Which officer role(s) should the founder of a small nonprofit take?
September 11, 2009 4:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm starting a small nonprofit. It is just myself at this point, though I have a very serious organization verbally committed to seed money and promotion. I have not yet solicited a board of directors or officers. What do most sole operators do? Do I double serve as executive director and board chair, at least initially? Or, do I take on the most labor-intensive offices of treasurer/secretary? I throw this out to the experts here, of whom there seem to be many, based on my perusal of nonprofit threads.
posted by zagyzebra to Work & Money (12 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The ED and treasurer should really never be the same person. Someone needs to be checking on the financial side and acting independently from the ED. Normally in organizations with one or no staff people, a board member with experience in accounting takes this role. So as you build your board, consciously solicit someone with this sort of background (it is also a very good idea to have legal experience on your board, so solicit that too).

Ideally, the board chair is a rotating position, elected/appointed according to bylaws. Once you consistute a board, their first task will be to write bylaws. As ED, you will build the board and lead the board in many ways, but if you become chartered, the board IS the organization and has the ability to hire and fire you (again, according to the bylaws they create). For that reason, you should not be in the role of chair. You and the chair are likely to work together to write agendas, and you will participate in working groups, but you are the executive director because you will be executing the plan laid out by the board - with your leadership. Yeah, it's a little circular, and many boards need a lot more direct leadership from the ED, especially for a new organization that is based on one person's or a few people's vision. But spread responsibilities amongst key people as soon as you have them in place; it keeps you and them accountable, encourages transparency, and establishes some basic reporting structure right off the bat.

Here are some good starting points from Idealist.
posted by Miko at 4:28 PM on September 11, 2009

Consider seeking a fiscal sponsorship relationship with an existing nonprofit. Basically, you get an established organization to incubate yours while you get off the ground. They tuck you into their 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and do your accounting and taxes. They are likely to also offer advice and support as you build your organization's capacity, and can also be helpful with fundraising. All this for a cut of your revenue -- probably something like ten percent. Once you reach a certain size, you'll prefer to establish a more independent identity -- but it's a great deal for a great deal of help as you get off the ground.
posted by gum at 5:35 PM on September 11, 2009

Thanks Miko. Your answer sheds a lot of light. I've a few more questions, if you don't mind.

Thus far, this project is wholly my idea. I have done all the groundwork thus far -- I've pitched it, developed it, thought out ways to fund it, and gotten support for it. I've considered all the various responsibilities and tasks. I've studied the Nolo book. Heck, I've even looked around for possible talent that could help in the startup phase.

I am the founder. Does that mean the most logical place for me is the executive director's position? I guess what I'm getting at is, what role do founders usually take? Are they always Executive Directors? Do they ever serve as a paid board member and officer, take the reins in getting the project off the ground, and then pass them on to a qualified individual?

My next question is, let's presume I am the Executive Director. I can think of someone I'd love to ask to be the board chair who I'm pretty sure would be committed to this idea. However, he's a busy executive. I wouldn't want to overwhelm him with yet another responsibility to add to his life. In all honesty, what does the board chair of a brand new barely funded nonprofit startup do? And do you have any suggestions about how I might approach him in such a way that would make him want to do it without him feeling like he's getting over committed? I truly am willing to shoulder all responsibility, at least until the organization gets its footing.

Last question. If I am the Executive Director, you've made clear in your answer that the only officer's role I could play would be that of secretary. Since the treasurer's job seems to be quite a plate full of responsibility, and I don't happen to know any bookkeeper/CPA types who I think would be willing to take that on, do you have any suggestions as to where to hunt for a treasurer?

I'm sorry for loading you up with so many questions, but I've read a lot of books, and perused much material on the net, and there's just nothing better than being able to converse with someone experienced. I offer you my most sincere gratitude.
posted by zagyzebra at 6:02 PM on September 11, 2009

How large a staff do anticipate having to start?
posted by nax at 7:00 PM on September 11, 2009

Miko's advice is truth.

There are lots of ways to organize an NP. The two most important things to keep in mind are: legal issues and funding.

