Starting a Non-Profit

Posted: September 23, 2012 by Chuck Matthews in Non-Profit, Social Entrepreneurship, Startup

“The great aim of education is not knowledge, but action.”

— Herbert Spencer, British Philosopher

Thinking about starting a not-for-profit venture?   Perhaps you are thinking of starting an education or education-related start-up?  It is a very timely topic given the focus on the role that entrepreneurs can play on the social entrepreneurship front as well as the on-going debate on how to fix problems with education.  For example, the business of education is one of the most challenging and perplexing endeavors on the planet.  It involves multiple stakeholders, volatile emotions, and no easy answers.  The keepers of big data tell us that spending per pupil has gone steadily up while student performance overall continues to erode.

As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, when it comes to starting a venture in the education related field, the debate also extends to the public policy arena and politics, where politicians and business leaders are often at odds on how to define and address the problems.  Of course, education is more than just another business model (no matter how many times we call parents, students, and potential employers customers, they are not), but even a non-profit needs to have a monetization model to sustain its ability to offers its services beyond the here and now.  Let’s take a look at what it takes to start a not-for-profit in the education field.

Multiple Stakeholders, Multiple Styles

On top of the needs of multiple stakeholders, emotions, and  sustainable business models, the discussion also extends to how  and why people learn – from Kolb’s Converger, Diverger, Assimilator, Accomodator model to visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and more learning styles.  But wait, there’s more… How we deliver content is changing and evolving from traditional classrooms to online access.  Publishing is changing from text books to electronic files read on a new array of hand-held devices.  Whole programs being scripted for delivery and certification (e.g., earn a diploma) online.  High tech and high touch are dueling it out for the future of why, how, and where we deliver education and learning.

Implications for Your Venture

So what does this mean for someone interested in starting an education related venture?  It is certainly not for the faint of heart.  Traditionally, entrepreneurs love market inefficiencies, identifying the problem/pain point, innovating a solution and assessing the market opportunity to deliver their goods and/or services with sufficient margins to sustain the enterprise.  That’s the relatively easy part.

When it comes to matters of education, however, the deliverables are not just focused on the direct consumers (typically students and parents), but the patchwork of constituents that constitute the education ecosystem – students, parents, prospective employers, politicians, etc. and the ever present relevant (or not) comparison group of students from other education systems (local, regional, national, and even international).

Here are five things to keep in mind if you are thinking of starting a non-profit or even a for profit venture in the education or education related industry:

A clear mission.  While it is always important to have a clear mission statement, it is particularly critical for mission driven non-profits.  Remember the three C’s: Clear, Concise, and Compelling.  In one or two sentences it coves who you are, what you do, for whom, how you do it and where.

Value added.  Education related start-ups need to address content, emotions, and value added at every step.

Focus.  Don’t try to solve all the issues at once.  Entering the education industry is best served via a focus differentiation strategy, whether you are selling your goods and/or services to the providers of education (business to business) or directly to the consumers of education (business to consumer).

Form a board of directors.  As a 501(c)3 not-for-profit, you will form a board of directors per your articles of incorporation.  Choose wisely, this will be the “council” that needs to support your mission but also give of their time and talent.  What special skills and/or expertise do you need for your new venture now and as it grows.

Assessment.  When you are in the education or education related industry, be prepared for assessment.  Outcomes need to be quantifiable, measurable, and attainable.

Entrepreneurs excel at identifying market opportunity, creating value exchange, and giving back.  A not-for-profit venture is an ideal business model in which to do this. The bottom line is not just profit or loss, but your impact on society.  Till next time, all the best for continued entrepreneurial success!

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