Skip to Content
Walden Magazine // Jan 01, 2014

Light Up Your Cause

Our community shares how to launch and run a successful nonprofit.

Illustration credit: Peter Horvath

Illustration credit:
Peter Horvath.

Nonprofits are businesses that drive change. Whether you want to positively impact public health, education, or a specific population in your community, you should know that creating this type of organization—and making it successful—is a labor of love. We’ve tapped four alumni and a faculty member to describe what it takes.


  1. TAKE A GOOD LOOK AT YOURSELF. A new nonprofit is typically a one-person operation. Do you have what it takes to be the chief executive, secretary, and accountant? Are you the type of person who can attract money to your cause?

    “The financial and social status of the founder is critical because it greatly influences the funding avenues, the magnitude and complexities of the fundraising activities, and the success and survival of the organization,” says Dr. Peter Njenga ’06, who founded a nonprofit to help orphans in Kenya and Canada.

    Focus your nonprofit on an industry you understand, says Jeannette Bryant ’09, who launched Kids Be Aware in 2009 to educate parents and children about infectious and chronic diseases.

    You may have the passion for your purpose, but compassion should fuel your mission, says Terrence Thornton ’11, the director of investor services and development at the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance. Assess who you are, what you hope to accomplish, and what you’re willing to do.

  2. RESEARCH YOUR MARKET. Consult watchdog websites like Charity Navigator, GuideStar, GreatNonprofits, and GiveWell. Research which nonprofits serve the community you’re targeting, but know you may not need to abandon your idea just because other groups already serve your market. “Sometimes it’s better to look for a nonprofit that’s serving the same population and volunteer to see what the business is like,” says Robert C. McKim ’10, a senior partner with McKim Nonprofit Consulting. Thornton adds: “You’re not wasting your time to launch a program that’s similar to one that’s out there so long as you figure out where you can fill in the gaps.”

  3. FIND FUNDS. From the get-go, make sure you know where your funds could come from. “The major question to ask is, who will support you financially and at what financial magnitude?” Njenga says. “What are the strings attached? Do market research and identify possible funding sources.” Finally, he says, judge whether the nonprofit will succeed beyond five years. Your goal should be long-term sustainability. It’s also useful to do a market analysis to see how the population will respond to your idea, Bryant says.

  4. WRITE A PLAN. “A nonprofit is a business like any other,” Bryant says. “A business plan maps where the nonprofit wants to be in three to five years, and how it will generate income.” A mission statement is a good place to start. Make sure it is clear, concise, and communicates exactly what the nonprofit will do, says Dr. Gary Kelsey, a faculty member in the School of Public Policy and Administration.

    Next, develop a strategic plan, looking at the charity from a bird’s-eye view and analyzing the global issues that might affect the organization’s growth and sustainability, McKim says. “Do revenue projections on a monthly basis, determine how many clients you’re likely to reach, how many volunteers will be needed, what kind of marketing should be done, and where the contributors are going to come from.” The business plan also serves as a base for a fundraising plan, Bryant says, since “it could also be used to obtain a bank loan.”

    Njenga adds: “Operating a nonprofit without a business plan is like walking in a jungle with no clear path to follow.” Finally, a nonprofit should also establish bylaws, Kelsey says. “It’s a rulebook for the nonprofit,” he explains.

  5. CEMENT YOUR STATUS. To operate as a nonprofit in the United States, and-therefore be exempt from certain taxation, your organization must be granted 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service. “You will be asked to define your organization clearly,” Bryant says. “Be ready to show you will not misuse the status of your organization.”

    Many new nonprofit leaders wonder whether they can start their organizations before having a Letter of Designation from the IRS. The answer, says McKim, is yes and no. “In some states, you will be unable to open a nonprofit bank account without a letter from the IRS for 12 months,” McKim says. Consult IRS regulations to determine which category you fall into.


  1. KNOW YOUR ROLE. Recognize when you start or lead a nonprofit, you’ll likely serve in every role, from chief executive to volunteer coordinator. “A leader of a nonprofit has to be able to spin lots of plates at once because often, as the nonprofit begins, there may be no paid staff, which means you will also need to be a good fundraiser and raise the visibility of your organization in your community,” Kelsey says.

  2. PICK THE RIGHT STAFF. The success or failure of a nonprofit can hinge on the people hired to manage it and raise its funds. “A leader needs employees who will embrace the organization’s mission and mirror it in their daily lives,” Bryant says. “They need to be reliable, motivated, and ambitious.” Conduct background checks and make sure these employees, particularly fundraisers, have solid track records. “Raising funds is no easy task,” Bryant says, “so it’s important to be meticulous when hiring these personnel.”

    Once they’re on board, make a point to continually engage them. “Identify skill sets and conduct team-building exercises,” Thornton says. “Help everyone to see their value in the organization.”

    Finding high-quality volunteers can be another big challenge, Bryant says. She suggests VolunteerMatch and Idealist as places to start your search. The Walden Service Network is another great resource.

  3. BUILD YOUR BOARD. Building a knowledgeable, dependable, and supportive board of directors is another crucial step. “You must, at minimum, have a board president, a treasurer, and a secretary,” McKim says. “Well-meaning friends or relatives can get your paperwork started, but a real board includes people with appropriate skill sets and a passion for your cause.” Find people who will bring different voices and abilities to the table.

    “Start by preparing a profile of the types of skills your board needs. Then ask core board members who they may recommend to fill those roles,” McKim continues. He also recommends looking at the National Council of Nonprofits and BoardSource to find resources to get started.