Like Miko said, as ED - and yes, as founder you should start as ED - you cannot be the treasurer, or really deal with any of the immediate financial issues, as if you get audited this will certainly be an issue. Ideally, none of your board members should be paid. When applying for funding, if you have paid board members this could potentially blow up in your face.

Putting together a good board is a vital part of making a sustainable NP - and yet it is a fucking difficult ordeal. Most board members are going to be busy execs - and this is why putting together a good board is really hard. They never want to come to meetings, they don't want to help you fundraise, they are wary of reaching out to their friends for connections and money. You've just got to balls up and ask them - and keep on them. Find people who are passionate about your mission, and put those people in charge of the specific projects within your organization they can be excited about. You should be passionate about your mission, and make this clear to them. Be incredibly organized and have a long-term plan when you approach potential board members. Create a diverse board - in gender, ethnicity, and occupation - really, this will behoove you greatly. Think about what each board member's connections can do for you - i.e. some will be able to support you financially, maybe one is involved with the media and can get you good press, etc etc. Be very careful in choosing your board. Get people on board who work for corporations with grant-making foundations and the like - but don't recruit board members associated with, say, any lobbying activities or the like. Like Miko said, the chair should be a rotating position, usually every two years or so. You, as ED, should not be on the board. Part of the board's job is to keep the ED in check.

You should let us know what kind of NP you are starting, as it makes a huge difference. But generally as ED, you will spend most of your time fundraising and trying to make your org visible in your community, connecting with the right people, etc. You need a support staff, and as you're just starting out, keep it very, very, small. Do the grant writing yourself, if you can. Do the marketing yourself, if you can. You will need a CFO of some kind absolutely. As someone who has worked for an NP during a period where our 'accountant' was not a CP, hiring a novice to deal with money issues is a terrible, terrible idea. Find someone competent. Craig's List, grapevine, whatever. This person will be invaluable. And depending on what kind of NP you're starting, some sort of Program Officer or the like to oversee daily operations. You probably won't have much time to do this yourself. Salaries will be your biggest expense, and, for reasons I don't understand, grant making orgs are reluctant to fund staff salaries and gen op costs in general. Secretary work you will have to do yourself, or split it amongst you and one or two other staffers. Being the secretary is just part of the grunt work that goes with starting something like this.

Spend very little on all other expenses. Once you get (or if you already have) 501c3 status (and since it hasn't been mentioned I will say that you really can't do much without this status), go to everyone you can for in-kind donations, like furniture for your office.

Obvs I have lots to say on this, and if you'd like to ask more specific questions, please MeFi mail me - I'm happy to help for my usual consultancy fee of mind hugs. :)
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:34 PM on September 11, 2009

So much good advice here. A few thoughts, as someone who has worked for many NPOs, including a startup:

Thus far, this project is wholly my idea. I have done all the groundwork thus far -- I've pitched it, developed it, thought out ways to fund it, and gotten support for it. I've considered all the various responsibilities and tasks. I've studied the Nolo book. Heck, I've even looked around for possible talent that could help in the startup phase.

Watch out for founder's syndrome and get a team on board as quickly as possible who will take on some of this responsibility.

I know this is not easy, and it sounds like you've already started thinking about this, which is good. At this stage, it will sometimes seem like it will just be easier to make all these decisions, find board members, etc. by yourself, and bring people in to do the stuff you can't do, like keep the books. But in the long run, your organization will be a lot healthier if it's not "your" organization.

Of course, an organization needs a really dedicated person to get it off the ground. But I thought I would just mention this because I've seen some really amazing organizations with powerful missions just spin their wheels or even implode because their well-meaning founders couldn't get out of the way of needed change.

As to where to find people, you just need to network even more. It would help to know what kind of nonprofit it is. But whatever the issue area, you might want to start in that community. Figure out who the local experts, movers and shakers, etc in the field are. Call them up and ask them if you can buy them a cup of coffee. Tell them about your organization and ask for their advice. Develop a relationship. If they give you a really solid advice, and you think they might be able to help with the project they are suggesting, don't be afraid to ask them to help. They might say no, but if they say yes, and the idea was a good one, they will probably be a great person to have on your board. All those people you pitched it to? If it's appropriate, go back and ask them for suggestions of people to talk to.

