Leading Change
comments 4

Starting A Non-Profit or Ministry?

Many new non-profits and ministries function more like a large company than a start-up, and spend years indirectly learning how to grow.

small plant

After 10 years in the non-profit sector, either starting or watching others start a ministry, the biggest misunderstanding comes from thinking big instead of small. Start-up leaders must think big, but invest small. By invest small I mean allocating resources in a way that explores a variety of avenues for growth, rather than committing to one avenue that worked for another (and often larger) ministry or organization.

Steve Blank talks about this problem with for profit companies:

VC’s (Venture Capitalists) thought of startups as smaller versions of large companies. Large companies wrote business plans, so VC’s made startups write business plans. Large companies had VP’s of Sales and Marketing, so VC’s made startups organize that way as well. Large companies executed plans well and when they didn’t work, they fired the executives who screwed up. So VC’s assumed that startups should equally unfold per the plan – firing executives when reality intruded.

In ministries and non-profits it’s less about business plans and Vice Presidents, but more about over-depending on “corporate” to meet every need and a focus on repeating out-dated or “successful” models or events instead of experimenting and measuring new ones.

Blank offers an alternative and path for small businesses that apply to non-profits and ministries equally:

Startups needed tools to help them organize their hypotheses, and then needed a process to rapidly test those hypotheses. And they needed tools that recognized that most startups go from failure to failure as they searched for, and discovered, product/market fit. And that instead of firing executives to match a plan, it was the plan itself that needed to rapidly iterate.

Most large companies have become large because they found a plan that generates repeatable income on a large scale. Most small companies (including non-profits) have not found or refined their path to the point where they see repeatable and scalable success.

It’s painful to see a small non-profit invest significant resources on making one plan or strategy work instead of investing a small amount of resources in a variety of experiments, measuring the results, and then committing to one plan that’s been proven to work better than others.

If you are small then consider investing more resources towards experimenting and measuring alternative paths to growth. Trying something new is not effective if there are no measurements and feedback to determine whether it’s a viable alternative.


  1. My wife ran across a cool resource for organizational mentorship and development which has helped her ministry iterate more rapidly. Check out http://visionsmadeviable.org/. From their front page.

    “Visions Made Viable supports innovative approaches to social change. We help you make your vision a reality. Whether you want to start a nonprofit, develop a new project, become eligible to receive grant monies and tax deductible contributions, or simply get administrative help, we’re here to serve you. We work with projects and nonprofits in the U.S. and around the world.”

  2. Hi, Brian —

    I came across your blog — how interesting you’re borrowing from Steve Blank, where he’s all the rage here in Silicon Valley start-up land.

    As he says, “get out of the building” — I’ve been riffing with some friends that that’s what we need the congregation to do, big or small — get out of the building!

    If you ever want to riff more on overlaps between start-ups and non-profits, I’d love to dive in.

Leave a Reply