What former nonprofit workers bring to startups

Over the last few weeks I have been speaking to people who switched from working in the nonprofit world to working in a startup. I was curious to find out what aspects of working in nonprofits were the most useful after their transition.

Some of their feedback was really fascinating, so I gathered it together for your reading pleasure.

Want to change the world

“I need soul satisfying work.”

This is what one person told me about what they’re looking for in a job. Startups succeed because they provide a service which makes people’s lives better. Employees who are driven to make a real and tangible difference to the life of your customers is the biggest thing a startup could ask for.

This desire will force you to build products which people really need. You’ll make sure you keep challenging yourself to do more. And you’ll also be encouraged to think big and to give to your customers by solving real and deep problems for them.

No-one has ever become poor by giving. - Anne Frank

Passionate

People working in non-profits are generally passionate people. They care about what they are working on, and they are excited to make a difference. When moving into startups, this passion is essential.

Startups need founders and employees who care deeply about what they’re doing and are willing to do the hard work to get it done.

Able to sell a vision

Most nonprofits rely heavily on volunteers. To inspire a group of people to donate their precious time for free requires people who are able to sell a vision.

And that ability to sell a vision is extremely valuable in startups. Startups need to be able to galvanize their team to build the product. They need to inspire their investors in the upside of the company. And they need to excite their customers to try out a new (and often buggy and not fully functional) product.

Pay Binoculars

Wearing Many Hats

Most nonprofits run on extremely tight budgets. They’re trying to do the most possible with their donor dollars, and this means that their staff often end up taking on many different roles. A graphic designer might end up doing grant writing, and a secretary might do event planning or manage donor relationships.

This means that people coming from the nonprofit world are comfortable taking on multiple jobs. This is almost always a must in early stage startups.

And even more than that, they come into the startup with a diverse set of skills that they never would have picked up in a more corporate environment.

Hats for Sale

Willingness to work beyond their pay grade

Because their funding is tight, many nonprofits can’t provide the same salaries that for-profit companies can. People coming from that world are used to working well above their pay grade to help further the causes they believe in.

Early stage startups are in the same boat. If they’re bootstrapped, everything is very tight. And even if they’ve received investment, they’re still trying to stretch their runway as long as possible to give their dreams a chance.

Ex-nonprofit workers who are used to providing value well above their pay grade can help get a startup on its feet. And in a startup they have the upside that their salaries should go up as the startup gets more investment and they have equity in a company that they believe in.

Masters of the MVP

Continuing the theme of having a low budget, nonprofits are masters of the MVP. They don’t have the luxury of building things that aren’t necessary. The budget just doesn’t allow it.

This means that they’re able to really help a startup figure out exactly what they need to impress investors or to go to market. There’s no way to get bogged down adding just one more feature or one more piece of unnecessary marketing material.

Bottle House

Do things that don’t scale

Paul Graham from Y Combinator wrote a very famous post about how startups need to do things that don’t scale. People from the nonprofit world are experts at this.

Nonprofits are built on relationships. They receive their funding by building direct relationships with philanthropists who believe in their vision. They often make their difference by building direct relationships with the people they serve. Even trying to create more viral awareness or fundraising campaigns often requires a lot of direct relationship building and encouragement.

This focus on relationships means that when working in nonprofits people really exercise their “empathy muscles”. You have to learn how to listen and understand what really matters – whether it’s to the benefactors, donors, overworked employees or the people the nonprofit is serving.

This is so important in startups! Getting important feedback from customers, delighting those customers and turning them into evangelists, creating and maintaining relationships with investors and partner companies and building a solid core team are often the biggest pieces of a startup’s success. These pieces can only really be done through real relationships, with a lot of empathy and listening.

Able to make sudden changes

To keep running, nonprofits are often at the whim of their stakeholders. (A stakeholder is an individual or group which has an interest that the nonprofit fulfills its mission [link].) When a big benefactor calls and says that s/he wants the nonprofit to do something – they do it.

Startups have to be just as flexible. In addition to often being at the whims of their board, startups need to be deeply attuned to the market and their customers. They need to do their best to listen to the needs of the market, and need to be able to make changes quickly to match market needs.

Hiring people who are used to making sudden changes can be a huge help in the rollercoaster of startup life.

Doers, not delegators

This might go back to the budget constraints we mentioned above, but people who work in nonprofits are often doers and not delegators. They know how to be proactive in making the difference they believe in without waiting for someone else to take care of it for them.

The idealism that people in nonprofits have can also encourage them to make the most out of what they’ve got, and to look for ways to say “yes” instead of ways to say “no”.

This skill is extremely useful when building a startup. Things often don’t go the way you expect, and you have to figure out a ways to get things done that are often out of the box.

Strong desire to do things differently

(This one might be a bit controversial, but here goes.)

A number of the people I spoke to said that unfortunately, the nonprofits they worked in had a lot of inefficiencies. The lack of competition stifled growth and encouraged too much bureaucracy. They said that the non-profit world actually has much to learn from the startup world.

They said that their negative experiences with those parts of the nonprofit world actually made them more motivated when they left to create and/or work in innovative and dynamic startups.

The prospect of doing things differently was exciting and they were eager to bring the rest of the skills they acquired in their time in the nonprofit world to bear in the more dynamic and fluid world of startups.

Conclusion

The amount of similarities between startups and nonprofits really surprised me. The enthusiasm, idealism, resourcefulness and focus on real people in the nonprofit world is really inspiring. The startup world is often hyper-focused on making (lots of) money. But we have much to gain by looking at and learning from the nonprofit sector.

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