Women and Nonprofits: 6 Tips to Starting a Sustainable Organization

Have you identified new, breakthrough solutions to address a critical community need? You're not alone.

Even in this tough economy, millions of Americans are starting businesses or nonprofits to meet community needs and create jobs for themselves and others.

Social enterprises are launched every day led by entrepreneurs who are leveraging new technologies and solutions to address complex community and social challenges -- the need for quality education, environmental sustainability, government transparency and leveraging new technologies and platforms for good.

And women are leading the way. Entrepreneurs, including winners of L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth, are creating their own startups to address unmet needs in innovative ways. But how did they get started and what are they doing to launch sustainable ventures? Based on our experience and discussions with past Women of Worth honorees, here are our top strategies to start and scale your nonprofit (many of these tips also apply to starting a for-profit social enterprise):

  • Define your objectives and what you want to accomplish. Clarity around your objectives and metrics for success is a good place to start. Over time this will evolve into a mission statement that defines why your organization exists and who benefits. The best mission statements are clear, concise and inspirational to motivate all of your stakeholders -- donors, staff, volunteers, customers, board members and more.
  • Develop a business model and test your assumptions (a business canvas will do, rather than a 20-page plan). We believe nonprofits need to have clear business models and diverse revenue streams - including earned income -- to effectively scale. Identify your products, paying customers, aligned funders, minimum activities, key success metrics, and how you will raise money to scale. Creating prototypes to test your solution or product with customers, and then learning and adjusting based on these experiments, is important in the early stages of any venture.
  • Find seed funding to allow you to make little bets. Bootstrapping and finding initial seed investments will be important to allow you to stay lean but also begin to make investments. Accelerators and incubators can provide essential training and potential investments. L'Oreal is an example of a great program to support early stage ideas by innovative women -- they are currently accepting nominations through June 21 to award $10,000 each to 10 women who are making a difference in their communities. A national honoree is selected via public vote and receives an additional $25,000 donation.
  • Develop diverse funding streams. A tested fundraising strategy will be critical to your organization's success and tapping someone with expertise in this area is a must. In addition to earned income, there are many ways to raise capital. You can build a donor base by hosting special events, offer memberships, seek a corporate sponsor to back your cause, and explore grants and awards, among others. Identify funders through research such as Foundationcenter.org.
  • Enroll others in your mission and work. Surround yourself with advisors, mentors and board members with the skills sets needed to accomplish your goals such as strategists, fundraisers, legal and marketing experts, community leaders, and more. Rather than hiring a lawyer to incorporate your nonprofit, contact your state's bar association to find pro bono help. Cora White, a Woman of Worth honoree and president and founder of Foster Care Children and Family Fund, was able to secure help from two foster parents who happened to be CPAs to seek nonprofit status. Her organization started in one community and served 300 children and today has grown to serve 150,000 children worldwide.
  • Create a public relations strategy. PR, including social media, is a key tool to help raise visibility and funds. Risa Vetri Ferman, a Woman of Worth honoree and co-founder of the PA-based Mission Kids Child Advocacy Center, said the timing of winning this award in 2012 coincided with several high profile child abuse cases, including the Sandusky/Penn State case. The award came at a critical time because it shined a light on child advocacy centers as the best way for a community to respond to child abuse. The publicity focused national attention on how to recognize and report child abuse, which further benefitted victims.

If we are going to truly solve the social and community issues we face as a society, we need new thinking and innovators committed to making a difference. Starting a nonprofit takes courage, passion, dedication and tenacity, but the impact on society, job growth and the economy is surely worth it.