How to Run a Successful Nonprofit in Your 20s

One thing I didn’t expect in my life? Running a nonprofit in my early 20s. After I graduated college, I was offered a job as the first employee of a nonprofit, Developmental Connections, created by a dear friend and mom to a child with autism. Before becoming the first official employee, the organization was primarily run by volunteers. The first year was hard as I was the only person doing the day-to-day operations of the company. I learned a lot. Two years later, we are now a team of two (plus part-time staff), and I was given more responsibility as the Executive Director.

While I was not involved in developing the overall mission and vision from the beginning, I am honored to expand our nonprofit’s impact into the future. As an organization that works with children with social learning challenges, I have become passionate about social skills development, education, nonprofit growth and strategies for expansion.

During our 20s, we are expected to learn, change, and stretch ourselves in professional, social, academic and emotional ways. Leading a nonprofit is complex, but it has many rewards in these areas.

This article is written for two different kinds of people:

  1. If you are interested or in the stages of creating your own nonprofit
  2. If you are already leading a nonprofit, for both founders and other leaders

Tapping into expert advice, mentorship over the past couple years, and my daily routines, I have outlined my top tips for leading a successful nonprofit in your 20s.

13 Tips to Run a Successful Nonprofit in Your 20s

How to Run a Nonprofit in Your 20s

1. Fully believe, understand and commit to the mission your organization is living.

Start with your why. Why are you creating or leading a nonprofit and advocate for its cause? What is your personal connection? If you are not the nonprofit’s founder, how can you “own” your nonprofit’s cause?

As a leader, you should promote your nonprofit’s mission before you promote your organization. You are selling your passion and the ability to make changes we want to see in the world.

The truth is: we want to see change no matter if it makes our nonprofit successful or not. We wish the demand for our autism services was low, that the number of children with autism is decreasing and the number of children needing services is dropping. We wish that. And that’s why we work. We don’t primarily work to keep our business going; although that is important in the short term. We work to decrease demand, not to increase it. But as long as there is a need, we work to fill it.

Promote the mission more than anything else.

2. Develop your leadership ability.

Let’s be honest: we don’t have that much life experience in our 20s. This is the time to work on our leadership skills. Here are my quick tips I’ve learned on leadership:

  • Talk about the bigger picture. As a leader, you need to understand where your work falls in the context of your community and trends in the world.
  • Discover your voice. Develop your public speaking skills and your professionalism.
  • Connect with other leaders and experts in the field. Network and learn. Network and learn.
  • Know your own strengths and weaknesses. I suggest the book StrengthsFinder 2.0 for really digging deep into the leadership qualities you already have. Then, focus on areas where you can grow.
  • Build your expertise by researching and taking classes. Do you need more business knowledge? Strategic planning? Enroll in a class online or at a local college to gain these necessary skills. As a leader, model the importance of a continued passion for learning.
  • Wake up early. Not only does this give you a kickstart to your day, but gives you a healthier daily routine, which can fuel you in different ways.
  • Develop patience. I know I want to get all. the. things. done in a day or in a week. But patience is a virtue, and it is a must for nonprofit leaders. Instead of doing everything at once, wait to get feedback from your support team on important tasks.
  • Learn to delegate. Good leaders give others a sense of ownership in your organization. Your employees, volunteers and board of directors can feel more connected in your mission and programs.

3. Find and strengthen your core leadership team and board of directors.

Your board of directors will guide your vision and direction. The best boards are diverse, engaged and passionate about the cause. While board members are often behind-the-scenes and not part of the daily operations, they play an important role by supplying their expertise and fundraising efforts. Tap into different communities like universities, businesses in your area, networking circles, people at your church, etc.

4. Develop your case for support, business plan and performance metrics.

Your case for support, business plan and performance metrics will be the core for both your start-up phase and your growth. These documents and plans outline your passion, purpose and WHY people should get involved. It also details the HOW. How will we make an impact? How will we measure the impact? Mix all of these components below and you will have your secret sauce: 

Case for Support:

  • Outline the organization’s services, programs, objectives.
  • Describe how the goals of fundraising and how the funds will be used.
  • Explain the difference a donor’s support will make to the cause.
  • Explain how the nonprofit will remain sustainable and productive in the future with its efforts and the generosity of its donors and partners.

Business Plan:

  • What are your revenue sources? (programs or service fees, fundraising events, donations and public support, grants, etc.)
  • What are your primary expenses? (programs, salaries, operational, etc.)
  • What are your business models for growth in new markets?
  • How do you determine your priorities for services or new programs?
  • What is your expected growth over a five-year period?

Performance Metrics:

  • How will you determine the impact of your program and its success in fulfilling your mission?
  • What are the metrics use to determine the growth and how will this be conducted?
  • How will you use the evidence to communicate to grant-giving foundations and organizations?

How to Run a Successful Nonprofit in Your 20s - Infographic

5. Ensure all legal documents, contracts and policies are in place.

One of the first things you should do if you are starting a nonprofit is connect with a legal team. They can help you navigate the legal procedures for creating your organization. If you are running an already established nonprofit, make sure you are familiar and comply with all of the regulations.

