Front Line Lessons from a Startup Nonprofit
By Olu Ibrahim
Forging ties with potential donors and managing the pressures of a solo startup without revenue or funding was challenging and stressful, but a support team helped enormously.
I started Kids in Tech because its imperative to start preparing children in underserved midsize cities for technology jobs in elementary and middle school. And program offerings in midsize cities, like Kids in Techs Lowell home base, are sparse despite the rapid expansion of the innovation economy outside of the nations largest cities, a trend detailed in research by the Progressive Policy Institute and TechNet, a network of technology executives committed to promoting the innovation economy.
After spending time researching how to set up a nonprofit, I was briefly elated after incorporating my organization in Massachusetts. But I quickly realized I had a chicken and egg problem: I could delay programming for several months while securing the 501(c)(3) status that eased fundraising or I could launch Kids in Tech without revenue or funding.
I opted to jump right in and start running after-school tech clubs without an office, staff, or a paycheck. Im deeply gratified that I took this route and that my organization is now a year old. I hope the leadership lessons I learned about forging early ties with potential donors and managing the pressures of a solo startup can help other nonprofit founders.
Accessing Capital While Starting Up Is Key
Before the federal government approved my 501(c)(3) application, I ran a summer 2016 program and two 10-week clubs to teach kids ages 8 14 a range of computer science skills. While getting three cohorts of children through the curriculum my work was similar to that of many other nonprofit leaders: finding partner organizations to host the clubs, recruiting volunteer instructors, and raising the organizations profile through social media.
Fundraising, however, has been especially difficult because people want their gifts to be tax deductible and they feel more comfortable giving to an official charitable organization with the 501(c)(3) designation.
Even as a brand new organization, I felt driven to lay the groundwork for fundraising success. That translated into dozens of meetings or phone calls with nonprofit leaders, community members, and grant program officers, carving out time to attend a broad range of networking events and researching grants.
As the new kid on the block, it can take a bit of tenacity to get noticed. When I couldnt figure out who was the corporate philanthropy person at a large software company in the area, I went to the company and asked the person at the security desk. I obtained an email address in that case, and other site visits have yielded impromptu meetings.
I often wonder whether I should have waited for my federal tax-exempt status before starting programming. However, I keep returning to the realization that its valuable to prove that an idea works before seeking funding or scaling up. After a year in operation, I have data points that demonstrate success, and I can invite funders to see the program in action.
To keep myself afloat during these months, I relied on savings, a bit of help from family and friends, and a smattering of side consulting projects. Having some financial support during the startup phase is essential.
Going Solo at First, then Building a Team of Supporters
Despite Kids in Techs lack of revenue, I knew I couldnt do everything alone. I started with the basics: people in my network donated the computers the kids use.
Next, I sought guidance and expertise from people from various aspects of my life and asked for referrals, which helped me think about board development, creating an organizational culture, organizational governance, and policy-making.
I also relied on other resources available to any new nonprofit. Lawyers Clearinghouse linked me with the legal help I needed to obtain incorporation and my 501(c)(3) status. And thanks to Catchafire, which matches professionals with nonprofits for volunteer projects, Ive had help with a variety of major projects, including creating a marketing plan, establishing a social media presence, board recruitment, and strategy development.
I tapped into a lot of outside brainpower, but like any entrepreneur, I worked many hours.
At first, I immersed myself for 10 to 12 hours a day for a long time. Eventually, I realized that I needed rest and reflection, so now I try to recharge one or two days a week, often through activities like reading, running or hiking, and catching up with friends.
When you pour everything into your dream, its easy to have grand expectations about how fast your organization should grow. As an entrepreneur, its vital to recognize that expectations never end, but you can manage the ramp-up phase by nurturing yourself and building a strong team of supporters who donate their time, energy, and talents to ensure organizational success each and every day.
Olu Ibrahim is founder and CEO of Kids in Tech in Lowell, which runs after-school technology clubs where children aged 8 to 14 learn skills like from blogging to filmmaking to advanced coding. Email her at email@example.com.