5 Ways One Nonprofit Chooses To Operate Like a Startup
It’s year No. 12 for us at Mighty Writers, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that teaches writing to kids, ages 7 to 17 in economically challenged communities. But in all the ways that matter, we function the way we did when we first opened our doors — which is to say, with startup urgency.
Maybe it’s because our goal hasn’t changed in the past dozen years. We’re still looking, as we were on day one, to ignite a writing culture for kids in communities where literacy resources are scarce. With so many young lives on the line, the need to act with immediacy stares us down every day. It drives us to spread the word to kids, parents and funders about what we know to be true — writing is magical. We see that magic in action every day at Mighty Writers. When kids express themselves with clarity and confidence, their self-esteem soars. Their worlds open up, they make smart decisions and unearth clear paths to success.
Operating a 12-year-old nonprofit with startup intensity isn’t for the faint of heart. It requires keeping and finding staffers who not only share the vision but understand that what we’re doing is an all-in proposition. It can be an edgy balancing act, finding ways to get better at what we do every day while at the same time looking to expand the program to reach more kids. But when the work and the vision align, it can bring a bouquet of renewal and growth.
Mighty Writers opened its doors to kids in a Philadelphia storefront; today, we have five Philadelphia-area based writing centers, programs in Camden, Atlantic City and Newark, New Jersey, and writing workshops running in the Washington Heights section of New York City.
We’ve worked hard over the years to escape what is a traditional nonprofit trap: the let’s-find-the-fly-in-the-ointment approach to growth. It’s a favored practice among nonprofit leaders and boards — innocent on its face, but with the potential to suck the life out of an organization. The fly-in-the-ointment game invariably ends with a laundry list of potential pitfalls, some worthy of consideration, many inconsequential. The result, though, is to almost always impede inspiration and make the notion of growth seem not worth the bother.
At Mighty Writers, our organizational culture tilts heavily in favor of the can-do; our next steps are torn from an entrepreneur's proverbial playbook.
Here are five ways we at Mighty Writers work to keep our enterprising startup spirit alive.
1. We Eschew Jargon
Nonprofits often bask in jargon and barren phrases — stakeholders, bandwidth, thought leaders, capacity building, move the needle, boots on the ground. Seriously? Who talks like this Besides, of course, people who spend their time in “cohorts”? At Mighty Writers, whether in email blasts, social network posts or in-person conversation, we use plain-spoken language with everyone — kids, parents, funders and foundations. Our elevator pitch is “We teach kids to write.” Doesn’t get much more plain spoken than that.
2. We Refuse To Create Innovation To Score Big Dough
We don’t spend time brainstorming what it would take to install pop-up writing venues in vacated service stations or vending machines that spit out writing tips. We hold fast to our own brand of cutting-edge innovation: i.e. hard work. Heard of it? We may not call a foundation a “silly willy” out loud for asking us again and again for ideas that “nobody’s thought of” before. But it doesn’t stop us from thinking it.
3. We're Not Afraid of Strategic Hairpin Turns
We don’t run ideas up flagpoles; we instead trust our instincts. When COVID-19 hit and we had to shutter our writing centers, we began distributing free lunches to kids at our front doors. When we saw need in the communities growing, we found ways to distribute groceries, then masks, then diapers and then wipes. The need grew and so did our distribution network. We reached out to foundations and donors for help and assistance came quickly and unflinchingly. We elicited enough funding to add an “essential needs” distribution arm to our infrastructure. It was a major pivot in a time of distress, a big time addendum to our mission — and now, it’s a permanent one. Best of all, we did it sans consultants and with no chorus of flagpole naysayers shouting from the sidelines..
4. We Honor Grit and Street Smarts
Many nonprofits, when posting help wanted ads, will invariably make sure to include “college degree required, master's degree preferred.” Why? Why the insistence on degrees? Because it looks impressive on the staff page? Are the degrees necessary? At Mighty Writers, we respect what higher education can do, but degrees are never a bottom-line requirement. We’ve had success hiring people with all kinds of varied academic and employment histories — some of our best staffers, for example, have wait staff experience in their backgrounds. Waiting on tables taught them how to multitask, how to deal with people and how to set personal boundaries. All critical assets. When evaluating a candidate for a job at Mighty Writers, experience matters. We just may be a little more open than most to hearing what that experience was and how it will shape their future with us.
5. We Don’t Think of Ourselves as Doing God’s Work
God didn’t tell us what work to do. We’re here because teaching kids to write is what we want to do. So, please, though we appreciate the sentiment, you can skip thanking us for the work we do. We’re too busy working like a startup to take time for bows.