Sunday, April 01, 2012

The Single Most Important Thing A Start Up Nonprofit Can Do Is Network. Here's Why:

How a nonprofit is started is just as important to its potential to succeed as how it operates once it's one year old, a ten year old organization, or a fifty year old one.

My husband and I are behind the times.  We are just now watching The Wire.  We find ourselves not able to locate much on TV anymore that entertains us, so we've turned to renting television shows that we've heard were/are good.  For those of you unfamiliar with The Wire, it is a police drama set in modern day Baltimore, Maryland.  A poorly funded police department struggles to police a city that everyone acknowledges administratively, politically, economically, and socially has lost its way.

In it, during season two (I believe), Deputy Police Commissioner Ervin H. Burrell (played by Frankie Faison) turns to a colleague, amid an administrative meeting, and mentions he has no money in the budget to afford a needed but just out of reach police program.  The colleague sitting next to him suggests he talk to the foundations in the city in order to locate new or untapped funds for it.  It's an excellent suggestion.

When launching a nonprofit, a founder and their team has more than tons to do.  We know this. (For more information on launching a brand new nonprofit, see Start Up Nonprofit?  Need Seed Money?  Starting Fundraising?  Here's help...Part 1 of 2 and its ...Part 2 of 2 and Seeking Grants for New Programs Or Start Up Nonprofits)

As I stated in the beginning, though, for its potential to succeed there are certain professional nonprofit best practices that when added to the founders' 'to do' list, as the organization begins getting up and running, the more likely the organization is to succeed, thrive, and grow.

Deputy Commissioner Burrell was given sound advice.  The flip side of the advice he received is this: when a nonprofit begins to operate (at its start), in order for that nonprofit to achieve the goal of its mission statement, it is doing three things - it is: doing something specific (its mission statement), serving and therefore the organization becomes a member of the community, and needing to succeed.

'Networking' is one of those jargon buzz-kill words.  Everyone knows it is important to do but most of us don't do it regularly.  Some of us are not natural social butterflies, others genuinely can't fit a ten minute meeting into an already stacked work day agenda (let alone find time to go out and get into the community), and still others aren't clear on what one does when the opportunity to network arises.

Without a doubt networking is the single most important thing any founding team of a brand new nonprofit can do as the organization prepares to begin operating.  It is something (along with the rest of the operations necessary to launch a nonprofit) that should be planned out, shared work among a founding team or committee, and should be regularly done after the organization launches and is up and running (again, for the first year, into its tenth year, and so on for the life of the organization).

If you and I are working on launching a brand new nonprofit (and if we have read the first two blog posts that I suggested, above, for start up organizations) we are launching a nonprofit that is providing a demonstrably needed but as yet not delivered service or item to a community needing it.  Too, we have done our homework, know the beneficiaries of our organization's work, their demographics, and how the need this new nonprofit will meet will successfully achieve its mandate.  We have excellent relevant, credentialed, experienced, and reputable professionals (perhaps a committee or perhaps board members) volunteering to create the programs through which the new organization will deliver its mission.  We have a fundraising committee complete with seasoned, reputable, successful fundraisers on board who are already beginning to raise funds (start up funds are often referred to as seed money).  We have another committee that is identifying the beneficiary population the agency will serve and working with the programs people to determine how to best reach and begin to serve them.  All of these teams are overseen by the Executive Committee (made usually of board members) and all work is coordinated and all volunteers are reporting back regular and updating the committee. 

If you and I are co-founders of this organization, we are most likely board members (at least at the outset) and as such, we are members of the new organization's leadership.  The board members that are also members of the executive committee may have planned (and let's say our executive committee has) for the members of the executive committee to be responsible for high end face to face networking for the year prior to actually opening our new organization's doors.

What does this look like?  Why is it the most important effort?  Why executive level leadership?  Who are the leaders planning to meet with and what are they planning to achieve through these meetings?

