An Insider’s Guide To Starting A Non-Profit Without Funding


It starts with that obnoxious word on the lips of every Ted Talk. The word that is practically inscribed in the binding of every guide to start your own business. 


About one week into starting the Chicago Hub for Travel+SocialGood, a non-profit that aims to turn the travel industry into a vehicle for positive global impact, I started leaving a notebook next to my bed.

I kept waking up in the dead of night with inspiration for the Chicago hub. I would jolt awake with an idea for an event or partnership, and it only took one accidental punt of a half-finished glass of wine for me to realize: nocturnal brainstorming should be kept in bed.

If you’re starting a non-profit without funding, you’ve got to have the passion. Apologies for the played-out cliché, but it’s true. If you’re not all in, you won’t have the energy to sprint from your day job to a networking event, or to spend your free time face-deep in email templates. You’ve got to be head over heels.

If you are, I can help you.

Chapter One: Talk The Talk.

Or alternatively, “admit that you’re trying to do something.”

If you’re trying to make a difference, your organization matters. It’s exciting to take on a project that you care about, particularly when there aren’t any dollar signs involved. However, expect these two questions from many (all) friends and family: “Wait, you don’t have funding? You aren’t getting paid?” They’re concerned, and it’s heartwarming. But you’ve got work to do.

Be prepared to defend your reasons for working off the clock.

That said, talk about what you’re doing. Talking about it will make it real, for you and for everyone else. Don’t attack people with your elevator pitch, just take pride in your organization and ask for feedback. You’ll be surprised by the criticism and valuable input you get from people inside and outside of your industry. 

Chapter Two: Find Role Models And Ask For Help

There are tons of resources and people out there that want to help you. They live to help you. They seek out coupons, find free event spaces, and host events specifically to help you. So take advantage of them. Chicago organizations like All A-Board Alliance and YNPN are useful for building a network of entrepreneurs and social justice friends. 

When you find someone who runs an organization like a boss or that you click with professionally for one reason or another, stay in touch. I want to warn you, this may not happen organically.  If you’re not the type to follow up and invite someone to lunch, remind yourself to make the effort. Make a list of contacts you’ve met, some details about them, where you met them, and what events you told them about. These professional connections and mentorships are invaluable to building your own successful organization. Don’t let them slip away.

Chapter Three: Take Advantage Of Your Friends

Like family, they are morally obligated to help you. Just kidding.

In all seriousness, always keep your friends in mind when you need help with specific projects for your non-profit. Before you ask for help, think about what you need. Make sure that what you are asking isn’t unreasonable or asking too much, and that the favor is consistent with your friend’s skills and capabilities. You are far more likely to get help by asking your friend who is a videographer to shoot a quick video, than by asking a skinny paleontologist to move furniture. 

If a friend does help you, it is crucial that you thank them. If you are a fundless non-profit maven, this will not be with guap. Repay them however seems fit – whether it’s by making them a killer sandwich, giving them a ride to work, or protecting them from their crazy family at Thanksgiving. Think of something.

Chapter Four: Network – Whether You Need Six Free Chardonnays To Do It Or Not.

Networking events are fun for some and painful for others. Personally, I think it’s fun to go to events where approaching people aggressively is allowed. There’s some degree of taking-off-the-cool-hat when you go to events like this. Everyone is there to meet people and to improve their careers. Don’t be self conscious about eating the free buffet. You might even have a good time.

Bring your cards, and practice talking about your organization. So the person you’re talking to has no relevance to your industry. Who cares? They may know someone who does. Exchange cards anyway, be yourself, and knock that chip off your shoulder. 

Rules of thumb: Don’t get hammered, and don’t be a jerk.

Chapter Five: Make Social Media Your Ish.

You aren’t above it, and yes you need it. Want to start a successful organization without paid advertising? This is it. 

If you have to find someone to do it, make it happen. You need to be on the interwebs, having the conversations that no longer happen in person. Learn how to use hashtags, participate in Twitter chats, and for the love of Pete update your cover photo. This isn’t Myspace, this is real.

When you make the professional connections we’ve talked about, look their organizations up on social media. First, like their page. Reach out and tell them it was nice to meet them and other relevant nice things. Keep them in mind when you share relevant posts later on, and tag them once in awhile.

More importantly, stay in the loop with their organizations. When their organization hosts an event in your industry, promote it on your social media, and if you can, attend it. You will be amazed at the difference it makes in your career when you actually show up. 

For actual social media strategy, there are lots of resources out there. Perhaps I’ll do another blog post about that later on. For now, I’m just here to tell you to use social media. Use it real good. 

Chapter Six: Walk The Walk

Be the volunteer.

If you don’t already, volunteer for organizations inside and outside your industry whenever you can. Donating your time to another organization will make you feel good, give you good karma, connect you with like-minded individuals, and provide you with a wealth of unspoken information. 

Most successful professionals in the non-profit sector, at least in my experience, are more than happy to exchange resources, advice, and contacts. I can’t say this universally, but the non-profit sector overall seems to foster a far higher level of collaboration than for-profits. Maybe that’s a “duh” moment.

The point is: you have chosen a field where a fair amount of competition has been taken out of the equation, since most of us want our efforts to equal social good, not capital. Never be afraid to ask questions. 

Chapter Seven: Set Goals And Stay Positive

You may have started your organization with an objective, but now it’s time to set real goals – short and long term. Don’t be mad at yourself if you can’t think of them right away, they’ll materialize with time.

As you move through the process, try to keep track of how much time you’re putting in per day, or per week. In the honeymoon stage, you might be working twelve-hour days, or an additional 4-5 hours on a workday. Be careful about working all the time: you don’t want to burn yourself out early on. Instead, create a timeline that is do-able, and stick to it. If you need help reaching your goals sooner, learn how to delegate. 

Remember, as I said in Chapter One, your organization matters. Starting a non-profit is a process, but an incredibly rewarding one. Have a sense of humor, and be persistent. You can do it.

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