka too many nonprofits with similar missions

Are there a lot of other similar nonprofits in your town?

What do you do with them?

Do you try to partner?

Do you compete with them fiercely?

Do you work to differentiate yourself as much as you can?

Have you ever considered if it would be better if your nonprofit folded or if one of your competitors folded?

When I create partnerships with corporations, nonprofits, associations, and other consultants, I think about what I bring to the table, how I can help them, and how they can help me. I work to be as clear as possible about what we can do for each other. Ultimately I do not see that I have a lot of competition for what I do, because the national and international market is big enough to support all of us. And we all have different areas of strength. This makes me even more open to partnership, because I recognize what I am good at, and what I’m not good at, and I love having other people present for me.

4. Sales matters just as much as product, aka fundraising matters just as much as programs

In your nonprofit, do you feel like people focus on programs so much that they forget that without fundraising, programs would never happen?

Do you feel supported in your fundraising work?

Do you feel like when you go out there and sell the nonprofit’s mission and vision, you have a team back at the office working hard to supply you with stories, pictures, testimonials, and administrative support?

Or do you feel like you’re trying to push that boulder up a hill, every day, alone?

Do you feel like everyone in the office is on-message and ready to help you fundraise?

Or do you feel like there is pushback from staff and board who do not want to fundraise?

Do you ever feel like people don’t understand the importance of fundraising in your office?

Do you ever feel isolated, like people avoid you, because they want to push fundraising off onto someone else?

Do you ever feel like people in your office are mystified by fundraising, and treasure their ignorance on the subject?

Can you imagine how incredible it would be if people treated fundraising as important as programs in your staff meetings? If people said, “What can we do to help you?”

When I first started Wild Woman Fundraising I didn’t have any products. Then I did have products, but no one was buying. And I had to scratch my head and ask why. What was I doing wrong? Over time I realized that instead of focusing on just blogging and tweeting, I had to focus on building my list, gaining traffic, creating partnerships, and selling on a more consistent basis. And I needed help.

This whole process of business and selling our missions is a constant refinement and evaluation of what works and what doesn’t work. What’s worth spending our time on, and what we can let go.

This is how you can apply these four principles to your nonprofit office.

Do you disagree?

Anything that you think should be different on this list? Please leave a comment.

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