July 2010 I had this great idea to open a home for pregnant and/or parenting, displaced teen girls. I was pretty sure at the most it would take about 12 months.
Fast forward to June 2014 when I was finally granted my license to operate as residential group home, we had the funding, we had the staff that had been professionally trained, and we had the facility.
Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned in the first 6 months of finally operating a non profit ministry.
10. There are very few people who actually quit before the beginning.
When volunteers and supporters started dropping off before we received our first resident I was confused and hurt. Together we had come so far. Didn’t they want to be a part of the fruits of labor? One of the first lessons I learned in the past 6 months is there are very few people who actually make the decision to separate themselves from humble beginnings. It’s very important to realize that people move in and out of seasons of involvement. You can’t take it personally.
9. Nothing is ever finished.
If you’re looking for a sense of completion or accomplishment this type of startup is not for you. In NPO world especially with its regulations once you “complete” an application or a form there are just 10 more in triplicate to follow. You also have to start 5 other things to keep moving forward before anything gets done. It can be wearisome if you never have a sense of ever finishing something. In frustration I would try to start something in my sandbox that started out as just a creative outlet but soon built into my ongoing task list. Learning to divide goals into deliverable actions helped to alleviate this stress.
8. Put on your dancing shoes.
In these last 6 months for sure I’ve take two steps forward and three steps back. I’ve bent over backwards. I’ve been pulled a million directions at once. The board will be in sync and the staff need more attention. I get the staff pulled back together and a donor needs taken care. This meeting is across town when I need to be at this training and this contract signing. I have learned to be at peace with having to be in constant motion. The biggest learning curve has been knowing when to dance and when to sit this one out.
7. Never stop learning.
This doesn’t mean I’ve implemented and changed my organization with every new piece of information I acquire. I may have thought I had NPO had a certain culture, image, branding, mission, and value but how those are best translated into the current environment and market. My most rewarding days in the past 6 months have been time spent with those who have gone before me. Or those who are at the front lines with me. When I’ve been stuck on something I didn’t know about and someone suggested a book or an article those have been true times of success.
6. Just add 7 hours, 7 days, 7 weeks, 7 months onto any timeline
It seemed so simple when I first had the vision for The Sparrow’s Nest. I would have never imagined it taking this long to get open. However having this long of a runaway has been a very good thing for us to figure out staffing, training, direction, and programming. Almost every entrepreneur will tell you the start up phase always takes longer than expected. As a Visionary this can be painful for someone like me. But it’s been a blessing in disguise for our ministry. Where my natural tendency was to charge ahead this normal amount of time has been good to learn, to flesh out sticking points, and just to make sure this is really what I want to do.
5. Frustration and Discouragement are inevitable
Nothing has really gone like I thought it would. I’ve banged my head against so many walls. I’ve ranted and whined about people, deadlines, mistakes, regulations, occupancy permits, declined grants, frustrating clients. I get frustrated when I think I’m not like every other start up with a cause thinking that somehow I was immune to frustration. There are too quiet days when the phone doesn’t ring with opportunity. There are days when the phone rings so much and you can’t keep up with everything. Balls are dropped. Opportunities lost. I’ve learned that frustration and discouragement are just part of the game. Just not a part I want to hang out in every day.
4. You can kill yourself and everyone else around you to
I tried to go many weeks without eating properly, exercising regularly, and only trying to live on energy shots, donuts, and coffee. Over the past year I’ve tried to make every networking meeting whether it was at 7 a.m or 9 p.m. I try working 15 days straight with no Sabbath. I tried driving everyone at the same pace but luckily I’m blessed with very wise mules. I tried to be Super Mom, Super Friend, Super Church Lady, Super Wife, Super NPO Lady only to leave a trail of really really unhappy, hurt people behind an emotionally exhausted wench without a lot of friends or family left to turn to. The past 6 months in particular have taught me to set the immoveable stones in the river. Not everything is urgent. Priorities have to be set and strictly maintained.
3. Cut some corners but not many
I often say Non Profit World is like Real Life Business World. It’s the same but different. Like in a Bizzarro World way. The times that I have slipped into the mode of whiny charity lingo are the times I regret the most this year. When I have chosen to cut corners and not operate like a legitimate start up business, these are the times that have come back to bite me in the butt. For non profits to gain leverage and legitimacy we have to earn those rights by behaving and operating like we mean it. I may not generate revenue but I have learned again this year to stand with integrity and pride for the name we have created to serve teen mothers and their babies with excellence.
2. Warm Bodies Still Sometimes Turn Into Zombies
You’ve heard it said before. Having the right people is everything. Having the right people in the wrong position are just has harmful as having the wrong people in the wrong position. Surrounding myself with quality people who are willing to learn and who are willing to accept responsibility are key. Providing critical opportunities for real delegation and ownership have been a turning point for me. Devoting time to build skills and particular leadership within the organization has created accountability that I don’t have to manage.
1. Don’t Give Up
I have been given a calling and a passion. There have been numerous opportunities to give up or at least pass this off on some other unsuspecting passionate soul. I’ve sought the counsel of others many times asking “is this worth it? Do I keep pressing on even though there is tremendous pushback, obstacles, and barriers?” The resounding answer has always been “Yes.” The number one thing I have learned this year is perseverance.
If you’re a social entrepreneur or a dreamer or chronic start up maniac this is what I would push on you the most. Be smart and don’t be too prideful when it’s time to pass on or admit defeat. But in the mean time…Do Not Give Up. Somebody needs your idea, your cause, your product, your industry, your service, your innovation.