startup nonprofits

I moved to Austin, Texas in 2013 to find an energetic nonprofit and business startup scene. Standing at the center of our nation’s “high tech” scene, Austin is a hub for those eager to change the world for the better with innovative new ideas and concepts. Happily, there is also a lot of professional encouragement in Austin to help make those ideas a reality.

With extensive major gift fundraising experience, I quickly learned that young nonprofits and startups — and those groups that may have been in existence a few years, but have languished in the shade – want to learn how to secure more and larger donations to further their missions. The quotation below provides insight into what I think it takes to launch a social good startup, and to move an existing one into the “big leagues.”

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), American President

Calvin Coolidge was a conservative, ethical President who “restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of his predecessor’s administration, and left office with considerable popularity.” As a Coolidge biographer wrote, “He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength.” I share this information because launching a successful nonprofit is not necessarily as glamorous as stories in the popular media portray today. Rather, it takes a lot of hard work and persistence.

Gene Takagi is an experienced lawyer whom I enjoy following on social media. He suggests in, “10 Keys to Starting a Nonprofit – Private Foundation”: “Draft a business plan (which should be a live document, changing as facts and circumstances change).” Your plan should include a “thoughtful SWOT analysis, marketing plan, and a 3-year budget (which you’ll need to submit to the IRS with your application for tax-exempt status).” In fact, as a veteran case statement writer, some of this information will appear in future grant proposals, on your website, on your GuideStar profile, in your e-newsletters and more.

If your local or regional community foundation allows it, young nonprofit organizations might consider partnering with and funneling charitable donations through the community foundation to your designated fund. This can add an additional level of credibility until you are ready to “hatch” and stand free as a grant recipient. I have seen this work quite well.

For those wanting a direct online method of e-donation, I suggest GuideStar (as noted above), and CrowdRise. CrowdRise used to be known mostly for crowdfunding campaigns, but today you can use the platform for one-time donations, too. I find the processing fees to be less than many others. The platform allows you to create an attractive profile and you can download “widgets” to place on your website, for instance. Customer service is quite good (something many of us working with short-staffed startups will appreciate).

Your website is your office. First impressions matter. I advise young nonprofits NOT to try to make an expensive website themselves (one that requires extensive web development skills). Your Facebook page is not your website. You can create a sophisticated WordPress website with a modern template for free, for instance. Additional, modest costs are required to claim/register a domain, to block ads, to create a tandem email account and more. Keep all that in-house and reduce the number of website-related platforms/functions you use. I find WordPress to be highly “searchable,” template variety is top notch, and many complicated functions are bundled together. But there are other website platforms you might also use, of course.

Communicate on social media. This is the heartbeat of your organization. At the very least, maintain a Facebook page. If you have time to add other platforms, do so. But add platforms that make sense for your nonprofit’s mission, and the audience you hope to attract to your cause. Some platforms are stronger on visuals, some on news and business. Take time to learn how each social media platform works and do the posting yourself. For instance, do not ask Facebook to “auto post” to Twitter, where you will then find, “I posted a photo on Facebook.” But I am on Twitter, your readers might say. Don’t be lazy. Social media is powerful. Route readers back to your website as often as you can. I personally recommend Facebook and Twitter to start.

For nonprofits with at least one IRS tax return (Form 990), I would suggest you get onto GuideStar (set up a personal login ID and password), claim your nonprofit (most are already present in the database), and flesh-out your profile with information to the greatest extent possible. If you can provide enough information to reach the gold seal level (or if possible, platinum), that is best. Aim high. Once you have obtained approval from GuideStar, you will be able to download the seal, and you can affix it to your website. You can also authorize a donate button on your GuideStar profile (recommended).

It does take time to complete your GuideStar profile, but it is well worth the effort. I am one of a few with case studies on the GuideStar website, and you might learn from those why GuideStar is so important today (see the margin of my professional website on WordPress). Some nonprofits fear they must have already raised a lot of money to bother with a GuideStar profile. But GuideStar is not about money, it is about transparency, professional business organization and conduct, knowing who sits on your Board, how you communicate, and the like.

When you are done with GuideStar, login and claim your profile on the partner nonprofit review platform GreatNonprofits. Profiles are attractive, easy to set up, and they add additional authority to your enterprise. Ask your friends and professional colleagues to provide testimonials about their experiences (they can do so anonymously). Then, share those reviews on social media and on your website.

Set up an e-communication system. I have worked with MailChimp, iContact and Constant Contact and I like them all. Most allow you to use their platforms for free, up to a certain number of email addresses. For instance, MailChimp currently allows up to 2,000 emails and 12,000 e-newsletter “blasts” for free use of its platform. These systems safely store email addresses (cloud based), they attach easily to your website, they include good looking templates, they track your open rates and perhaps even more importantly, they keep you in compliance with the CAN-SPAM Act. Sending an e-newsletter once a month makes sense. In fact, you do not have to reinvent the wheel. Information already posted on your website or social media can be fleshed out and shared in your e-newsletter communications (and vice versa). Add a few of your GreatNonprofit reviews to impress your readers.

Photo document everything you can, not just special events. Photograph meetings, clients, locations where you are working, your office space and more. Use these for social media, your website and in your e-communications. Take the occasional smartphone video. Save your photos and videos materials in the cloud for use in simple videos. Here’s a fun tip: Adobe Spark has created free easy-to-use apps that allow you to use your visual materials to create modern, professional videos and announcements (thanks to TechSoup for that information – and be sure to register your nonprofit on TechSoup and receive discounts galore on tech for good!).

After a good solid year of work, you might also draft an annual report. Share the good news and the bad. Let your readers understand the hard work you are doing, new discoveries, new ideas and directions. Be honest. If you have data (statistical information), include it. Brag about your volunteers. Share copies of the annual report with your elected officials, civic leaders, donors, prospective donors, partners and more. Consider uploading a pdf to ISSUU for a more modern presentation and ease of sharing on social.

As my discussion concludes, have you noticed how most all the above activities require: 1) work behind the scenes (i.e., on your laptop using your brain and smart thinking); and 2) most cost you little or nothing to implement.

While networking and talking-up your cause are important, they will not get you donations from major gift donors. Donors and professional advisors must have confidence in your organization at all levels before they will dig deep and give generously. The more they know about your organization’s activities and professionalism, the better off your new nonprofit will be. And then comes research for prospective donors. You might also enjoy reading my Bloomerang blog post, “The Ultimate Guide to Grant Research and Writing” for more helpful advice along those lines.

Last but not least, if you can acquire a constituent relationship management system like Bloomerang, then do it! Having said that, if you are just scraping by financially, please know I have run entire multimillion dollar capital campaigns using Microsoft Excel. One can track donations easily using Microsoft software. And, be sure to sign up with a local tech club to learn about new innovations that can help you do more with less. NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network sponsors several, as does NetSquared (TechSoup).

As part of Bloomerang’s Content Donation Program, $100 was donated to the Interstate Renewable Energy Council.

Carolyn Appleton
Carolyn Appleton is a nonprofit fundraising and marketing executive based in San Antonio, Texas. She is the recipient of a national “NTENy” award for outstanding volunteer service from NTEN: Nonprofit Technology Network.