As Lutoslawski said, you will want a diverse board, with diverse skills. You will probably need a few people that don't do much but offer credibility - an elected official known to be a leader on your issue, a local philanthropist, etc. Beyond that, you want to try to get a board full of people who will actually do stuff. You might as well ask that busy business leader, because it sounds like he gets things done. Worst case scenario, he says no. But he might have suggestions for other people to ask.

I have never started a NPO, but like I said, I've worked for many, and I have a lot of experience developing volunteer committees, etc. It's freaking hard work, but so worth it to do it right, IME.
posted by lunasol at 11:41 PM on September 11, 2009

Excellent advice, lunasol (sweet username, btw). I have very little to add except to emphasize lunasol's advice that delegation is so key. I'm only a small-time minion for an NP, and I find any sort of delegation nearly impossible. But you have to, especially as ED. A great leader is tantamount to a great NP, but if it's ONLY a great leader, it won't go anywhere. You've got to connect to people - both people who can fund (and a diverse funding population) and people who can help operate.

I just want to nth my advice and lunasol's elaboration that you just have to ask. And ask confidently. Board 'embarrassment' is a pandemic - i.e. board members feeling weird about the causes they support. They are ashamed to show their enthusiasm, they are ashamed to ask their friends to support their cause, etc. This is totally ridiculous. You've just got to take the lead. You have an awesome mission? Great. Inflict it on people. Make sure they know you're serious. Lots of people with high-paying, corporate positions have good hearts and want to help - but they're smart, and they don't want to see their money and time go to waste. You've got to get your board and your community fired up. Sustaining an NP, unfortunately, is really hard. You've got to pull some Emma Goldman shit on everyone.

Look, one fucked up thing about America and capitalism in general is that if you want to do something positive, social service-esque, you depend on money guzzling corporate folks. It's fucked up, but it's the way it is. Plan accordingly.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:21 AM on September 12, 2009

If it hasn't been mentioned, one obvious reason for asking someone to serve on a board is to obtain money. Some people have resources and like being asked to spend them. In fact they enjoy seeing their name on a project/building/document. It's a shameless request for funds but, surprise!, it works. They know their role and you need their money.

Other people you might ask are people with connections. Political, social, expertise - whatever. You ask someone because they know someone who you would really like to be involved.

Finally, bookkeepers/treasurers are often shared among non-profits. I served in that capacity, sometimes for 4 or 5 non-profits at once. How did they find me? Through the CPA that audited the books for all the non-profits. Ask a local non-profit who audits their books and then ask that auditor for a recommendation. In some cases I was only asked to help set up the books (use QuickBooks software). But after explaining the bookkeeping system to the board, they would often ask me to join them. Speaking as a former treasurer, remember it's a necessary functional position so don't sweat his/her passion for your cause.

Don't let the details get you down. I've seen non-profits drown in a sea of bylaws, balance sheets, and meetings. Boards are a necessary evil of your own making but keep your eyes on your mission statement.
posted by birdwatcher at 4:27 AM on September 12, 2009

About asking people to be on your board: First, don't be shy. You really do want the busy executives on your board - they are busy people, but busy people are more likely to get things done and not treat the meetings as a luncheon club. As noted, they're likely to have some money and to know some people with money - both key attributes. And finally, don't feel like you're asking them a favor in some unfair way. Service on boards is an expected part of an executive's life - people in the professions know that volunteer service is essential for developing a resume and expanding their own network.

Retired professionals are also great snags for the board. They have a lot of time and often possess a lifetime of skill and knowledge from which you can benefit.

Also include people on your target list whose livelihoods fall into your service area, whatever that may be - healthcare professionals if this is a health-related organization, teachers if it's educational, scientists if it's research, etc.

