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3 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting a Nonprofit

A signpost with one sign that says failure and the other says success.

When I started The World Is Your Oyster (TWIYO) — a youth development after school program aimed at fostering leadership through arts, service, and travel — I assumed I knew enough make this happen. With a Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Management, education experience, and ongoing support from mentors, I felt adequately prepared to launch TWIYO. But, as some of you might know, it initially failed.

However, since the nonprofit has gotten off the ground this past year, there have been a few gems I can think back to and wish someone had told me.

You’re accountable to more than just the people you serve

Once you get your tax-exempt status, you have deal with a whole new kind of accountability.

Of course, you’re accountable to your board, however as TWIYO got rolling I realized that I was also accountable to organizations like the New York Charities Bureau. There are a lot of items that required reporting, tracking, and everything that can be summed up as “keeping your organization compliant.” This can be time-consuming, but if you forget about it, it can slow down your ability to get funding and serve your community.

If this was something I had known prior to starting TWIYO I would have created a checklist for all the steps needed after becoming tax-exempt—just so that the celebration of achieving that milestone would have been shorter-lived and the work of additional accountability wouldn’t have caught me by surprise!

You will wear every hat for a while (and this requires you to take care of yourself)

Honestly, I think I was prepared for the fact that I would have to wear every hat at some point. Other leaders and entrepreneurs shared this with me, but it wasn’t until I felt incredibly fatigued during a Christmas field trip with our students that I realized that you have to take care of yourself well enough to stay on top of multiple priorities.

In many ways, I think it’s important at the beginning stages to keep your eyes and hands in everything: you’ll lead better by knowing the functions of your team and how all the pieces work together to achieve your organization’s mission. But underestimating the need for a good night’s sleep, exercise, and personal reflection can really run you down.

Had I known this before I would have made a workout schedule and health regimen to stick to and had someone hold me to it! When fatigue and stress come knocking health and wellness are usually the first things to take a backseat but if you have someone who can keep you aware of that, the best you will be the healthiest you. You wont be able to wear every hat successfully if you aren’t operating at 100% or close enough to that.

Any impact is an impact, no matter how small 

Over time I’ve had many things in flux: volunteers, schedules, events, etc. The only consistency has been my desire to see TWIYO make an impact on the lives of the students it serves. That being said, as founder, it’s easy to get trapped in the vision and feel you aren’t making a difference or accomplishing your mission.

I wish that someone had told me that small achievements are just as important as large ones. I would have beat myself up a lot less about our numbers, getting started, and testing our pilot. We work with about five students on a regular basis and while that is a small number, TWIYO was responsible for taking them and their families to Carnegie Hall for the first time where they heard their first classical music performance! Small facts like that warm my heart because that is the work that we do.

Eventually I’ll be able to say we’ve served over 100 students but our five students have gotten TWIYO closer to that goal and helped to chip away at the bigger impact we want to achieve. If I had this gem in my toolkit earlier, I would’ve scaled down my vision for implementation and started piloting the program sooner.

All this being said, this journey has revealed more to me than anything I could have envisioned. Had someone told me these gems, it may have been smoother sailing, but the lessons learned are incredibly valuable.

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About the Author | In addition to founding and running The World is Your Oyster, Anne Desrosiers is a Nonprofit & Career Management Consultant, professional writer/blogger, and travel agent. On a personal mission to help others do good, live their passion and see the world, Anne is committed to making a difference while sharing her experiences in the process.

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