My Top 10 Lessons Since Starting Idealist

When Darian Heyman told me about  Nonprofit Management 101 and asked me to write a Foreword for the book, two thoughts immediately came to mind. The first was, “Really? Another introduction to the sector? Do we really need this?” But then I saw the list of authors that Darian had assembled – many of whom I’ve known for years – and it was clear that he couldn’t have found a better group of people to write this.

The second thought was more of a wish: the wish that when I started in 1995 I could have had this amazing group of people whispering in my ear, and stopping me from making some of the bigger mistakes I’ve made over the years.

So in thinking about this Foreword I decided that the most useful thing I could do was share some of those mistakes with you, and then encourage you to read this book in the hope that you can avoid repeating them.

Here then are my Top Ten Lessons from the past eighteen years:

1. Focus. Focus! Mission creep is Enemy #1. Once you know what you want to do, do that and nothing else. Resist temptations, especially from funders who have their own agendas and who can blow you off course with a sweet-sounding grant. If the grant is not for something you want to do, the money is not worth it.

2. Build a good board, but first decide what “good” means for you. More or less engaged? More or less supportive? More or less meddlesome? The key here is that serious people who take on a task usually also want the authority to do it well. And so you need to decide: Do you want a board that does a lot but then also wants a say in how the work is done? Or do you want a board that is more hands-off, but gives you and your staff more freedom? What you should avoid at all costs is the worst of both words: a board that meddles but doesn’t help.

3. Hire good people. Skilled and smart, of course, but what I really mean is people you like. You’ll spend long days with this group, so hire kind and interesting people who make you laugh.

4. When you make a hiring mistake, and you probably will, try to fix it as soon as possible. There is one test that usually works well. Think about your entire team once in a while, and ask yourself, “if that person resigned, would I be upset or would I be relieved?” If the answer is that you’d be relieved, you should probably not wait for them to resign.

5. Learn some accounting. Money is the fuel on which your organization will run, and you should always know your numbers. Some people start nonprofit organizations as a way of avoiding what they see as the money-centeredness of the corporate world. But the truth is that money is at least as important in our sector as in any other, and you should know enough accounting to always know how your organization is doing.

6. Use free stuff; there is so much of it now. Blogs, Google Apps, Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, Salesforce licenses, and much much more. We run our whole organization on Google Apps, for example, which means that all our email and office software is free, and there is no reason why you should pay for it, either.

7. Build your network. And I don’t mean by “networking,” going to conferences, and exchanging business cards or Facebook connections. What I really mean is to try, wherever possible, to treat people the way you like to be treated. If you do this, over time you’ll have a real network of people who will be there when you need them most.

8. Collaborations, coalitions, alliances, mergers… Before jumping in, can you imagine a way out? Working closely with other organizations can be both good and necessary, but exactly at the point when the collaboration seems most tempting, stop for a moment and see if you can imagine a way out in case things go wrong. If you can’t, and the thought makes you queasy, it might be worth looking at the whole thing again.

9. Be careful with your time. Fight hyperbolic discounting! “Hyperbolic discounting” is a fancy term for a tendency that many of us have to make choices today that our future self would prefer not to make. For example, someone invites you to attend a conference across the country five months from now. It sounds good, and it’s easy to say “yes” at that moment, but when the day arrives and you have to take the trip, you find yourself regretting that quick “yes.” Most of us do this with all kinds of commitments, but these days, having regretted a “yes” once too often, I make a conscious effort not to commit to doing anything in the future without trying to imagine myself then.

10. Think big! Having said all this, what’s the worst thing that could happen if you fail? Think big, and go for it! Some days will be challenging and frustrating, but if you are doing what you want, they will never be boring. What more can we ask for?

Good luck!

Ami Dar

Thanks for reading. Want a copy of the book? It’s available now on Amazon.


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Comments (9)

  1. LaTanya Johnson writes:
    May 5, 2011 at 12:08 am

    This is good stuff! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Robert Rosenthal writes:
    May 5, 2011 at 10:24 am

    Ladies and gentlemen, the amazing Ami Dar. Will most readers hear and heed these points of advice? Probably not. But a few wise folks will, and that makes all the difference. Thanks!

  3. Kamiel Verwer / writes:
    May 8, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Thank you for this extremely valuable list. For you readers out there this is REAL experience speaking. Notice the real-life balance between emotion and rationality. If you have a startup NGO, print out this list and glue it onto your computer screen…

  4. Shaun writes:
    May 13, 2011 at 6:26 pm

    Awesome points! I really like point #3. Having worked for a nonprofit, it makes a huge difference if you enjoy the people you work with. I had plenty of laughs!

  5. Jonathan Chemasuet writes:
    November 15, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    The message itself and igniting me greater.

    I will do better than I have been.

    Thank you

  6. Patricia Sempa writes:
    January 12, 2014 at 6:24 am

    Ami, does have a big heart!!!, Sharing is a blessing1! we should all work towards it to make the world a better place for all of us especially those to come. we have lived a our share, and In idealist we will better the world for future generations. Thanks Ami, and Blessings to your Great Mom who brought you into this world!!

  7. Martin Gustavsson - Intelligent Union writes:
    January 14, 2014 at 6:35 pm

    Thanks for uplifting words. I am pretty good at what you say and it felt good having it confirmed as correct leadership by you.

  8. Shafieka vd Schyff writes:
    January 28, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    Be a risk-taker, build your successes off the lessons learned from your failures. Stay humble. Ami thank you I am totally inspired. We can all do!

  9. A. Mohamed Barrie II writes:
    March 7, 2014 at 5:31 am

    Dear Ami,

    Thanks a million for your inspiring lessons! I pray that Allah Guides you even further. These lessons show that hurdles cannot prevent one from achieving his or her goals. With Allah first in your focus, the path to success becomes simply the easiest to achieve.

    Praise be to Allah Who Created you! Amin!

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