Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 1: Real Work for Clients First

This is the first in a series applying Seth Godin’s rules of bootstrapping (see also here) to building a non-profit organisation.

Rule 1: Ship Real Work

“Planning and coordination are fine, but not if they don’t lead to real work. Don’t spend time trying to please [middleman-funder-etc] – the real work is figuring out how to engage with and serve your customer.

In the non-profit world:

The real work

Vision and mission statements, organisational structure, a shiny website, gala dinners are fine – but they are not your purpose, and they are not your real work.

The real work is getting in front of the people you are aiming to serve – first your clients (or ‘beneficiaries’) and secondarily potential donors. If you’re not getting to know and making a difference for your clients, you’re wasting your time. Your project is almost certainly a waste of money, and quite possibly the worst kind of vanity exercise.

In my experience this kind of work is often messy and quite often slightly unsatisfactory – because you’re working with real people, who quite often have those traits…

Two types of customer

In a non-profit, it’s quite possible that your services are paid for people people other than your clients – most charities are working in two-sided markets – donor pays, client receives benefit (incidentally, most news and magazine companies, and Google and Facebook, among others, operate this model).

The question is… what are your ‘donors’ buying? It might be:

  • The knowledge that they’ve done some good in the world
  • The ability to show off to their friends that they’ve done something good in the world
  • A fulfilled CSR requirement, and a pleased boss
  • The confidence that their money has been used responsibly and effectively

It’s really easy to exaggerate the work that you do. It’s easy to make grand claims, tell only the best stories, and play to every donor’s particular foibles, telling them what they want to hear so that they’ll give you money, and keep on giving you money.

Don’t.

At the end of the day, the product that your donors and supporters are buying (or should be buying) is the work that you do for your clients. Everything else is (relatively speaking), fluff.

And at all costs resist the temptation to let the ‘needs’ of your donors shape what you do for your clients. Don’t lose sight of the reason you’re doing this in the first place. Listen to your supporters, but always be clear that you seek to serve your clients first, to focus on their needs and make a real difference to them in a way that they value.

Be accountable to your clients and their needs first of all, and everything else will be (relatively) easy.

Rule 1 of bootstrapping the non-profit

Ship real work for your clients [beneficiaries] first. Be real with your supporters.

* More on being real with your supporters in Rule 3

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