Applying an Entrepreneur’s Mentality to the Nonprofit World

It’s common knowledge that the Millennial generation is the most entrepreneurial and socially responsible segment of the workforce, and it’s not surprising that many of us are drawn to the world of nonprofits. Historically, the nonprofit leadership was dominated by program-centric thinking, as opposed to a capital-based mentality. This meant that those with the ideas to impact their community and world placed less focus on leadership, organizational development, innovation, diversification, and most importantly, fundraising.

The hallmark of this framework is risk aversion—keep your thinking controlled to protect what you have. Coming into the nonprofit space from the development and fundraising end of the business, I’ve always found it interesting that nonprofits even try to run differently than their for-profit counterparts. Honestly, they’re the same, in every way with regard to their operations, and it’s just a matter of understanding where the money flows and who the stakeholders are.

I believe firmly in running my company like a business, like a traditional business, just one with a twist. Whether to grow or not is beyond question. You have to grow in order to sustain your mission and increase your community or societal impact. You have to diversify the pathways for achieving your mission, and to do this, you have to innovate. Nonprofits have typically found innovation to be scary, since you’re not always going to win.

In order to change the risk-averse dynamic in the world of social enterprise, our leaders have destroyed the old box of thinking, embracing the mindset of our fellow entrepreneurs in the for-proft arena. We try new things, and we reward our people who aren’t afraid of failure. Like smart for-profit business leaders, we find our strength in numbers, through strategic partners.

When nonprofits explore innovation together, they spread the risk and use those times when they fall short of their goals to arm themselves for the next round. Let’s not understate the importance of exploring together versus a go-it-alone ethos. For a long time, I perceived the best quality of entrepreneurs to be their fearlessness. While that may be true in some cases, what I now realize is that all business leaders are, to a degree, driven by fear. But the difference that an entrepreneur’s mindset can bring to our nonprofit leaders is to embrace that fear and move forward as it sharpens our decision-making toward greater success defined by impact, rather than fueling our retreat into obscurity, irrelevance, and ultimately, our demise.

2021 is a year of putting these principles into practice for us in a big way at my nonprofit, Dwell with Dignity, based in Dallas. We have taken a simple, yet highly-impactful concept—helping trauma-surviving families move from transitional housing to new homes optimized for living their best lives—and we made it sustainable by integrating a one-month, pop-up retail experience that provides sustainable funding for that concept (for more than a decade) to the tune of more than half a million dollars each year.

An old-school nonprofit approach would be pretty happy with impacting several dozen people in a profound way, rinsing and repeating year after year. But our partners in counseling and transitional housing, in addition to our community leaders, tell us that we can impact more people. So, we must rise to the occasion and use this season of sustained prosperity not as a laurel to rest upon, but a jumping-off point to grow. Instead of fearing what that expansion of our mission might bring our way in terms of challenges, we are taking responsibility to be the change-makers our city needs and deserves.

And we aren’t doing it alone. Together, Dwell with Dignity and other nonprofits and impact-minded businesses are banding together to form a social impact marketplace, one that drives commerce in our community while keeping our dollars local. It’s a diversification that makes sense for us on virtually every level as a business, especially if you think like an entrepreneur. In the coming months, our new Co-op Shop concept will arrive ready to impact the underserved individuals and communities and help shape an even better Dallas. That impact will come from taking risks, forming strategic alliances, looking for innovative ways to sustain our ideas, and through using our relative strength to benefit early-stage nonprofits and social impact ventures.

Like any entrepreneur will tell you, our fulfillment will come along the journey to fulfilling this new mission to change our world, one community at a time.

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