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.

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Want to get started right? Check out the #1 Tip to Start a Successful Nonprofit and 3 Ways to Test Your Nonprofit Idea. Then watch Who Owns a Nonprofit , What if people say my nonprofit idea sucks, and Start a Nonprofit to Make Yourself Money. These could be some real eye openers.

Then think about starting your educational path by watching the Nonprofit Start Up Essentials video set 1, “Know your Why.” It’s an important question to ask because starting a successful nonprofit isn’t easy. There’re a lot of details, and if you can’t articulate to yourself and others exactly why you want to start a nonprofit, and why its important, you may not get through the process.

See The ABC’s of FORMING YOUR 501(C)(3)

For example, did you know that in the United States you can’t just apply to the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) to become a 501c3? You need to be incorporated by your state or territory, first.

That’s if its even right for you to become a 501c3. You’ll probably pick a 501c3 in the end (more than 70% of US nonprofits are) but you have 27 different nonprofit type choices, such as a 501c6 business association, or a 501c4 advocacy group. Which is right for you?

Avoid problems by watching this video: Biggest Mistake When Applying for 501c3.

Here’s a way to take it all in, one day at a time. Maybe you start your nonprofit startup training with the free 10-Day Nonprofit Startup Bootcamp

Or maybe you want to take a social enterprise approach? Establishing a nonprofit may not be right. Are you better off being a business and designating your enterprise as a public beneficiary corporation, or a B-Corp.? Check out Top tips for non-profits to generate innovative and feasible social enterprise ideas.

It could be that establishing an independent nonprofit isn’t right for you, at all. Have you heard of fiscal sponsorship? It’s like renting someone else’s nonprofit designation and running your program under their umbrella. See Things You Should Know About Fiscal Sponsorship, including Where To Find One.

Your Board

Of course, starting right can make all the difference in the success of any enterprise. And your board is at the heart of your start.

To get off on the right foot, see the # 1 Mistake Startup Nonprofit Boards Make

Then se the answer to this important question: How many board members for your startup nonprofit?

Then, who will be on your board? Friends and family? Easy to sign up, but not your best choice. Why? They’re doing this for you, not necessarily the cause. They’ll often put your friendship ahead of asking the hard questions. Plus, depending on your circle of friends and family, they may not be qualified to ask any questions at all.

Nonprofit Startup Training in Fundraising

Even if you’re an all-volunteer group, you’ll need money for all sorts of program expenses. What are your options? Fundraising can be a big part, but there are lots of other options. See ten right here.

Startup Funding for Nonprofits

But if you go with traditional fundraising, there’s an important fact that not a lot of people outside fundraising circles know. Businesses and foundations account for less than 30% of all giving to nonprofits. Who gives the rest? Individual people, in gifts big and small. And if you count their closely held businesses, and their bequests, the number from individuals rises even higher. So you need to think seriously about asking individuals, whether in person, by mail or mail, though social media, by holding events or any number of other ways. You’ll find resources for just about every kind of fundraising, here.

Were you thinking of grants? Before you spend a lot of time on looking for foundations, get a behind the scenes look in this series. It’s important to know that foundations and businesses don’t just give money to anyone. To start, your mission needs to match the purpose of the foundation. As a start up, you won’t have a track record of success to point to. How about the experience of the people coming together? It’s also important to know that as a concept, “grantwriting” is a bit of a misnomer. Personal interaction with funders plays a big part in the process.

But if you still decide that grants are the way to go, this is essential information: How Not to Pay a Grant Writer.

Build Trust with Accurate Accounting

You know what builds great trust in a nonprofit? Well, consider that you can have the greatest, most innovative programs, but if your accounting is poor, donors won’t give. An investment in QuickBooks training could save your reputation.

Marketing and Communications

Like a business, a nonprofit can’t exist without customers. Whether you call them clients, patients, students or have your own special word – you need to serve someone. But have you asked yourself, “how will they know we’re here to help?”

This is why marketing and communications is key. How do you plan to connect with your mission recipients, their families and the community at large? You can probably name the delivery tools, like social media, personal networking, advertising and more. But have you decided on what you’re going to say? What’s the message? Is it consistent with how the people you want to reach hear things in their community?

Check out all of the ways you can communicate here.

Let’s get started!

As you can see, getting a nonprofit off the ground won’t be easy. You need a solid start to make it sustainable. While statistics may not be available on this, anecdotally it’s clear that the funnel to creating a nonprofit from a dream to still existing after five years of operation is extremely wide at the top, and dramatically narrow at the bottom.

Millions of people dream of helping others. A good number will say “I should start a nonprofit.” A lot drop out when they see how much work it entails, and even some money, just to get set up. Among those who jump through the hoops, a good number never get traction to offer any meaningful programming. If they do create programs, is the enthusiasm and dedication to the mission still there a year or two later? And just as important, can they find the funding they need to keep going?

This isn’t to discourage you at all. Until all of the world’s problems are solved, we’ll still need nonprofits to solve them – and yours could change a life at exactly the right time, in exactly the right place to make a global impact.

Know that everyone at Nonprofit.Courses want you to get beyond starting, so you can thrive in delivering your mission. Check out our videos, podcasts, documents and more. With each step, come back for more. Get New Course Alerts to see what’s new. And through it all, make it a great, nonprofit day!

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