How to start a successful NGO in 10 steps

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I’ve worked with NGOs for most of my life, and even helped start a few. The following steps will help get your own NGO up and running:

Step 1: Test the waters.

Many new activists are ready to commit their lives to “the cause.” Some are even willing to die for it. Most of these enthusiastic newbies are nowhere to be found a few months later.

There’s no need to turn down the volume of your enthusiasm, but before starting your own NGO, consider joining one that does similar work for a while.

If starting your own NGO really is right for you, the experience of working for an established NGO will only strengthen your resolve and direct your passion.

Maybe you’ll find that NGOs are not your life calling after all. Better to learn that early on, before making a big commitment.

Step 2: Start on the right foot.

“The leader’s main job is to make themselves obsolete.” — Lao Tsu

Becoming obsolete should be the fundamental goal of all NGOs. You must constantly strive to work yourself out of a job.

Becoming obsolete works on two levels. In terms of your personal involvement, you should build the NGO to the point where it can function independently of your leadership. The long term goal of your NGO should be to solve a problem and thereby become unnecessary.

Put Lao Tsu’s advice into practice and you’ll be able to help more people in more profound ways, and enjoy every minute of the experience. If you try to maintain control, dependencies will develop, and once dependencies start they are hard to stop.

Dependency can leave NGO volunteers feeling trapped and sometimes even leave negative impacts on the people you are trying so hard to help.

Step 3: Clarify your goals.

Set clear and achievable goals for yourself and the NGO.

“Ending world hunger” is a great goal and looks good on your NGO’s t-shirt, but it’s not a problem you can seriously hope to solve.

Finding a niche is good place to start. Positive change usually comes from picking something small, doing it well and following through. A good example of this attitude in action is the Starfish NGO of Cambodia.

Step 4: Make an action plan.

A plan of action is your chance to make an NGO effective, address any potential negative impacts and make sure your NGO will attract donors and volunteers.

Make sure you are able to follow through with what you start. Think hard about your action plan. Hard work is important, but hard work without a good plan is a waste of time and money.

Step 5: Make a website.

It’s never too early to make a website for your NGO. A good website helps you to spread the word, attract volunteers, secure funding and establish a professional appearance. An interactive website can also minimize your need for meetings and micro managing.

Attention spans on the web are very short. Be clear and concise.

Some hosting companies give free hosting to NGO sites. Ask around.

Step 6: Get in the know.

Local knowledge is indispensable to every NGO. Even if you grew up in the city where you want to start an NGO, you still need to research and make contacts. Making solid local contacts and understanding the locals’ worldview is especially important if you want to work in a foreign culture.

Good use of local knowledge can really make an NGO effective. Without local knowledge, you may do more harm than good.

Step 7: Assess your NGO’s financial needs.

Money, when it does come, usually requires great amounts of paperwork and sometimes has strings attached. The quality of the work an NGO does and the amount of its funding are often inversely related. That is to say, the NGOs with less money do better work per hour and dollar spent. The crucial point is to to minimize your NGO’s need for money.

That said, money can be really helpful sometimes. Here’s how to get it. Filing for 501c (official non profit) status is a pain and involves costly lawyer fees. No need to waste your efforts there.

Get an established NGO to accept you under its umbrella. Tax deductible donations and grants will go to them, care of your NGO. Setting up this arrangement could be as easy as a 30 minute talk with your local peace center.

Now you are ready to ask for money from businesses, grant foundations, and governments. A Paypal donate button is a quick and easy way to accept donations from visitors to your website.

Step 8: Network, network, network.

Make friends with people and organizations doing similar work so that you can learn from their successes and mistakes. Networking also helps you to know when to team up and when to divide your efforts for maximum effectiveness. This website is a good place to start networking.

Step 9: Find balance.

Be realistic about how much time you want to give to your NGO. Taking on projects beyond your comfortable limits won’t yield much benefit in the long run.

You are worth more to your NGO as a part time activist for 5-20 years than letting your passionate burn out in two years. Finding balance between work and personal life is key to success.

Step 10: Re-evaluate everything.

Take a step back and look at what you have done and where it is all headed. Take joy in what you have accomplished, but also make sure your NGO is not becoming self aggrandizing.

