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3 Startup Ideas for Voluntary Organisations

Ideas transferred from the startup world to building voluntary organisations.

Last spring, me and a couple of friends started a society to organise the active students at our faculty. I’ve written this post about insights and lessons I transferred from the startup (and business) world to building a functioning voluntary organisation, in hope that future founders of similar organisations might benefit.

Of course, insert the <your mileage may vary> type disclaimers here.

1. Be the hero

You think it’s a good time to start an organisation, and it seems a lot of people agree. Great. Now all you need is to get stuff done. Somehow, all the former supporters are now a bit reluctant to come to long meetings and brainstorming sessions to discuss hard questions (for a multitude of reasons from simple procrastination to actual lack of time).

The reality is that if you’re the founder(s), it’s up to you to make things happen. It’s you who will need to come up with plans, organise and direct meetings, throw events, communicate with everyone etc. Slowly, other people will see that your organisation is actually doing something rather than just handing out important-sounding names to every member, and will support or even join you, but it is important that you actually get something done. Do accelerate this process by talking about the goals of your organisation and what you’ve done whenever appropriate.

This is best summarised as “be the hero” because people need heroes, not in the sense of anyone actually saving them from apocalypse, but someone taking the initiative and getting things done (which is a very valuable and completely transferable skill, I think). You might not even need to be the hero for very long (it can get pretty tiring, you know) because in my experience, people’s initial inertia will be replaced with enthusiasm once someone gets the ball rolling.

If you think you don’t have what it takes to be a hero, just fake it ‘til you make it. The link is a TED talk I very much recommend, about hacking your confidence to help you take on much greater responsibility, ‘faking’ the way to success.

2. Focus on the MVP and do (almost) nothing else

I’d guess most voluntary organisations are on a tight budget, both money- and people-wise. I would also bet that there are a lot of ways to pursue any (charitable) cause, most of which can be done in parallel.

This means that unless you pay special attention, the already-low resources will be spread too thin on all the cool things that could be done, and in the end very few actually are. Which is why, especially in the early phases of the organisation when most of the work is done by founders themselves, it is critical to focus on the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Focusing on the MVP in the startup world roughly means focusing on the smallest possible set of features of a product that are needed to make it succeed, which is what it means in voluntary projects as well. Focus on doing as few distinct projects as possible to get the organisation running, and nothing more.

Doing this will also help you prevent resources (like your own time and attention) from being diverted, and keep you thinking about what’s most important for getting the organisation off the ground.

3. Get other people involved

I risk stating the obvious here, but if you don’t plan on doing everything yourself (and letting the organisation die when you’ve stopped), you need to actively work to find people that are interested in contributing to your organisation on its mission, whatever it is. This means pitching and selling the idea to a lot of people, but how to go about it effectively?

There’s a great TED talk by Simon Sinek on how this is best done: by telling people WHY you’re doing it (the goals and mission of your organisation) first. You can then explain HOW you’re going to achieve these (hopefully ambitious) goals, and WHAT you expect them to do (e.g. join the organisation), but I think the WHY part is the most important by a huge margin. It’s very hard to convince people to help you (by donating their time or attention or money) unless they believe in the cause, which is why you should start from that.

Once you have enthusiastic people on board, you probably want to find someone who is willing to take the initiative and eventually lead the organisation when you’re not around any more. This is something I and the other founders haven’t figured out completely, but in the context of the student society (where most people are ticking graduation-timebombs), it might help to focus on recruiting freshmen, who have almost 3 years of university studies left, rather than older students.

Finding out the goals your organisation is easier said than done, but there are techniques that might help. You can try to brainstorm a mindmap of all immediate goals of your organisation (e.g. “help students network with other students”), and then group them into overlying themes. Below is an example from our organisation (in Estonian, but you get the idea).



There’s definitely more to starting an organisation but once you grok these three things, you’re much more likely to succeed. But don’t take my word for it – go ahead and start building something yourself!



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