Written by Christine Eubanks
You know that feeling when you want to plug something in, but the cord is just too darn short to reach the outlet? So frustrating because you absolutely know if you had an extension cord this would not be a problem. But, since you don’t at that moment, you accept it’s not going to happen without some ingenuity, borrowing a cord from somewhere else temporarily or coming up with some other plan.
This describes how it felt to work as an executive director of an emerging nonprofit. That very analogy drew me to the work – understanding a need, knowing there was a solution and committing to serving as that extension cord to connect the two. I quickly learned building a nonprofit was a series of similar experiences of coming up a little short and needing to convey the challenge to request support.
Fast forward to last year when I had the opportunity to help lead Next Stage’s incubator for emerging nonprofits: Cultivate. A 12-month curriculum designed for founding leaders who are selected as part of a cohort and take a deep dive into building a strong foundation for their organization culminating into a 3 to 5-year strategic vision business plan. Talk about an extension cord! I sure could have used this.
You might be asking – what exactly is an emerging nonprofit and what makes them special? Next Stage defines “emerging” as a 501(c)3 established within the last five years. We believe one thing that unites many emerging nonprofits is the fact that their founder has typically started the organization after having a front row seat to a problem that they believe they can impact. Often, they jump in filled with passion, belief and tremendous support from their network and quickly build trust – real trust with the individuals, families, neighborhoods and communities they serve because they design solutions with and alongside their constituents.
Until the past few years, many grantees and donors were leery of lending support to “start-up” or emerging nonprofits fearing they were not buttoned-up enough, unproven and less capable. The pandemic turned this way of thinking upside down. Now emerging nonprofits are becoming viewed as better equipped with the understanding needed to address the concerns and needs of their constituents, as well as having their trust to deploy solutions designed with recipients instead of for them. And funders are now plugging in as the extension cord for these start-up organizations in a variety of ways.
So, what have I learned from the amazing leaders of this year’s Cultivate cohort of emerging nonprofits?
1-Surround yourself with people you can learn from. Just because passion drew you to the work, doesn’t mean you are equipped to do all the work. Be comfortable not having all the answers and willing to ask for help. That takes real courage at times, but often it unlocks ideas and results far beyond what you could have achieved alone, and it makes room for others to support your vision. Carolina Youth Coalition is an example of an organization we’ve seen embrace this concept as well as a tremendous amount of community support as they strive to exponentially increase the number of Fellows they assist to and through college. As they’ve aligned with those willing to help, they’ve continued to welcome more of the community into supporting their effort.
2- Destroy doubt. Making a continuous impact requires continuously overcoming your own doubts and fears. I hear nonprofit leaders mention their ongoing battle with believing in themselves all the time. DoGreater Charlotte has proactively addressed this. They seek to instill “creative confidence” in students but know that self-doubt prevents it from flourishing. That’s why they’ve made destroying doubt part of their core values. And just as they teach this to their students, upholding this value positively permeates their internal culture, too. She Built This City also exemplifies overcoming doubts. Their work centers on building belief in their students and their own staff as it designs innovative programs for long-term workforce development solutions focused around introducing women to the trades.
3- Don’t lose sight of the knowledge that drew you to your work. Remember you may be the most proximate person or organization to the change you strive to make. Stay the course and share the vision. As others catch it, they’ll join you in supporting the mission and doing the work. Project B.O.L.T. exemplifies this commitment to staying close to community through its work with students and families. It was through this work that led them to discover their unique role of “trust broker” between neighborhoods and community supports. They now help ascertain and elevate community voice to influence the approach and resources community supporters deploy – helping to design programs with communities instead of for them.
4– Take the next step no matter what the situation looks like. To move from ideas to impact put your core values and principles into practice to help you continue moving forward. There is always a way to move an initiative forward even if it’s only a small step, so take the next best step. Leading the Cultivate program, we repeatedly see leaders put this into action. And while sometimes it only results in new key learnings, many times its yields tremendous success in the form of breakthrough programs like when Adoption Support Alliance shared a new idea to better serve its clients through the maze of seeking care for adopted children that quickly gained attention and interest from a health system as well as a statewide organization now helping to champion the initiative. Or, when GenOne took a new approach to corporate partnerships and uncovered a way to align its partners more closely with the first-generation scholars they steward to and through college.
5- Encouraging nonprofit leaders is critical to fueling their perseverance. Leadership of any kind can be lonely and isolating. Especially when you are tasked with solving some of society’s most deep and complex problems often with very modest resources. As nonprofit leaders pour into those they lead and serve, it is important to be surrounded by a strong support system. How can you or your company align to encourage a nonprofit leader?
Soon Next Stage will be launching a re-imagined version of our Cultivate incubator. One we’ve redesigned as an online, self-paced 6-month program hosted on a social learning platform. We are thrilled about this change because now many more emerging nonprofit leaders will be able to access the curriculum and the cohort experience. As part of our Cultivate community they will be able to connect with other social good change-makers in the nonprofit and corporate space. And, when they embark on one of the six Cultivate: Emerging Leaders learning modules, they’ll become part of a cohort that is focused on the same specific learning topic at the same time. Both communities give leaders the ability to develop and grow meaningful connections along the way.
We are excited this platform, powered by Next Stage, allows us to evolve the program beyond selecting six organizations and offer it to all qualifying emerging nonprofit leaders in Mecklenburg County. Eventually, we plan to offer it beyond this area. If you know an emerging nonprofit leader with less than five years of experience or someone who just established a 501(c)3, we hope you’ll introduce them to Cultivate: Emerging Leaders and invite them to check it out. We can’t wait to provide what we believe will be a highly functional extension cord to these leaders in the form of curriculum, community and cohorts. Learn more about Cultivate here.