June 8

Five breakthrough skills for nonprofit start-ups

No, not fundraising.

Not Board development.

Program development? Nope.

Marketing? Social Media?

No and no.

These areas dominate our time in nonprofits, so it’s natural to perceive them as the foundations.

But they are categories of activity, not breakthrough skills.

Yes, they require skills, specialist skills even, and you can learn them.

Lots of coaches like me train them.

How to Fundraise. How to Develop Engaged Boards. How to Create Impactful Programs.

Yadda yadda.

But I’m talking about core skills that make the work in all these categories easier.

Truly transformational skills.

Skills that unlock hidden potential.

Skills that alter the course of your nonprofit’s future.

Breakthrough skills

What are they?

There are five:

  • Entrepreneurial mindset
  • Time habits
  • Networking
  • Storytelling
  • Supportive leadership

In this article, I’m going to walk through each of these and show you how they underpin conventional activities like fundraising, board development, program development, and marketing and social media.

Off the bat, understand that these are easy non-technical skills. Anyone can learn them and mastering all five puts your nonprofit on a much higher, faster trajectory.

You’ll do the other stuff faster, easier, and better.

Let me show you how.

Entrepreneurial mindset, the turbocharger

The first skill, an entrepreneurial mindset, is a turbocharger for your nonprofit.

I explained what an entrepreneurial mindset was in a previous article (here). Your mindset is the beliefs, assumptions, and worldview you’ve developed that seems like “truth” to you. There are “fixed” mindsets that consider life stable and hard to change. “Growth” mindsets take change as the natural order. Most people with growth mindsets are positive and optimistic, hoping they can harness change to benefit themselves or others.

An entrepreneurial mindset is a growth mindset.

I like the definition put forward by the Entrepreneurial Learning Institute (ELI). An entrepreneurial mindset is the “self-directed pursuit of opportunities to create value for others”.

Self-directed means you take control of what you can control and take responsibility for your choices and actions.

Pursuit of opportunities refers to creative problem-solving, which starts with problem-finding. That means looking at things differently, challenging assumptions and entrenched views, and observing with empathy how people interact with their problems. Solutions emerge through trial-and-error testing for the best approach.

Creating value for others seems obvious for nonprofits, but in practice we speak too little about “value”. We create financial value, but our greatest value is in our programs, their results for the people who take part, including staff and partners. We also create value for and through our audiences and by influencing policy and opinion.

Anyone can learn these elements of the entrepreneurial mindset (indeed, that’s the mission of ELI).

The turbocharger kills fear and doubt

An entrepreneurial mindset turbocharges your fundraising, board, programs, and marketing by eliminating the two fundamental barriers that stymie progress for most founders and start-up leaders: fear and doubt.

Fear and doubt crop up anytime the moment calls for action.

Should I proceed?

Should I google for more advice or a template?

Get another opinion?

What if it all goes wrong?

These worries are genuine.

But self-directed problem solvers know that they’re unlikely to get it right the first time. They’ll face up to the trials and errors. They’ll see what works and what doesn’t and keep trying.

Fundraising campaign floundering?

Board needs a pick-me-up?

Program performance at a plateau?

Engagement down on Instagram?

These are problems, but they’re not catastrophic.

They’re not going to stop someone with the right mindset.

They’re not going to frustrate an entrepreneurial founder to where she considers giving up.

Quite the opposite.

The bias toward action, and the idea of iterating through a series of tests to find the best approach, guarantees that the nonprofit founder with the entrepreneurial mindset will fundraise more, faster. She’ll recruit the right board members quicker and create more effective programs and more engaging marketing than her counterpart thwarted by fear and doubt.

Time habits

We all have the same 24 hours in a day, but nonprofit start-ups can swallow that up quickly, many times over.

How you use your time matters more than any other resource you have.

Learning good time habits, the second breakthrough skill, determines how you show up for all your activities.

I don’t mean showing up on time.

I mean, how you show up, as in with what energy.

Your energy determines how you experience time.

We don’t feel in hours and minutes.

We feel ourselves spending energy.

Quickly, as in exercise.

Or slowly, as in meetings.

How you experience time either sustains you or deflates you, regardless of the task you’re working on.

You could spend the afternoon running the ideal program, perfectly aligned to your purpose, but feel alone, frustrated, and run down afterwards because you’re exhausted and your mind is elsewhere – on the email you wrote but didn’t send, or next week’s meeting with your biggest donor, or why your Instagram reel got no likes.

Maybe today’s program went on longer than planned and you arrived home too late to eat with the family. Again.

You nestle into the sofa, binge the Great British Bake-off while devouring a pint of Choco-Marshmallow-Heaven, knowing full well you’ve not got enough time tomorrow to get through your promises.

I know this routine well.

My go to was Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked.

And I have strong opinions about the best fat for short crust pastry.

We all know this routine ends with a wicked night’s sleep, a rushed morning, and a feeling of being left behind that lasts the whole next day.

This routine recycles deflating energy.

Good time habits eliminate these routines.

They don’t just help you structure your time.

