I recently spoke at UC Berkeley's Goldman School of Public Policy as part of a lecture series on non-profit organizations. It was interesting to prepare this speech for graduate students and a moment to realize how much we've learned, sometimes the hard way.
To summarize my speech on Non-Profit Best Practices, my comments were:
- If someone is already doing what you want to do, go work for them. The effort to start/run your organization parallels the work of getting your project off the ground. You won't get paid, and you're actively working in two directions at once. It makes more sense to go work for a non-profit, learn how they do what they do, and enhance their program with your skills.
- Expect to be surprised by your funding sources. Don't assume that people who support you personally will support you financially; do expect to be surprised by donors who you would have never expected support from. New organizations don't receive grants or serious funding for some time, so expect a long haul to prove yourself before expecting funds from grants.
- Focus on sustainable programs. Organizations like Sirona Cares are here to help people to gain economic stability, and that comes from projects that generate revenue in the community for that community--charity is really, really tough. Charity can be very debilitating. If you incorporate economic sustainability into your plan, you can do what a non-profit should do in the future: extract yourself from a viable community and start again where you are needed. Take a hard look at your goals, and if extraction is not one of them, then you have may inflict damage rather than give support to the community you wish to help.
- Don't make promises that you can't keep: For a myriad of reasons groups pull out of projects before completing them. In Haiti we see a culture so used to broken promises that every new organization immediately faces the hurdle of proving itself. Learning to never make a promise that I can't be 100% certain I will keep is something I deal with all of the time, I'm dealing with it today. We were to deploy our IEEE/Sirona Rural Electricity Program in January, however delayed equipment created shipping delays. I know it will get there, yet for those people waiting to light their homes I'm currently in the "broken promise" place, and it's not a good place to be in. I shouldn't have given them the deployment date until the ship was on the water, a hard lesson learned. Never commit to anything that you are not absolutely positive will happen.
- Collaborate. Small organizations move more quickly than large ones and without bureacracy. Haiti has more NGOs per capita than any other country, but this only proves helpful to Haitians when groups work in harmony. Without collaboration there is waste; with collaboration organizations fill in each other's gaps, allocate resources wisely, and accomplish more than any one organization could alone. Following the earthquake there was a great surge of unity between organizations that work in Haiti, and this has in built up stronger networks than ever before. This momentum should be capitalized on and sought world-wide.
- Keep "you" out of it. The reason for doing this work should not be about you, or what you want to accomplish. That train of thought places "you" in competition with "them" (others striving for the same goals). The intention should be to work together, check your pride at the door, and realize that if you're really, really successful your programs will have a lasting positive impact for generations... and none of those people will every know who you are. You're there as a partner, not as a hero. Ultimately it's the community you are working with that will pull themselves up, because they will take ownership of your project, and their success will belong to them.