Based on the organization's mission statement and on the organization's programmatic goals we as a committee brainstormed a list of who all in the community that the organization will serve (which can be defined by a geographical region or by the beneficiaries' geographical location(s)) the committee members would like to have a face to face sit down meeting with.  The list is then honed down, in meetings, re-done, and narrowed down until finally there is a realistic list of probably leaders in other organizations in the community (for profit, nonprofit, and government leaders).  Each of these organizations provide services or products similar to or relevant to the work of our new nonprofit's mission. Everyone who is tasked with these face to face meetings is given one (and probably no more than three) contacts they are expected to meet with.

The meeting will be rehearsed by the executive committee members, during a meeting or two, who are going to make these face to face meetings (prior to anyone meeting with anyone).  Rehearsing among colleagues allows everyone on the committee the opportunity to release some jitters; get constructive feedback from others on how to achieve the goal of these meetings, on a committee member by committee member basis (we all have different strengths and weaknesses where we could improve); and rehearsing enables the entire committee to (after seeing it in action) really hone down what the goals of the meeting should be (in each meeting) and how each member can execute toward those goals.

Maybe I am being assigned the meeting with the board chairperson of the local YMCA.  Perhaps (based on the start up nonprofit's mission statement) we (as a committee) predetermined that the goal of this meeting will be: to introduce the organization (its: name, intended beneficiary population, mission and what as yet unmet need the organization is going to serve, and how (the programs) the new start up will provide its mission); discuss our new organization and the local YMCA's related or even similar work (and this is a more open portion of the meeting to leave room to perhaps begin to discuss the idea of our two organizations collaborating in a co-provided program or service, or simply to explain to one another what each organization does/will do, or anything in between); and finally I will leave the chairperson with my business card and a pamphlet about our organization and its work.  This is not an over-crowded meeting agenda, it shouldn't take more than an hour (but could be squeezed into a 30 minute meeting if necessary), and it gets our name and mission out there.

If there is more meetings to have (perhaps it goes well and there's serious talk of collaboration) then I will schedule the next meeting with him or her before I leave.  Perhaps the meet has questions, in that case I will let them know when I will get back to them with whatever information they asked for that I didn't know/have.

I will jot some notes down, after the meeting, to report back to the committee with explaining how the meeting went, what was discussed, and what was achieved.

The goal, here, is to introduce our new nonprofit, get its name and mission known among pertinent key professionals in the community our new nonprofit will serve, and make in-roads to strong relationships with other entities in the community.

These kind of high-profile face to face meetings are best conducted "peer to peer" which means if your organization wishes to interface with another organization's leadership, then you send your leadership to the meeting with theirs'.  It's a sign of respect, but too, often leaders are colleagues beyond just their volunteer work.  Perhaps they run in the same economic circle, are friends, or share the same age group.  This is a better way for an organization to connect with another than sending someone to meet that doesn't naturally potentially connect.

The fundraising committee is probably sending board members to do the same kind of meetings with the local potential funders (i.e. foundations, local government grantors, etc.) or those who might be major donors.

All of these face to face meetings require some good research in advance.  We need to know a thing or two about each individual we're meeting with before we meet with them.  Have they personally shown an interest in our cause in the recent past (perhaps volunteering with or donating to a similar organization similar to our new one)?  Do they appreciate a specific form of communication over another (some people love meeting over lunch, others in the office, and still overs, over the phone)?  What do they do for the entity they work or volunteer for and what does that entity to (pertinent to our organization's mission)?

Why is networking, even from the outset of the organization's existence, so important?  If an organization does not roll itself out clearly to the pertinent organizations in its community then it is leaving a lot of opportunities in the wind (i.e. collaborations, finding out about others one should talk to but you didn't know about, and funding about to be made available by X foundation or y government agency); it is leaving the organization's point of existing up for anyone else to explain (and leaving that to the chance they will explain what your organization will do correctly - hopefully); and it is isolating a nonprofit organization... your nonprofit...when isolation isn't necessary.  Isolation is lethal to a nonprofit as no nonprofit operates or even exists the following year without support (of all kinds: volunteers, donations, collaborations, etc.) from its community.

By the way, if you haven't seen it and are looking for well written realistic drama, The Wire is excellent.

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