Time habits help you manage your energy and conserve it for what counts.

Not time management, time habits!

Most time management techniques and apps don’t work for people struggling to fix their energy.

Time management – scheduling and prioritizing – are not the real culprits.

Undermining your energy, keeping you rushing around tired all the time, are your time habits.

As habits, they’re almost invisible.

Things like setting and keeping boundaries.

Managing distractions.

Resisting the desire to be always available.

Saying “no”.

Looking after yourself, not just with regular breaks during the workday, but how you sleep, eat, drink, exercise, and reflect.

All the above determine how much energy you have available for the hard stuff.

Get these habits right, and the nonprofit tasks you loathe will breeze by. You may not enjoy doing them any more than previously, but you’ll find they sustain you.

You’ll give the right amount of attention and spend the right amount of energy on all the tasks for fundraising, boards, programs, and marketing.


Where time habits concern your inner energy, networking is all about your outside energy.

The great myth is that networking is for extroverts.

I’m sure extroverts propagated this myth hoping to meet others like them.

But introverts can be excellent networkers.

Networking is easy.

First, show up. Ideally, with the positive energy your improved time habits deliver.

Second, be consistent. Don’t show up once, twice, or three times. Show up every time.

Third, listen, listen, listen. That’s right, you don’t have to talk too much or command an audience.

Your primary goal is human connection.

You won’t connect much if you’re doing all the talking or if you show up like a robot parrot saying the same lines over and over.

By listening, you’ll spark connections by understanding other people’s interests, fears, and aspirations. They’ll ask about yours, too.

At some point, you can share an invitation.

But here’s the trick – the invitation isn’t for them.

You ask if they can recommend someone for you to invite.

“I’m looking for volunteers to marshal our 5K run in July. Do you know anyone who’d be able to help?”

“We need a Board Member with marketing expertise. Know anyone I should talk to?”

“We still need a few items for our silent auction. What would you suggest?”

Let the sparks twinkle

Put these invitations out, then let them work for you.

The human connections you’ve sparked will twinkle in response.

But you probably won’t see it.

The twinkling happens “out there”, as your network networks.

Out of the blue, you’ll get a text or an email sharing the name of a friend of a friend. She’s a runner coming back from injury so can’t run, but she’d love to help with your 5K.

A new connection on LinkedIn messages to say they heard you’re looking for Board Members with marketing experience, and they want to know more.  

A delivery arrives with a gift basket from a local deli, just in time for the auction.

This phenomenon works both ways.

When casually chatting at an event or a follow up conversation, you’ve referred two people to the lawyer on your board and one to the accountant.

You’ve recommended the photographer who took pictures for your website and at your event to so many people you can’t remember.

Your network is doing a lot of the work for you.

Put energy into the network, and it will provide.

Networking is too easy, and too valuable, to ignore.


More people are talking about storytelling in nonprofits.

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “Data tells, but stories sell.”

Numbers are boring. Charts may look pretty, but still pretty boring.

They work best in context, and stories provide that context.

They provide the Why, What, and How.

The Who is the Hero.

We understand the hero starts with a problem, and even though she makes some progress, still can’t solve it.

As time goes on, the stakes get higher.

She needs to solve this problem, or else.

Then something happens.

She gets help. She finds just what she needs to overcome the problem, just at the last moment.

If we’re in Hollywood, she lives happily ever after.

If you had data points to share about her journey, or how she ultimately triumphed, they’d make sense as part of the story. They’d be interesting. Data on its own, not so much.

Stories make connections

We might give networking credit for making connections, but it’s really the stories.

Networking gets us out there, consistently, face-to-face.

But stories are what we listen to and share.

Why do they work so well?

Because our brains recognize the story structure.

Beginning, middle, end.

Problem, struggle, help, solution.

The Hero’s Journey.

Stories come in a format we find natural. We can focus on the content rather than use valuable brain resources to interpret how to process the information we’re receiving.

Storytelling has a natural home in fundraising, marketing, and social media because you can deepen the connections stories make and make those connections with more people.

But don’t snooze on the role storytelling plays in developing Boards and programs. These activities are the beating heart of your nonprofit. Programs are the vehicles for stories because they facilitate the hero’s journey.

Supportive leadership - be the change

The fifth and final breakthrough skill is helping others develop the other four skills.

I’m not proclaiming any mind-bending leadership theory with this one.

But if you’ve made any progress on mindset, time habits, networking, and storytelling, it will be obvious your nonprofit will thrive when powered by people with the same breakthrough skills. 

Since these skills are not difficult or technical, you can share them with all staff, volunteers, and board members.

You’ve heard that organizational culture starts “at the top”.

That’s you.

Setting the example for others – being the change you want to see – visibly displays the behaviors and attitudes you’re trying to cultivate.

Like the entrepreneurial mindset.

Like good time habits.

You get the picture.

Encourage trial-and-error.

Let folks make mistakes and learn from them.

You’ll get everywhere you want to go better, faster, and easier.

 Just think of the stories you’ll have to tell!

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