Questions worth asking before setting up a non profit organisation

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Questions to ask yourself before you set something up

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Define a term

Any ‘light bulb’ moment which inspires you to set about doing something that enriches the lives of others is precious, and that passion and enthusiasm merits being put to good use. But this may not in itself mean it is a good idea to set up a new charity.

Think before you set up a new charity

The Charity Commission advises anyone who is thinking of setting up a new charity or other non profit organisation to do some research before going any further. There are already 160,000 registered charities in the UK and they estimate probably as many again smaller unregistered ones. More than 6,000 new charities were registered last year alone.

Look at what other charities are doing

What you plan to do may already be being done by others and duplication is discouraged as it results in similar causes competing for limited funds. This may result in damage to an existing charitable endeavour, which could adversely affect their vulnerable beneficiaries.

Researching what already exists in both your area of activity and geography should always be your starting point to ensure that your project genuinely adds value by filling a gap rather than duplicating and detracting from a pre-existing initiative. Working in conjunction with an existing initiative might be a “better” way to deliver public benefit.

Check your motivation

Are you prompted by outrage at hearing of a social injustice? Are you prompted by gratitude, or a feeling that “that could have been me”? Have you been through a bereavement and wish to do something in memory of a loved one? Are you at a stage in life where you do not have to use all your available work time to earn money to support yourself and your family? Do you simply want to give something back to your community?

Just as “dogs are for life and not just for Christmas”, setting up a new organisation needs to be approached carefully with early consideration of long term sustainability and what will happen when you are personally no longer the driving force behind it. Harsh as it sounds, organisations which are overdependant on a founder are vulnerable and may not be sustainable. Effective founders need to be thinking of how they will be succeeded at an early stage.

Ask yourself some searching questions around why and how you want to be involved:

  • Is my aim to benefit one individual or family or a wider group of people?
  • Do I have a personal need to do this more than there is a real need for it to be done?
  • Will my project fill a genuine gap or am I duplicating something which already exists?

Check your objectives

From the outset it helps to be very clear about your objectives when embarking on a project. You should be able to write them down briefly and clearly, so that your vision can be easily understood by others.

The process of writing objectives and testing them out on others will help you to check that your idea is worth taking forwards. 

Vision and mission

Your project needs to have a clear and communicable statement of purpose. This should not be lengthy – two or three short lines is best. You will probably start out with a long and wordy expression of your vision; the process and discipline of distilling down to two or  three succinct lines will result in wording which clearly and engagingly communicates your mission to others and encourages them to “get on the bus”.

Write a mission statement

A useful process for generating your statement is:

  • write down all your ideas and plans, without editing or
  • prioritising them
  • Sort them into natural groupings, using different colour pens  to indicate connected items.
  • keep refining the groupings until you have 3 core ones
  • try to write one sentence that captures the key messages from each of these groupings so that you end up with 3 sentences.
  • Work these sentences into one paragraph.

Try your mission statement out on a few “critical friends”. Ask them to say back to you, in their own words, what it says, so that you can ensure it says what you intended it to. This checking process will be all the more helpful if you test it on a range of people representative of the stakeholder groups you will need to engage with if your project is to be successful. It is important to challenge yourself and be open to constructive challenge by others to test out the validity and sustainability of your project.

Consider the time and talent needed

It might be helpful to consider the following questions:

  • Do I know how much time (capacity) will be needed?
  • Do I know what skills, experience, expertise, contacts (capability) are needed?
  • Do I have the necessary capacity and capability to set this up?
  • How will I fund myself while I commit time to making it happen?
  • Can I make a long-term commitment to see it through?
  • Can my personal circumstances accommodate a major commitment to this activity?
  • Do I have access to others who will ‘get on the bus with me’ to build the project’s capacity and capability?
  • Who can be my ‘critical friends’ on the journey?

It can be really difficult to appraise your own strengths and weaknesses objectively and it is helpful from the outset to have a ‘thought partner’ who is well disposed but not directly involved in the project to act as a critical friend.

It can be helpful to make a detailed inventory of the skills and expertise that the project will need. Use your critical friend to help you list your own attributes and skills. This will help you identify what skills and expertise you need to bring into the project.

Be aware that you and the team of people working for the organisation may have completely different working styles.  Don’t be put off by this, keep in mind that you are all ultimately working towards the same goal.  Instead, try to use each different style of organisation to your advantage.  Another persons “way” could open up an entirely different avenue to how your charity could fundraise or raise its profile.

Think about what success will look like

To engage other people, including funders, it is crucial to be able to show what success will look like and to have a believable strategy and action plan to achieve it.

Think of it in terms of training to run a marathon: your goal is to run the full 25 miles but you build up to it in measurable stages, each challenging but achievable until you are cumulatively ready for the event itself.

Consider key milestones

You will need to develop a detailed project plan to demonstrate that you know what needs to be done and how to go about it. The following questions provide a useful model to start  thinking about milestones over a three-year period:

  • What will the organisation look like in three years?
  • To achieve this, what will it look like in two years?
  • To achieve this, what will it look like in one year?
  • To achieve this, what is my monthly action plan for year 1?

Developing these plans will help to guide your efforts and activities and make your plans accessible to other people you involve.

If you decide to go ahead it is important to organise yourself properly. Don’t try and re-invent the wheel, seek advice from other organisations in your area and be open to learn from their mistakes; its about getting the job done well rather than proving yourself. It is most unlikely that you will be able to make a success of it all on your own so allowing other people to share the journey from the outset is beneficial.


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