If you are in the U.S. and don't object to the idea, a good place to start is your nearest United Way chapter. They actually compile and maintain listings of organizations with board vacancies (here's an example, Massachusetts' Board Bank). People interested in serving on a board can peruse the listings and get in touch with the organization.
posted by Miko at 4:35 AM on September 12, 2009

Here's some resources (these are somewhat arts-related, because that's my field, but many of their resources apply across the nfp spectrum):

Lawyers for the Creative Arts
Arts and Business Council (google search, there are ABCs all over the country)

Most major cities will also have organizations for retired businesspeople looking for volunteer and board opportunities. These can be a mixed blessing because you sometimes find people whose assumption is that you need them to "rescue" you (little lady). However, they are a resource. In Chicago it's the Executive Service Corps. Again, google that phrase, these exist all over the country.

Another idea is to research funding in your city, see what corporations focus on that area and call their foundation, community relations, or giving program director to see if they have an mid-level executives looking to volunteer on boards. Many corporations have a mandate for their executives to do this. If there is a Morgan Stanley branch in your area, start with them. They have a very active foundation and part of its mission is to involve their up-and-comers in local charity. They are wonderful (my experience with MS in NY and Chicago, ymmv).

Join a business people's club like the Union League Club here in Chicago and get on their young execs, foundation, and volunteer committees. You'll make tons of contacts. Were you in a sorority or fraternity in college? Contact the national office and state your problem. They will be able to connect you with potential board members.

I'd get going on what to ask potential board members and pitfalls to avoid, but I have to go to work.

Finally-- you are out of your mind doing this, and I wish it was me. :)
posted by nax at 5:48 AM on September 12, 2009

Another great resource is BoardSource - they charge for consultation but they have a lot of useful, free whitepapers.
posted by Miko at 6:22 AM on September 12, 2009

OMG! I cannot believe the INCREDIBLE & PRICELESS advice you all gave me. I barely know where to start, except THANK YOU!

GUM suggested considering a fiscal sponsorship. I had heard of such arrangements for start-ups, but needed Gum to remind me of them. The notion is intriguing. What I wouldn't do to have the headache of filings and such taken off my plate! I believe the decision whether or not to pursue fiscal sponsorship depends on two things: 1) How much would a CPA and bookkeeper cost vs. the 10% or so the fiscal sponsor would take? and 2) Is financial sponsorship worthwhile in order to postpone filing costs -- and other attendant responsibilities that come with managing an NP -- until the prospective nonprofit proves itself viable? Then obtain 501c3 status.

I think if my CPA (who is experienced in nonprofits and has informed me he will offer a free consultation on the subject) and a bookkeeper he recommended can assure me of what to expect in annual costs, and those costs are significantly less than a 10% cut the fiscal sponsor would take from first-year projected revenue, it makes a compelling case for starting the NP without fiscal sponsorship. Do you all agree with this? Or not?

Regarding 2), what are your thoughts? Is fiscal sponsorship sensible to have UNTIL the project proves it can fly on its own?

A FEW OF YOU asked what kind of nonprofit this will be. It's environmental education, and having to do with agriculture. That's about all I want to say at this point.

Recently, the executive committee of a resource conservation and development organization voted to propose this project to its California affiliates. If they come on board, this will provide clout, a wealth of resource experts, and seed money. This will go a long way toward establishing credibility, but still doesn't establish financial viability. So, still, a financial sponsorship might be in order...at least in the beginning. Again, I'm soliciting your opinions on this.

NAX asked about staffing. In the beginning, I'm planning on using mostly independent contractors for specific projects, and, if I can find them, volunteers. Most of this work, at least initially, can be done by telecommuting in combination with a web-based management tool like BaseCamp. I'm the one who will have to travel, to meet up and sign on sponsors, to go to conferences, expos, and whatnot. As soon as enough money comes in to finance a salary, and keep me fed and clothed, I will immediately hire someone, probably one of the indie contractors I will have been working with, to work alongside me in an executive capacity, to help grow the organization, and develop the project. That's my game plan...for now.
posted by zagyzebra at 5:17 PM on September 12, 2009

« Older Shirin's glasses?   |   Who else is gonna bring you a concrete arrow? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.