  • Understand all state regulatory guidelines for nonprofits (incorporation, basic operations, fundraising solicitation parameters, etc.)
  • Understand all federal regulatory procedures for nonprofits (tax exemption, tax-deductible donations, restrictions, etc.)
  • Develop the organization’s bylaws.
  • Develop key operating processes with contracts and policies in place for your programs and operations (service contracts, employee policies and handbook, etc.)

6. Invest in the startup phase. Start slow to go fast.

At the genesis of a nonprofit, it can seem like everything is happening at once. In your first year, invest in your startup phase and go slow. Conduct research on the populations you are serving. What are their needs?

Conduct and evaluate your pilot programs. Invest most of your energy in your pilot. Ask these questions to get started:

  • What are the basics of our program?
  • Who are we serving?
  • How many are we serving?
  • Who will lead the pilot program?
  • What kind of staff or workers do we need?
  • What resources and supplies do we need?
  • How will we evaluate the success of the pilot? What are our metrics?
  • What went well?
  • What fell short?
  • How will we alter our program so it will be scalable?
  • What is the next step?

Your mission and your projects to accomplish your mission are why you are here. Use time, money, a support team and resources to create a small version of your envisioned program. By turning your focus to the small details, you can more successfully expand.

As many of the school principals I work with say, “Start slow to go fast.”

7. Build your brand.

Nonprofits can learn a lot from the corporate world, especially with branding. Your brand incorporates three things: 1) your voice, 2) your visual brand and 3) your vision. All of these interact with one another – they are important in showing you exist and why you are here.

To build your brand, start with the basics:

  • What are your core values?
  • Describe the tone and voice you will used to communicate to your publics.
  • What visuals come to mind when you describe your organization.
  • Develop your logo and visual styles.
  • If your organization was a person, what would like be like?

8. Form partnerships with donors, business and foundations.

As you create your plan and start to grow, reach out to potential partners and other similar organizations in your arena. Start with the community of people around you who care about your mission. Friends and family will usually support you as you get started, and they can form your first donor base. From there, connect with other for-profit businesses who have an interest in your cause. We have found success in partnering with businesses who serve similar populations and have a heart for education and children.

Another important aspect is funding through foundations, community grants or corporate giving programs. We have been using a tool called Instrumentl to match our projects with grant opportunities, and it has been very helpful with our grant research.

Grant writing is an art. If you lack experience in grant writing, turn to others or read more about it. My nonprofit is a proud owner of the Grant Writing for Dummies book!

9. Be judicious with resources.

As a nonprofit, keep in mind your expenses and determine how you best invest in your programs and mission. Because nonprofits receive public support, it is our responsibility to handle the resources and money we receive to maximize our impact in others’ lives.

10. Establish a volunteer plan.

Gathering a team of volunteers with a variety of talents is a crucial step in launching your nonprofit. Maintain a volunteer email list and use tools such as SignUpGenius to track and manage your volunteer sign-ups.

It is a sensitive task to get volunteers involved, as they dedicate their time to your efforts. Develop ways you can show appreciation to your volunteers – small gifts for those who work with you directly on a task; t-shirts, food or prizes for event volunteers, and thank you notes or gift cards to those a part of your immediate community. Always follow up with a note of appreciation for your volunteers.

11. Share your story.

This is one of the most important parts – telling people what you are doing.

You have already built your brand, but now is the time to promote it and share your story. Honesty and vulnerability in our words tell real stories. Don’t be afraid to get personal when you tell people about your cause. How has the problem you address affected you? How has it affected your friends? The community? The world?

You will most likely be talking about sensitive subjects. Within this, though, comes strength. If we do not speak up, who will?

Here are some ways you can start to share your story:

  • Friends and family gathering: invite your close friends and family to your house to explain your nonprofit, show a video or tell stories about your clientele over a nice dinner. Your main support system should be informed about your work, and it keeps them engaged in your cause and how it affects your life.
  • Videos: Interview key figures and people impacted by your nonprofit for a video. Video is one of the most compelling ways to share stories. Don’t be afraid to ask people to get on camera.
  • Blogs and social media: if you hang out on certain social media sites, use these to share stories you experience everyday while living out your nonprofit’s mission.
  • Presentations: Share your expertise about your project in presentations to different key publics or community groups. Don’t be afraid to find a nonprofit networking group in your community and ask to introduce your work to them.

12. Envision the future.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • What will your nonprofit look like after the start-up phase?
  • How will your team expand?
  • What impact do you want to create?
  • What are your goals for expansion?
  • How will you touch more lives?

13. You don’t have to do it on your own.

Just know that even though you are running the show right now, you don’t have to do it alone.

Tap into your board of directors – they will give you the insight and tools you need. They are 100% behind the organization and behind you.

You can also expand your team and outsource your work. Find college students who want to expand their resumes or portfolios. Contract with experts. Invest in your staff and your volunteers.

As a nonprofit that focuses in social skills development, I believe it’s your relationships that matter most. Your relationships will help you create better success for your nonprofit and for your cause. 

You are not alone in this. If you want to connect and discuss your ideas, send me an email and I would love to share our experiences together.

How to Run a Nonprofit in Your 20s