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  • Writer's pictureKristina Riffle

So You Want to Start a Non-Profit

My favorite quote has always been “Be the change you wish to see in the world” by Ghandi. It’s basically my motto- in life, teaching, traveling, volunteering, and relationships. On many summer breaks from teaching, I traveled to different countries to volunteer teach- China, Thailand, and Uganda. While volunteering in Uganda, I was offered a teaching job. I accepted the position, and gave up my very comfortable life as a special education teacher in America to move to Uganda and teach full time.

It was my first time teaching typically developing students, and I quickly realized that I missed my special education students very much. Two months into living in Uganda, I saw a huge problem… there were no children with disabilities in school. There were no special education programs in government schools. Naturally, as a special educator and as someone who was living by the Ghandi quote, I could not sit by and do nothing to help these children with disabilities.

A few weeks later, I started a nonprofit to help the children with disabilities in the community I was living in. I wasn’t sure what my ultimate goal was, but I figured spending a few hours with them and their parents each week was more than they were currently getting. A few months went by and the nonprofit was growing like wildfire. A few years have now gone by, and it has exploded in ways I couldn’t have ever imagined.

When I started this, I went in blind; I knew nothing about starting or running a nonprofit. I was a special education teacher with a big heart that wanted to ‘be the change’ for these kids. I wish I would’ve talked to a few founders and truly researched what I was about to get into before I started, but I’m a stubborn and just decided to dive in fully clothed.

Here are my top things I wish I knew before I started a nonprofit:

-Research the area and see if there is truly a need. Of course you are trying to do the right thing by starting a non-profit, but is there REALLY a need? If there are similar non-profits in the area, could you partner with them instead? Complete a survey of the community and possible clients to see if they would utilize your new nonprofit. There is no point to starting a nonprofit if there is not a need.

-You can’t do this on your own! Seriously. Your community is vital to your success.  Your volunteers will help spread the word of your mission.  You must have a relationship with the people you serve; if they don’t believe in you, nobody will. Your donors will naturally come and go, but it is important to keep them engaged in your work.  Find a mentor to check in with weekly; having the opportunity to get advice from someone who has experience will help you maintain your sanity.

-Your Board of Directors is crucial. Don’t just get people to fill the holes in your board, recruit members who truly believe in your mission and will help you every step of the way. Your board will help you network and meet new possible volunteers, donors, and partners.

-You will constantly fundraise. Sometimes it will feel like you are begging people to believe in what you are doing and for them to donate, and truth be told, you probably are begging. Fundraising will take up the majority of your time, because without money, you cannot help.

-Limited resources and instability will become your new normal. We have had months where we can’t keep up with our donations, and we have had months where we are pretty sure all people have forgotten that our organization exists. Volunteers come and bring suitcases of educational resources for our classrooms, and then it’s off season, and we have nothing left to give our teachers. Learning how to manage the peaks and valleys is crucial to the non-profit’s success.

-You must take care of yourself.  You will wear many hats for quite some time as your nonprofit grows, and some of those hats are really hard to wear. If you don’t take time to focus on yourself, everyone will suffer. Make a routine for yourself and set working hours that you stick to. Continue to do things that you enjoy outside the nonprofit world.

Remember to never touch anything with half of your heart, and that is especially true in the nonprofit world. I hope this list helps you as you consider starting a nonprofit. I wish you nothing but the best, world changer, and I am here to help you along the way!

Have you ever started a nonprofit? What would you add to the list of what you wish you knew? Add them below in the comments!

Kristina at Obwaagazi Academy in Jinja, Uganda.

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