While I now run Aplos, I didn’t start here. In one form or another, I have always been helping a nonprofit get started, advising on its management, or helping run the operations. It really hit full stride when I quit working as an auditor for a big corporate accounting firm because it was interfering with my ability to work for a local nonprofit.
I realized I was passionate about helping nonprofits. As I worked with a variety of organizations, I found some very common pitfalls that almost all nonprofits experience. I am going to share Molly’s tale to show them to you. Take it from me, if you can avoid them or catch these mistakes early, your nonprofit will be in a much stronger position.
Hi, I’m Molly. I have always loved working with nonprofits but never thought I’d end up running one—at least not any time soon. However, that’s where I found myself. It’s been overwhelming from day one, but I have learned a lot along the way.
I made every nonprofit mistake possible and am your example of what not to do. Through my efforts to find the right solutions, I hope I am able to show you what ideas are worth testing and what to avoid.
It all started when I was a volunteer for an animal shelter. When my boss, Carol, unexpectedly passed away, I was named the new director. Her board must have felt I was the best candidate to take over due to my loyalty, passion, and history with the organization. It certainly wasn’t due to my management experience, which was nonexistent. What business did I have managing a whole organization?
Overnight, I went from volunteering part time at the facility to having to step up and take care of the entire business. This was also around the same time I discovered what it felt like to have an anxiety attack. Coincidence?
Despite my inexperience, I still did believe passionately in the mission of the shelter: giving rescued animals a safe place to go and connecting them with adoptive families. But I had no idea where to start, so this is how my day went:
As I wrote out the list, I could feel my hands clam up. I was overwhelmed and unsure of how to do most of these things. But it didn’t matter; I was responsible for running the organization, which meant doing all of those things myself.
A Moment Of Clarity
Wait. I have volunteers, I thought. People who came, by choice, to work for free! But what tasks should I share? I couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
I needed more insight, so I reached out to our board members, and by “board members,” I mean three silver-haired bachelors who shared rent on a house a few miles up the road. Their names were Arthur, Roland, and Shamus.
All three men were charmers and loved to talk. Roland kept telling me about “that one time,” sharing story after story, Shamus insisted on telling me about each of his previous pets, and Arthur interrogated me about my experience. We had a long meeting and there were never any awkward silences. We even had a rambling conversation about the wonders of a clap-on-clap-off light.
However, they were able to shine light on some helpful resources I could access. Roland was “the money guy.” He oversaw the funds, cut the checks, and made sure we were always in the black. My monthly reports would go straight to him.
Shamus was the heart of the board. He had a boundless love for animals, which helped build the momentum that kept the organization running. I would report to him for volunteer advice.
Arthur was the “law man.” As a retired lawyer, he was very adamant about always following the rules. Any legal advice I needed would be right up his alley.
I showed them my list. They helped me prioritize and focus on the big picture, including finances and management. They encouraged me to rely heavily on volunteers and monitor their progress. Although it was a chatter-filled meeting, I learned that I wasn’t alone. I left feeling refreshed and supported. Next, I just needed to learn how to utilize my volunteers correctly.
So why did I tell you Molly’s story? In a nutshell, she’s running a nonprofit she is passionate about, but she is overwhelmed and doesn’t truly know how to delegate her workload. Trust me, I understand how overwhelming it can feel to start and manage a nonprofit; I’ve created three myself!
Isn’t it easier or faster to do everything ourselves? Wrong. Doing it all yourself will ruin your volunteer base.
By nature, we want to take a project and own it until the very end. Maybe we would do it faster and get it right the first time. I used to volunteer for a nonprofit that relied heavily on volunteer participation. One time we were helping to rebuild a house, so I asked our onsite supervisor if we were allowed to use power tools instead of hand tools. His response inspired me.
He said, “No, because if we used power tools, the work would go by faster and it would eliminate jobs for the rest of the volunteers. If we don’t use power tools, we can have 20 volunteers working on the roof instead of five.”
I’ve learned it’s best to share responsibility, even if that sometimes means being less efficient. Not only will it help relieve the stress of having too many things to do and too little time, but it also motivates others to feel needed and know they are contributing. By doing it all yourself, you are at a higher risk of losing your most valuable volunteers (and board members) who can contribute more time or handle higher-level, skilled work. They will move on and find somewhere else to share their skills.
Others care about the nonprofit’s success too. When under pressure, have a short list of volunteers and board members you can turn to for help. It’s important to know who is invested in and passionate about the success of the nonprofit. These are the people you can rely on. You can trust them for advice, networking, and getting a job done.
After doing your assessment, what did you find out? Did you identify any opportunities to ask more of your board? How many volunteers are passionate about your mission?
What has worked for you when you felt overwhelmed? Share your tips in the comments.
Up Next: Part 2
In Part 2, we will look at some mistakes nonprofits tend to make when it comes to volunteers. You may be ready to ask for more help, but why isn’t it that simple? You don’t want to burn your volunteers out, but they volunteered in the first place because they want to be part of the mission. So how much should you ask of them? I’ll share some best practices for delegating tasks, managing volunteers, and more.