16 Things to Expect in Your Nonprofit’s First Year

The first year of your new nonprofit will likely be a blur of excitement, learning new things, and meeting new people.

And, of course, fulfilling your mission.

It’s amazing how much of nonprofit life is about tasks other than the important work your nonprofit set out to do. You know – the work that makes people’s lives better?

You can find yourself really busy doing all the things. Fundraising. Social media. Donor appreciation. There is so much to stay on top of. But then you have moments of pure joy when a program comes together, your reality aligns with your vision, and you feel like you wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now.

For many nonprofit leaders, the first year can feel like one intense emotion after another crashing into one another. All while you try to keep cool and maintain an image of a calm, confident leader who knows everything is going to be okay.

To help you navigate and find your way, here are 16 things you can expect in your nonprofit’s first year:

1. You will feel overwhelmed. It is normal to feel overwhelmed in the nonprofit sector, especially in your organization’s first year. There is so much to do all the time! You will need time management and organization tools and strategies. You will learn to accept that you cannot do it all. But, still, you might feel overwhelmed to varying degrees at various times.

2. You will feel exhilarated. When your efforts pay off and your organization is able to change a life, meet a need, be there for someone going through a difficult time, remove a barrier, or throw someone a lifeline, you will feel more amazing than you ever thought possible. This is why you started this journey in the first place!

3. You will have a successful event or program that exceeds your expectations and makes you think that, YES, I can do this. Maybe it’s your first day of providing food to people in need. Maybe it’s your first community event. Maybe it’s your first fundraiser. When all your planning pays off, you will feel validated that you are on the right path.

4. You will have an event or program that does not go according to plan and makes you think that maybe you were crazy to think you could do this. Yes, there WILL be things you try that don’t quite work out. This is part of nonprofit life, trying new strategies and seeing what works and what does not. You will learn to learn from your mistakes and keep moving forward.

5. You will have a tiny moment of clarity that reminds you why you chose this path and affirms that you are on the right path. The tiny moments can pack a punch even more than the really big moments. The one-on-one connection with a person your organization is serving. The text you receive from a person who benefitted from your organization. The tiny problem you solved that allowed everything to fall into place. These moments keep you going and fill your heart.

6. You will wonder how on earth you are going to raise the money you need to meet so many needs. This could be a weekly, daily, or hourly occurrence. That feeling of … how. But as you get the training you need, put a fundraising plan in place, and experience small successes, you will realize that you can raise the money you need for your organization to thrive.

7. You will feel like you could accomplish so much more if you did not have to worry about money. If only you could focus 100% of your time and energy on the work your nonprofit does in the community. Wouldn’t that be great? It can be frustrating to feel like you have to spend so much energy on fundraising. But when you find the right strategies, fundraising will get easier, and you will have more time and energy to devote to programs.

8. You will feel the need to broaden your mission to meet all the needs you see in front of you. This is mission creep, and during the first year of your nonprofit, it will be tempting to take on more responsibility so you can help more people, meet more needs, save more animals. But as you grow into your role, you will realize how important it is to remain focused and grow slowly in tandem with your capacity.

9. You will be filled with love and gratitude for your board and volunteers. It is an amazing feeling when your board members dig in and do the work and move the organization forward. It is beautiful when volunteers go the extra mile to meet the needs your organization exists to serve. There are moments when everyone works together for the greater good, and you will experience and savor these moments.

10. You will feel like you’re all alone. But as surely as you will experience moments of unity, you will at times feel like you can’t count on your board, your volunteers, or your friends and family. Your volunteers have other priorities and their interest in being part of your organization’s work can ebb and flow. As time goes on, you will learn how much you can count on from each board member, volunteer, friend, and family member.

11. You will feel the urgent need for a social media coordinator. Managing multiple social media platforms can be a significant time suck. Social channels are important for your nonprofit’s growth, but you can only put so much time into the task. Invest in a social media scheduling tool, and put together a team from your board and volunteers to share the task of creating and posting social media content. Social media management is also a great task for an intern.

12. You will scream into the void for lack of a director of development or professional fundraiser. An organization has to grow to be able to afford to pay someone to shoulder the responsibility of fundraising. Yet how can an organization grow without that person? The reality is, your startup nonprofit has a fundraiser … YOU! With time and the right strategy, you can find your fundraising groove and fully fund your programs. Seriously, you can.

13. You will not know which cloud-based donor platform to choose. It’s one of the most frequently asked questions among nonprofit leaders. Which donor management system should we use? The market is crowded with options, all with different features and pricing plans. You want to choose something you can stick with for a long time. Don’t agonize over these types of decisions. It’s like buying a car. Get something that meets your needs, is in your price range, and you can see yourself using. Pick a platform and embrace your choice!

14. You will rage in frustration over your email marketing program. Sending regular emails to your supporters is an essential strategy for building a loyal base of donors and volunteers. Many of your social media posts will go unseen by a huge chunk of your supporters, but creating nonprofit emails can challenge your patience in so many ways. As you get into a routine and learn the ins and outs of your platform, you will dread it less. Still, a volunteer who enjoys creating nonprofit emails is a gift.

15. You will feel like you have so much to learn and not know where to start. Online courses and webinars can teach you a lot. A mentor can also be extremely helpful during your organization’s first year. You can also learn by networking with other founders of nonprofit organizations and participating in Facebook groups. In time, you will not be the student, you will be the teacher.

16. You will look back on your first year and realize that, WOW, you learned and accomplished a lot!


About the Author:

Sandy Rees is the author of this guide to a nonprofit's first year.Sandy shows founders and leaders of small nonprofits how to fully fund their dream so they can make the difference they want to make in the world. She has helped dozens of small nonprofits go from “nickel-and-dime fundraising” to adding 6 figures to their bottom line. As a trainer, she shows her students how to find ideal donors, connect through authentic messaging, and build relationships that stand the test of time, so that fundraising becomes easy and predictable. Find out more at www.GetFullyFunded.com.