Written by Christine Eubanks

Last week, we welcomed our first cohort of nonprofit founding leaders to the free, online Cultivate: Emerging Leaders platform – a makeover of an in-person incubator Next Stage has hosted live for the past four years. During that time, we have engaged with 21 nonprofit leaders, supporting them with strategy and guidance to help build momentum to steer their organizations forward.

In case this sounds like something you, or someone you know, could benefit from, here’s a bit more about it: The platform brings together emerging nonprofit founders and leaders who bravely wear all the hats necessary to breathe life into their organization – often a very lonely road. From laying the groundwork to designing and implementing both strategy and daily operations, these hard-working visionaries learn, share and grow together as they each chart their course for long term organizational success and impact.

Despite our internal high fives celebrating the launch, it was a quiet moment as we sent the access email to the sixteen registered organizations. We were all filled with pride and hope for the impact we believe it will create for these leaders and their worthy missions.

It also got us thinking about how hard the road of an emerging nonprofit leader is and how similar it is to that of an entrepreneur.

The similarities between the two are numerous – both champion a vision, passionately start something new and wear multiple hats to get the job done. Many bootstrap their efforts, starting with little money and relying on investors who believe in them and their impact. Both need to repeatedly prove to their supporters that they are worthy of their support. And both are extraordinarily proximate to a problem, situation, product or service that they uniquely understand and believe in.

Next Stage meets these extraordinary founders and leaders every day – men and women who often work a full-time job and start nonprofit organizations in their spare time without earning a salary for it. Many times they use their own resources because they feel called to do the work. Their commitment is admirable – but what if we looked at this differently?

What if these emerging nonprofit leaders were embraced by the community in the same way we embrace entrepreneurs? What if emerging nonprofit leaders were valued for their community knowledge and expertise? What if we better recognized their willingness to devote their time, energy and money? Just like business entrepreneurs, these leaders possess the grit and expertise to build an organization from nothing and solve real challenges. And yet, we don’t always perceive or reward these leaders in the same way.

Many emerging nonprofit leaders encounter barriers, especially if they lack the social capital or networks of larger organizations, putting emerging leaders and community-based organizations at a major disadvantage. Typical objections include their ‘lack of track record,’ not yet being able to show proof of concept or not having the number of years required by more established funders. Of course outcomes and reporting are important, but too often we expect emerging nonprofit leaders to have answers that we don’t expect from their private sector counterparts.  What if we equally valued innovation, partnership and creative problem-solving? There is a natural tension between desiring ‘proof of impact’ and out-of-the-box thinking but rewarding innovation and ‘failing faster’ allows space for emerging nonprofit leaders to arrive at highly effective, community-based solutions.

We are excited that many companies are beginning to embrace trust-based philanthropy, as well as a more entrepreneurial look at nonprofits, which addresses many of these topics and more. For our own firm, the primary reason for switching to the online Cultivate: Emerging Leaders platform was to provide greater access to  more nonprofit organizations than we could in person.

So, when the Cultivate: Emerging Leaders cohort launched last week with almost 3x the number of organizations of our previous cohorts, across multiple North Carolina counties, it felt like something to celebrate. And with a new rolling registration format and self-guided, self-paced curriculum, we expect that number to expand quickly as we release new modules over the next few months.

We believe that the most innovative solutions often come from leaders who know the challenges intimately – and we are determined to remain close to these change-makers and learn from their impact. We hope that Cultivate: Emerging Leaders will become an important tool for deepening impactful work. We also hope companies will be inspired to evaluate how they can better support the nonprofit entrepreneurial work happening all around us. If you have ideas you’d like to explore, we’d love to help you.

To learn more about Cultivate: Emerging Leaders or to register visit: https://nextstage-consulting.com/cultivate/