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March 8, 2018

The Secret Sauce: What Makes a Start-Up Move Up?

We’ve had the pleasure of watching many nonprofits grow from grassroots efforts into major organizations. And we’ve seen others falter and never move beyond the initial founding stages. They work for months or years in isolation, trying to raise money and build partnerships, but to little or no avail.

After observing dozens of organizations try to make the transition from “start-up” to thriving nonprofit, I have come to the conclusion that the key difference between those that make it and those that don’t is (drum roll, please…) having a decent-sized, at least moderately-engaged board of directors.

Yes, the board is the secret sauce. Why? Because having a “real” board is the fundamental difference between being a nonprofit organization versus being a personal project.

When a small group of people (even 7 or 8) are committed to your work, you can say to the world, “See, this really is a good idea and others believe in it!”

That, in turn, gives donors the confidence to support you and other nonprofits the confidence to partner with you.

We get it. When you file for your 501(c)3 it’s most expeditious to write on the form that the board is you, your brother, and your uncle. That’s OK. But, you have to move on from there and do it quickly.

There’s so much your board can do for you. They can advise you on your programs, make connections in the field, provide critical legal and financial help, and help you fundraise.

But the board’s most important role, especially in the early years, is to give you credibility.

Your board does not have to be composed of captains of industry or high society movers and shakers. It’s good if they’re not all your relatives, but other than that, it’s enough that they’re showing up and supporting your work.

We have lots of blogs on this site about how to recruit and engage your board of directors. And, BoardSource has a full library of ideas on how to build and manage your board.

So, if you’re struggling to move up and out of those lonely early stages of nonprofit development, turn your attention to board recruitment. It’ll make all the difference.

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