Bootstrapping the non-profit organisation Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do (part 1 of 4)

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

Rule 3: Serve Clients Eager to Pay for what you do

In a nutshell, Seth says that if someone isn’t eager to pay, they’re not your client. You get to pick. So work for people eager to pay.

Eager to ‘pay’ and non-profit work

At first glance, talk of clients ‘paying’ – and ignoring the rest – might seem like the antithesis of non-profit or community-based work. But it isn’t, and here’s why.

People always have to pay.

If they don’t pay money, they pay time, or effort, or attention – all of which they could have spent elsewhere. So even if your product is free, you have to find people who are eager to use it. And if it’s free and no-one wants to use it… well, it’s just not good enough yet.

Don’t get me wrong, you might have something technically great – but you need to think of your product or service not just as the thing itself, but as the thing plus the ‘wrapper‘ (of good communication and relationships and trust, for example) that’s necessary to get your people to buy.

I’ve seen this repeatedly at non-profits I’ve worked for: we’d make something valuable available for free – a highly qualified doctor giving free consultations, the free English lessons that everyone in a community said they wanted, a course for mothers-to-be in a poor community that exactly fit their needs and was far better than they could get anywhere else… and almost no-one came, or they came a couple of times and drifted off. There were lots of factors at work, but at the end of the day, we simply weren’t good enough, and couldn’t build an audience. Really – it’s possible to fail to build an audience for a doctor in a poor community with no healthcare. I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t done it.

As a wise man once said, 

If you know how to solve a problem but can’t communicate it to others in a way that actually results in it getting solved… you don’t actually have a full solution.

Driverlesscroc – rehashing an old Seth Godin blog post

And the times when we succeeded in building programs that got traction, were popular and impactful and in a couple of cases, became self-sustaining, we managed to find something small that stuck, and to grow a program that worked from there.

Start with the minimum viable product – the smallest and simplest thing you can offer that works – for the smallest possible audience, and build from there. Because if that group of people – the group most eager to pay – won’t pay, you need to go back to the drawing board.

If they will pay – then maybe you’re onto something. Now you’ve got clients, hopefully clients grateful enough and gracious enough to be patient as you work through all the implications of what you do, smooth off the rough edges and start learning to do it better. If and when it’s ready, your clients will tell their friends, and you’re off to the races.

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