Career Advancement, Entrepreneurship, Featured

When should you quit your job and work on your startup nonprofit full-time?

Photo credit: djgis, Shutterstock

Photo credit: djgis, Shutterstock

Becoming a coach to start-up nonprofit leaders, after having been a recruiter of commissioned sales people in the financial services industry for a decade, has been an interesting transition to say the least. In some ways the two sectors are completely different; however, in many other respects they are similar in that in each you find small teams of passionate individuals committed to making a difference in their communities through helping others.

After sharing some recruitment advice with an ED recently, I began thinking back over my career and reflected on the hundreds of people I had personally recruited and what had made the difference between those who were able to financially make a full-time career change out of their jobs and those who seemed to always dream of running a nonprofit but could never seem to build any kind of momentum.

If you’re a founding ED I’m sure you’ve asked yourself how you can know if you’re ready to make the jump to running your organization as your sole career instead of just on a part-time basis. Here are nine “Ms” to consider before making the leap:

1. Money. Can you realistically financially afford to be full-time? How much are your expenses compared to how much money your organization is bringing in right now? Do you have enough coming in that you could justify taking a pay check? If not, hold off – you don’t need the stress of watching your savings dwindle while you’re trying to get your organization off the ground.

2. Mental toughness. Have you been through some tough times running your organization or has it been smooth-sailing so far? If you don’t have any experience facing and overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges yet you may not me mentally ready to be self-employed full time. Toughness is like a muscle, you need to break it down to build it back up stronger. Make sure you’ve already faced some really tough stuff before you “go it” alone.

3. Mission. Are you 100% clear what your organization’s mission is and how you plan to accomplish it? The time to figure out your business plan is before your financial life depends on it, not after. How effective are your programs? Can you build a successful, sustainable organization upon them? If not, go back to the beginning and work out the bugs while you’ve got a pay check coming in.

4. Marriage. How supportive is your life-partner of your desire to run your organization full time? Although you may be the one going to work with your clients every day, you and your spouse’s lives are unquestionably intertwined and he/she will experience the side-effects of your choice. Make sure you have your partner’s full support before quitting your job. If not, be ready for your marital relationship to get a lot more complicated.

5. Mastermind. Being self-employed is a tough, lonely gig. Although you may be passionate about your cause, there will be a lot of times when you feel alone, estranged, and helpless. Trying to face your challenges without having a mastermind team to help you get through them is (in my opinion) a death wish. None of us can do it alone – we all need three or four key people in our lives we can regularly talk to, share our challenges with, and be encouraged by.

6. Momentum. Do you have stuff going on or is your logic that by being full-time you would have time to get some momentum going? Before making any kind of full-time career change, get yourself some hard evidence that your idea is viable (and bankable) and begin to get things rocking within the time that you currently have. When you get too busy and have enough money coming in that is the time to start thinking about making a career change.

7. Mentor. Who do you have lined up to personally coach you along the way? Why not dramatically shorten your learning curve by connecting with someone who is willing to help get to your goal sooner by sharing their hard-won advice? Professional athletes have coaches and effective executive directors have advisers. Don’t try to be a hero, work with a mentor right from day one.

8. Management. Nonprofit leadership is a tough job and there are some tough management mechanics you have to master before you can justify running your organization full-time. For example: on a one-ten scale how good are you at board development, fundraising, and volunteer recruitment? If you’re any lower than a six in any of these areas, get busy taking courses to strengthen those core non-negotiable management skills before your pay check depends on it.

9. Marketing. Your organization will live and die by how well you learn how to market your idea to potential donors, board members, community leader and volunteers. Lousy at marketing but great with programs? Be ready for no growth or reverse growth. As the executive director of a small nonprofit, your job becomes all about raising awareness and money for your cause – nothing else really matters. (The truth is that if you can’t do that, your board will most likely fire you and you’ll be back to the job you had quit in the first place.)

Thinking about going full time in your organization and have a question I didn’t cover here? Leave a comment below and I look forward to getting back to you.

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About Natasha Golinsky

Natasha is the Founder of Next Level Nonprofits – an online training company dedicated to equipping new nonprofit executive directors with the skills and support they need to enjoy successful, sustainable and satisfying careers.

3 Comments

  1. Thank you very much Natasha, nine (Ms) has taught me good lesson, please allow to post this question how can you promote the mission of the organisation? and how many of the staff, volunteers, donor, consultant can easily understand the mission within a short interaction? we begun a community based organisation (CBOs) since 2006 and the two colleagues of mind they run away and am still looking ahead and even have much better vision than before. in this scenario how can you me advice me to make sure the organisation continue to pursue her mission?

  2. Rodney Herring

    Hello Natasha, I am looking to branch out on my own to start a nonprofit transitional house for displaced women with children in Northern New Jersey. How do I find investors to gain capital? Social Work is my passion. I have been doing alcohol and substance counseling for 15 years. It times to work for self. HELP.

    • The short answer (for me) is, you don’t–as a nonprofit, you would find _donors to gain _gifts to your mission, which is a slightly different thing. I think it is right to think of them as investors, but you have to remember what they would be investing in–and it’s the same thing YOU would be investing in: the sustainable, successful transition of the women you serve. This might take the form of a “bricks and mortar” campaign for a house, but it might take the form of raising a bit of start-up funding to allow you to take advantage of Natasha’s nine “Ms” to the point you can leave your day-job. Hope I am on the right track, willing to say more–thanks! for your desire to do this work.

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