    Next, let the board members know from the start what will be expected of them. Also make sure your mix of members includes those who have served on boards before so that the learning curve isn’t steep. “The board is essential to the sustainability and health of an organization,” McKim says.

  4. MAKE PARTNERSHIPS. “Join a Chamber of Commerce, network by going to community events, participate in fairs,” Bryant says. “Portraying a professional image of your organization is very important.”

    Njenga spread the word about his nonprofit through social media, emails, texts, telephone calls, and discussions with friends. As a result of these efforts, he met a philanthropist who ultimately helped him organize charitable walks and fundraising dinners. “She became one of the cornerstones of the nonprofit,” he adds.

    Next, enlist your board of directors. “Use your board to develop a list of people who can help find clients, personnel, and volunteers to administer programs and fund the development of the organization,” McKim says. “Then, create a database of the contacts you make.”

  5. CREATE A BRAND. With so much competition for limited charity dollars, a nonprofit must stand out to make a positive and lasting impression. A strong brand—one that tells the nonprofit’s story and communicates how it is different and credible—is key. “It is essential to have a name that resonates and a logo that is appealing and professional,” Bryant says. “Create a survey to get a feel of what your name says to others.”

    When you pick a name, go to your secretary of state’s office to make sure it’s not already taken, then register the name, but realize that’s just the start. “Brand-building takes years,” Bryant says. “Providing newsworthy information to people in the community will help build the organization’s brand.”

    Everyone in the organization needs to understand the brand and contribute to its strength. “A strong brand will help the organization stand out, distinguish its cause, and inspire others to support your nonprofit,” McKim concludes.  

Meet the Experts

Translating Prevention and Treatment for Kids

While working at the Board of Health in Woburn, Mass., and on her Master of Public Health (MPH), Jeanette Bryant ’09 was presented with a harsh truth: Children and their families don’t know nearly enough about preventing and treating illnesses. Bryant decided to do something about it. In 2009, she founded a nonprofit. Kids Be Aware publishes books and holds seminars to teach families about infectious and chronic diseases like tuberculosis, HIV, and asthma. It also hosts seminars and hands-on programs that focus on exercise and healthy eating habits. “I had an instructor at Walden who would tell stories about what she was accomplishing,” says Bryant, who is now pursuing her PhD in Public Health. “That encouraged me to continue doing what I wanted to do.” In the spring of 2013, she expanded the nonprofit’s offerings by opening a center to provide fitness, dance, arts and crafts, and nutrition education classes for local children.

Ending Poverty in Kenya and Canada

When Dr. Peter Njenga ’06 went back to Kenya in 2007 to visit Kamuchege, the village where he was born, he learned that some of his former schoolmates had died of HIV and AIDS, leaving their children orphaned. In that moment, the certified public accountant found his purpose. “I realized what you do for others is the key to mankind’s joy and survival,” the Ph.D. in Applied Management and Decision Sciences (now PhD in Management) graduate says. He launched the Dr. Njenga Foundation of Sustainable HIV/AIDS Projects, a nonprofit that addresses poverty by providing food, clothing, shelter, and medical care to orphaned children, children with disabilities, and families in Kenya and Canada. “I’m very proud that 20 children at our orphanage in Kenya are going to school and doing well,” Njenga says. “My education from Walden molded me into who I am: a socially responsible person who gives back to society as much as I can.”

Helping Nonprofits Expand Their Reach

Bob C. McKim ’10 decided he wanted to do more for his community after selling his data management company and retiring. He started by joining several boards, which he was surprised to find weren’t operating very efficiently, so he created balance sheets and encouraged the organizations to operate more efficiently. “The reaction was mostly positive,” he says. “But I needed to understand nonprofits more completely.” So he enrolled at Walden in the MS in Nonprofit Management and Leadership program. “What I learned during my master’s program reaffirmed my instinctive belief that nonprofits should be run like a for-profit business,” he says. “After graduating, I started a nonprofit consulting firm to put into action what I had learned.” As a senior partner with McKim Nonprofit Consulting, he now advises nonprofits on growth strategies, fundraising, diversity, and other issues.

Cultivating Community in Las Vegas

As the director of investor services and development for the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, Terrence Thornton ’11 became responsible for funding programs that focus on bringing new businesses and industries to the city and highlighting available community assets in Southern Nevada. “We decided to leverage the Vegas brand to promote our organization’s initiatives,” explains Thornton, who graduated with an M.S. in Nonprofit Management and Leadership. “What happens in Vegas are amazing communities, churches, schools—and thriving opportunities for businesses. We are helping the world see these opportunities. The work I’m doing not only benefits my organization but also educates the world. As industries and businesses locate to our region, new jobs become available, which positively impacts the lives of more than 2 million people.”

Serving Nonprofits and Students Alike

Important work that offers a challenge—that’s what Dr. Gary Kelsey wants and that’s what he gets from his work as a consultant for nonprofits and by serving as a faculty member at Walden. He’s been with the university for 17 years, now as a faculty member in the School of Public Policy and Administration. During his 20-year consulting career, Kelsey has worked with more than 250 nonprofit, philanthropic, education, and government organizations. “I don’t need to be the person in charge, but I want to do really meaningful work that challenges me,” he says. In his consulting work, Kelsey focuses on creating and cultivating boards of directors, development, and strategic planning primarily for organizations that focus on peace, justice, and social change. “Consulting has informed my teaching and teaching has informed consulting,” he says.