How much time, effort and money are being spent on the NGO itself? This is the biggest problem facing all organizations, non-governmental or otherwise.

Your own awareness is the best tool to avoid over-emphasizing the NGO to the detriment of the cause, but don’t hesitate to ask someone from outside of your NGO for an evaluation.

With constant awareness, you can keep your focus and resources flowing to your original goals.


Any volunteer experience can be rewarding. Starting your own NGO can make you feel totally fulfilled.

You will learn and grow as an individual and receive a profound sense of satisfaction not easily found in modern life.

I hope my insights, experiences, and mistakes were of benefit.

How to Run a Nonprofit Organization

Last Updated: October 16, 2020 References Approved

This article was co-authored by Michael R. Lewis. Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive, entrepreneur, and investment advisor in Texas. He has over 40 years of experience in business and finance, including as a Vice President for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas. He has a BBA in Industrial Management from the University of Texas at Austin.

There are 11 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

wikiHow marks an article as reader-approved once it receives enough positive feedback. In this case, 100% of readers who voted found the article helpful, earning it our reader-approved status.

This article has been viewed 25,656 times.

A nonprofit is an organization that does not seek primarily to make a profit to distribute to shareholders of owners, but rather uses any money it takes in to further the non-profit's mission. Like any other business, a nonprofit requires a great deal of time, money, resources, and planning. A vision of what the nonprofit will seek to accomplish is the first step in creating a successful organization. To be operational, the nonprofit will require a great deal more work.

There are a lot of people out there who have built and run successful small businesses. But what tends to set me apart from them is that not only have I started and ran a lot of successful small businesses, but several that weren’t so successful.

That’s how you really learn small business lessons – through your mistakes, particularly when you are able to not only identify, but are willing to recognize and admit to your mistakes. It is not necessarily an easy process. I think this is an area at which I’ve gotten pretty good. In fact, I wrote an entire book on my small business mistakes alone.

But you have an advantage. You don’t have to make all of these mistakes yourself to gain wisdom from them: you just have to listen to my advice. I’ve already made the mistakes so that you don’t have to make them. I encourage you to invest the time to study my lessons on running a business and avoid learning to do so the expensive way – by making mistakes.

Ten of the most innovative NGOs in the world

Innovation is a buzzword throughout development circles from large institutional grant making organisations to grassroots NGOs working in some of the poorest places on earth. Innovation is more often than not a necessity for NGOs with strictly limited funds and resources yet are trying to conquer huge development challenges. Many NGOs are forced to think differently and creatively about how to utilise their resources and environment just to survive.

Increasingly, innovation is something that is inescapable for most NGOs and especially those keen to secure grant based project funding. The huge majority of grant funding opportunities from New York to New Dehli demand that applicant NGOs demonstrate that their proposed projects are innovative in one way or another. Whether it is the delivery or services, communications techniques, donor support or the application of technology, NGOs the world over are asked to innovate to secure funding.

Most people within NGOs understand why grant makers are so keen to support innovative projects. We need to continue to think and do things differently to try and improve the world, but innovation is also an increasingly common source of frustration for grant writers and project developers. Often NGOs have successful projects that are proven, highly effective and in demand, yet funder’s often won’t support them unless new innovative elements are introduced to modify the project. This can be difficult and challenging for NGOs and can often compromise otherwise excellent projects that are simply in need of more funding and little else.

To provide a little support and inspiration for NGOs caught in the “innovate for funding” trap we’ve compiled a list of the ten most innovative NGOs on the planet.

The organisation is fundamentally based around the concept of “A radical new way to give: directly”. Never before has an NGO been established to divert funds directly into individuals and family’s hands, cutting out the middle man and all the expenses with it as they go. The NGO has been tremendously effective in just its short time in operation and was recently lauded as one of the Give Well’s Top Charities for Giving Season 2013. The concept behind Give Directly is beautifully simple: 1) Donate through their webpage 2) Give Directly locates poor households in Kenya and Uganda 3) The NGO transfers your donation to the recipient electronically via their phone 4) The beneficiary uses the contribution to pursue his or her goals however they wish.

