Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Getting Started

by: Jen Maslanski, Argenta Copywriter
Successfully starting a nonprofit can offer immense fulfillment. It is a notable, commendable feat from logistics to management and from marketing to action. However, it’s precisely this complexity that can present multiple challenges and pitfalls along the way. To address this, this article will focus on the most notable mistakes nonprofits make when getting started.
Planning Ahead for a New Nonprofit
The most crucial mistake emerging nonprofits make is a lack of thorough planning. Indeed, launching a nonprofit requires careful planning and meticulous execution. To ensure both, you may initially focus on five key steps.
  1. Define your mission. Much like with any other business endeavor, your nonprofit needs a clear mission from the start. For this step, you may define the problem you seek to solve, craft the profiles of those you will help, and so forth.

  2. Assemble your team. Next, you may carefully examine your board member candidates. Consider such professionals as attorneys, web developers, accountants, public relations managers, and others your nonprofit will need.

  3. File your paperwork. Then, you should file all appropriate paperwork, from reserving/trademarking your nonprofit’s name to filing tax-exemption documents. The paperwork to attend to will vary depending on your nonprofit’s specific work, location, and other factors. Therefore, you must approach this phase with the utmost care.

  4. Budget. In addition, you will need to carefully examine operational, overhead, and other costs you may expect and budget accordingly. Failing to sustain themselves in the long term due to poor budgeting is among the most common mistakes nonprofits make.

  5. Market your nonprofit. Finally, you will need to market your nonprofit and spread the word far and wide. Regardless of how you will operate, marketing will ultimately determine your success at attracting donors and advocates.
Mistakes Nonprofits Make When Getting Started
Starting with conceptual errors, it is unfortunately common not to treat a nonprofit like a business. That’s a crucial error for the simple reason that a nonprofit is indeed, effectively, a business.
With the notable difference of not making money, nonprofits need to delve into most marketing practices businesses do, such as:
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO)
  • Content marketing
  • Social media campaigns
For proof of this, consider Digital Dot and other reputable digital marketing agencies. Their portfolios typically include multiple nonprofits, precisely because such services are a necessary component of success.
In addition, nonprofits are effectively identical to for-profits as regards, among others:
Thus, this is not simply a conceptual distinction. Instead, if left unchallenged, this perception can have grave practical consequences that hamper your nonprofit’s longevity.
Financing Poorly
As mentioned above, financing is another crucial front where one may misjudge needs or mishandle financing through fundraising blunders. Here, we'll cover both.
  1. Budgeting.
    Initially, budgeting can offer ample room for error – especially for the inexperienced. In this regard, the paperwork mentioned above includes tax exemption and articles of incorporation, which may strain your sustainability if mismanaged. Moreover, miscalculating overhead and other costs is similarly common. Thus, professional help from the earliest stages is highly advisable.

  2. Fundraising.
    Similarly, many nonprofits don’t sufficiently explore the difference between crowdfunding and peer-to-peer fundraising. In turn, they stumble into fundraising troubles precisely because of this oversight. Of course, that’s not to say that one is strictly inferior to the other. However, each has its advantages and disadvantages, and each calls for a different approach.

Overlooking User Engagement Metrics
To return to the subject of marketing, very common among mistakes nonprofits make is overlooking user engagement metrics. This oversight is also noteworthy because it considerably hampers one’s marketing efforts – often leading to eventual failure.

Having established a healthy SEO foundation, your nonprofit should ideally have specific strategies in place for each funnel stage:
  • Lead generation; ensuring visitors can find you
  • Lead acquisition; acquiring your visitors’ interest
  • Conversion; convincing your leads to convert into donors
To do so effectively and enhance all 3, you will need to closely monitor the activity of your visitors. User engagement metrics to keep an eye on in this context include:
  • Website traffic and page views
  • Time on page and pages per session
  • Bounce rates and exit rates
  • Return visits
  • Conversion rates
Understandably, this too may be a challenging undertaking. Thus, as with budgeting, seeking professional help may be worth your consideration.
Starting With Poor Leadership
Finally, before asking your constituents for donations, there are two more common nonprofit mistakes to avoid. They do slightly overlap, but they differ enough to warrant different sections.
One lies in poor initial leadership, as Forbes covers in an article on this topic. They very eloquently say that “[t]he makeup and commitment of a nonprofit board is its lifeblood”. This, they explain, is because “[a] great board can propel an organization to unimagined heights, and, conversely, a poor board will mire it in quicksand until it finally sinks”. This excellent point ties into our introductory section and underlines our prior point; your board composition is crucial. Poor leadership and a lack of critical skillsets within it can sabotage your nonprofit from its earliest stages.
Not Diversifying It From Its Peers
The final mistake nonprofits make is rather conceptual as well but informs a plethora of practices, no less. Specifically, it’s neglecting to diversify one’s nonprofit from its peers and immediate competitors.

This too is an overreaching distinction to make, as it should directly fuel such practices and factors as:
  • Your content creation and content marketing strategies
  • Social media campaigns, events, and initiatives
  • Branding, promotion, and PR

This point too delves into marketing and leadership territory alike but is highly substantive. Forbes also highlights this mistake, citing GivingUSA to assert that there were 1.6 million nonprofits registered in the US in 2016. This number is only estimated to have increased since, which makes any individual nonprofit harder to stand out.
In this regard, there is a delicate balance to maintain. You do need to stand out to succeed, but you don’t need to, as Forbes puts it, “reinvent the wheel”. Thus, while innovation may help, so may tutelage by seasoned mentors and experienced professionals.
To summarize, the most common mistakes nonprofits make when getting started often relate to specific misconceptions or lack of planning. Indeed, the most crucial one among the above that can undermine one’s longevity lies in a lack of thorough planning. Thus, to successfully launch your nonprofit and ensure long-term success, you may consider thoroughly researching, due consideration for marketing and promotion, and professional help wherever deemed necessary.