Women in Non-Profits: Breaking into the Sector

As women’s issues – gender discrimination, work-life balance, equal pay and more – continue to take centre stage, the surprising dearth of women in non-profit leadership has not gone without notice.

What’s interesting is that the bulk of employees in non-profit organisations is made up of women – a whopping 75% in some sectors to be specific – which only serves to underline the old bias that the not-for-profit sector is largely a women’s domain.

But when it comes to the top rungs of the ladder, clearly, there is still a long way to climb.

The leadership issue aside, there are many women out there who hold an interest in non-profit work but do not know where to start in terms of launching their own thing. There seems to be this perception that starting a non-profit organisation (NPO) – and non-profit in this context referring to charity organisations – requires a huge injection of capital.

Well, to a large extent, that is very much true.

In a world where money does not grow on trees, launching a non-profit enterprise with little or no cash can be a tall order. And understandably so. Growing from nothing to a sustainable venture that is financially healthy does take some doing.

Across the world, there are thousands of stories of non-profits that have launched only to go bust in a few years, if not months. A lot of that has to do with being underfunded and solving the dilemma that is staying afloat with no profits coming in.

It is even more challenging when there are salaries and other expenses to be met – as opposed to solely relying on the goodwill of volunteers.

So, is it possible to launch on a shoestring and stay sustainable in the long-term?

Look out for the Pitfalls

Often the case, a lot of women planning to start their own outfit succumb to some common traps along the way, especially if they lack enough experience in the sector.

Starting a charitable non-profit is not straightforward. There are several potential missteps you need to sidestep, including:

  • Poor research and planning

One common mistake many start-up non-profits make is not coming up with a business plan. In the eagerness to do all that is noble, a lot of founders seem to forget that non-profits too are a form of business.

As you are aware, a business plan is an essential requirement for every business prior to launch.

When it comes to drafting your charity’s business plan, some of the things you need to give thought to include assessing the competitiveness of your environment, your funding sources, potential items and services to be offered and to whom, as well as a needs evaluation.

  • Inadequate financial knowledge

Many founders have an unrealistic expectation with regard to financing a start-up non-profit.

They fail to anticipate what it will take to take the enterprise off the ground, let alone having an idea of where they intend to source funding from.

  • Underestimating the task at hand

As already pointed out, starting a non-profit is harder than many people think. There are a myriad steps involved, many touching on matters legal such as incorporation and application for exempt status.

Pragmatic realism is as important as passion, if not more, when it comes to evaluating what is involved and the time it takes to accomplish success.

  • Failure to put together an effective board

This has the ability to make or break your non-profit given the board members are your first circle of influence.

These need to be individuals with plenty of influence, resources and other contacts. Also importantly, the board members should trust in your mission and be willing to sell it to others.

In other words, board members should be able to unlock doors for you.

  • Bookkeeping and accounting

Accountability is a key area of concern for NPO regulators, and bookkeeping is a fundamental aspect of disclosures.

Keeping records and books updated is a struggle for start-up non-profits, so consider outsourcing this task to a professional accountant if you can’t do it yourself. There are many professional accounting software solutions at your disposal that you can make use of.

Tips to Help you Break into the Non-Profit World

Amelia Earhart, the American author and aviation pioneer famously said:

‘Preparation, I have often said, is rightly two-thirds of any venture.’

This is definitely the case when it comes to launching non-profits. There is a lot you need to get acquainted with to boost your chances of success.

Here are a few tips you should keep in mind before taking the plunge:

>> Don’t assume anything about non-profits – See ‘Underestimating the task at hand’ above.

>> Limited resources demand unlimited effort – you must be prepared to roll up your sleeves and could find yourself wearing multiple hats from time to time.

>>Learn to take a few steps back – It is easy to get sucked into the mission to the point you neglect other aspects of your life. Service to others is wonderful, but you can’t serve well when you are burnt out. You need to take care of yourself too.

>> Public speaking helps – As a non-profit leader, this is one of the most important skills you will need to build on. Not only will you be required to explain to donors the ROI they can expect in terms of impact and change from time to time, but this is also a skill you will find yourself drawing upon in your everyday dealings.

>> Relationships are key – Whether it is board members, donors, or volunteers, cultivating good relationships will throw wide open the doors of opportunity, conversations and new contacts.

>> Teach yourself how to drive participation by learning to ask people to work for free.

>> Fundraising is a must-read subject for anyone looking to venture into non-profit.

>> Learn how to keep donors engaged once you have them on board.

>> Remember that as a leader, you are responsible for setting the pace as far as your organisational culture is concerned. Be passionate about your mission and don’t forget a service mind-set should always come above everything else.


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