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5 Pieces of Startup Advice from Social Entrepreneurs

By Kathleen Kelly Janus

Amanda Alexander '17 of Detroit Justice Center speaks on a panel "After the Headlines, Black Lives Still Matter" at the Echoing Green Summit.

Last month’s Echoing Green Summit brought together over 400 funders, academics, politicians, and business and nonprofit leaders to discuss some of the top challenges we face in social change today, such as civic engagement, combatting bias, and addressing climate change. At the Summit, I got the chance to talk with dozens of Echoing Green’s Fellows and asked them what their most important piece of advice is for nonprofit leaders working to scale their organizations, which is the topic of my forthcoming book, Social Startup Success. I found that a number of them highlighted these key points:


1. Stay True to Your Mission

With so many competing demands for time, from fundraising to staff development, as both Echoing Green President Cheryl Dorsey and Rob Gitin of At The Crossroads, which serves homeless youth, pointed out, keeping your focus on the mission can be a tricky challenge. But putting the mission front and center in all of your decision-making will steer you away from common pitfalls, like developing too many programs and losing focus on your core goals, and will also be an invaluable guide in your daily prioritizing.


2. Build A Team

Founders tend to get the spotlight, but as Alan Khazei, founder of Be The Change, which builds coalitions to promote causes, told me, “No one changes the world by themselves. You have to find a partner and build a team.” That might mean looking for a co-founder, or, as I found many successful leaders have done, bringing in high-level staff, such as a Chief Financial Officer or Head of Programs, early in the building process. As Gemma Bulos, of Global Women’s Water Initiative, which trains African women in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector, emphasized, strong team leadership requires humility and willingness to ask for help. One good way to reach out for advice is to hire a leadership coach. Carolyn Laub, founder of Gay-Straight Alliance Network, recommended that “working with a coach to do internal self-reflection makes us better leaders.”


Photo courtesy of Kathleen Kelly Janus.


3. Think Big Even When You’re Small

As I also found in a research study about scaling, several leaders stressed that setting one’s sights on bold ambitions, right from the start, is key to sustaining the creativity and drive that are required to persist through the many inevitable setbacks and disappointments of early-stage growth. Felecia Hatcher of Miami-based Code Fever, which teaches people in underrepresented communities to code, said thinking in terms of abundance as opposed to scarcity is key to success. She reminds us, “You can make money and have social impact. Often, when you set your heart on this work, you think you need to struggle through it and give from scarcity rather than abundance.”


4. Don’t Over-Plan

Founders often think they need the perfect plan or just the right amount of funding before they launch an organization. As Laura Weidman Powers of Code 2040, which works to increase diversity in the tech sector, told me, instead you should “just get started.” She and many other leaders highlighted that the best insights about how to grow an organization come from actually doing the work, starting to collect data, and learning from the process. Darrell Scott of Push Black, a mobile-based organizing group that activates Black voters through daily black history and news stories, particularly stressed the importance of the testing process in improving a business model, “Everything can be tested. It helps us make critical decisions, and it helps us save money.”


5. Be Patient and Practice Self Care

Finally, it’s important to remember that social change is a marathon, not a sprint. As Rey Faustino of One Degree, a Yelp-like platform for finding social services, told me, it’s important to be aware that “the journey is long and hard,” and leaders must work into their schedules time to rejuvenate. Kathryn Finney of digitalundivided, which provides support to Black and Latinx women founders of tech companies, says she carves out regular time to do things apart from work that give her joy, such as pursuing her life-long dream of becoming a lifeguard, and she makes sure to spend quality time with her family. She wisely told me, “The work can’t be done if you’re not able to do it.”

This guest post is authored by Kathleen Kelly Janus (@kkellyjanus), a lecturer at the Stanford Program on Social Entrepreneurship and the author of the forthcoming book, Social Startup Success: How the Best Nonprofits Launch, Scale Up and Make a Difference.

For more photos from the conference – including site visits, the Echoing Green Fellow marketplace, and conversations in action – check out our Facebook album and revisit Summit highlights on social.

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