How to Start a Non-Profit Organization – Step 1: Exploration

Researching & Testing Your Non-Profit Idea

As seasoned non-profit leaders will testify, the most successful non-profit organizations are those that arise naturally as a response to a glaring gap in services available to the community. This is even more true in the social sector where clients – donors and beneficiaries – are not likely to switch from a tried and tested program simply because a new program has better packaging or a nicer perfume (unlike laundry detergent).

The challenge with this approach is that you must be tuned in to these opportunities when they arise. And the only way to do that is by preparing through brainstorming and careful reflection.


Brainstorm Where Your Talents Meet

One of the most important keys in how to start a non-profit organization is to brainstorm where your talents and unique abilities meet with service needs. Some things to keep in mind:

  • The goal in this brainstorming session is to write as many ideas (go for quantity) as come to mind.
  • Don’t discount anything. You’ll get to whittle this list down as we go through the next exercises.

There are three parts to brainstorming and reflecting in the larger context of how to start a non-profit organization:

  1. self-exploration – go through this exercise by yourself.
  2. explore with family, friends and colleagues – pose the same questions to them you just asked yourself.
  3. reflect – narrow down your list to three areas of strength that excite you the most AND you feel could lead to a viable non-profit organization

The questions you should ask are:

  1. What knowledge, talents and skills do you have that could be applied to a non-profit?
  2. What would you do even if you didn’t get paid?
  3. What do others ask you help for? Consider tasks you are most often asked for help on.
  4. What do people count on you for?
  5. What activities do you participate in where you get lost in time? Where you lose total track of time.
  6. What topics do you enjoy learning about?
  7. What activities give you the most satisfaction when you do them?

Have your list of three viable non-profit ideas? Great.

Next part in how to start a non-profit organization is researching the problem more carefully.


Problem & Market Research

It is essential to study the problem, its history, scope and root causes, research other organizations and approaches targeting the problem, and understand how much impact they have. This initial research will help you place your venture in the broader landscape of that field and better articulate the unique features of your venture.

The most high-impact ideas are those that address a problem at its root rather than create a service to address its symptoms. A good example is a program that helps the homeless get permanent housing through a credit program instead of building more shelters. An understanding of the problem’s root causes will help you leverage your hard-earned funding for maximum impact.

Talk to other organizations in your sector to get a sense of whether your idea is innovative, realistic, and desirable. Find out whether they’ve considered or tried your idea before. If they have, find out why they rejected it or why it didn’t work previously.


Idea Testing

Once you have the basic idea for your venture figured, the next step is to test it. Write up a 1 or 2 page long summary of your venture and invite everyone you can find to read and comment on it – friends, family, co-workers, former teachers, your Facebook network – anyone who agrees. You will get new suggestions, potential donors and staff members, critical feedback, partners, and at the very least, you’ll get to practice presenting your idea.

Vanessa Kirsch, founder of New Profit Inc. shared that when she started her first venture, she printed flyers seeking “thought partners” for New Profit and plastered them all over her college campus. Her first open meeting saw a sizeable turnout and many of those early attendees became the first supporters for her venture.

This brings us to the end of this installment in the How to Start a Non-Profit Organization series. Ready for the next part? Click this link to go to Step 2 for How to Start a Non-Profit Organization: Business Planning – set the vision and strategy for your non-profit organization through the non-profit business plan.