APOPO, Dutch for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling, or Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development in English, is a social enterprise that researches, develops and implements detection rat technology for humanitarian purposes. Yes, rats! APOPO have trained giant African pouched rats to tackle two of the most challenging development solutions in Africa, landmines and Tuberculosis. Both landmines and TB continue to kill people every day around the world, yet solutions to counter the threat have barely evolved in the last few decades. That is until a Flemish rodent enthusiast by the name of Bart Weetjens pioneered the use of indigenous African rodents to detect un-exploded mines and weaponry in the earth and TB in sputum samples. The organisation has made a huge impact since its formation in 1997 and this year was voted as the eleventh best NGO in the world.

Another reletively new NGO who has made considerable waves with its innovative approach over the past decade is charity: water. The organisation was established to tackle the most basic of human needs, access to clean water. Working mostly in the developing world the NGO has is famed for its brilliant digital presence and marketing as well as innovative donor strategies such as guarenteeing that 100% of public donations will be used fund clean water projects. They achieve this by developing long term relationships with institutional donors who agree to cover their management and administrative costs. Their approach has caught the eye of both individuals and funding organisations with its excellent track record and it looks like the NGO will continue to go from strength to strength in the coming years.

Wild4Life was established to serve people in remote, rural communities who have limited or no access to health service providers. The NGO has developed a fantastically innovative service delivery model that maximises the environment they operate in to reach more people than would be otherwise possible. The model involves partnering with organisations that are already established in remote areas and have well developed connections with the local community. This approach serves to leverage existing infrastructure, knowledge and social ties with Wild4Lifes network of health providers to enable life changing treatment and support to reach some of the hardest to reach people and places on the planet. The NGO is active in twelve countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa delivering supremely low cost interventions that are both sustainable and scalable.

ZanaLife, based in Kenya, is a hybrid healthcare and girls education NGO that is working to helping young women stay in school and reach their potential. The organisation is tackling two core humanitarian issues at once, a lack of access to appropriate health care information and products, and the rate at which young girls in Africa drop out of schooling. Their latest initiative is to create truly affordable sanitary pads combined with health education through an interactive comic-based pamphlet that is designed to enable girls to make informed decisions and measurably increase their productivity and health. ZanaLife’s research has shown that pads and healthcare information win back 75% of learning days, helping girls to stay in school and fulfil their potential. By 2020 the NGO aims to reach three million girls with pads and supply over ten million comics across East Africa.

UK based charity ColaLife has sought to embrace the network and reach of one of the worlds biggest brands to provide health resources to people living in rural and remote locations that are underserved. The charity was based around the concept that wherever you go in the world you will see the hallmark of Coca-Cola. The founders of ColaLife asked if a softs drinks manufacturer can create a network that can reach into the most remote places on earth, why can’t we deliver healthcare in the same way? Their entire ethos can be summed up in three points…

  1. You can buy a Coca-Cola almost anywhere you go in the world, even in the most remote parts of developing countries
  2. In these same places 1 in 9 children die before their fifth birthday from preventable causes. Most die from dehydration from diarrhoea.
  3. The child mortality figures have not changed significantly for at least 3 decades which would indicate that current initiatives are not working

This grounding led the team at ColaLife to develop the AidPod, a wedge shaped pod that that fits in the space between the necks and bottles in a Coca-Cola crate. Although still in the pilot stage, if ColaLife can successfully emulate the distribution networks of Coca-Cola then real change will soon follow.

Inspired by the death of a friend during childbirth, the founders of Tomike Health set out to to ensure that women across western Africa had access to maternity care. Rather than establishing a basic NGO that relied on grants and donations they demanded that their new organisation would become self sustainable. To achieve this Tomike Health have combined business, job training and clinical innovations to create a self-sustaining and scalable solution to reproductive health. The NGO has continued to introduce innovative strategies and technologies througfhout its development including mobile health and electronic medical records as well as financial and marketing innovations in an attempt to reach the one million plus women who give birth each year in urban West Africa.

UNICEF is not actually an NGO but rather an IGO but they deserve a place in this chart for the way they have embraced innovation in both design and implementation. With their own dedicated unit they have introduced a series of novel innovations within the development industry from youth centres to vaccine storage and much more. UNICEF has a stated ambition to work with and alongside their beneficiary communities around the world to explore and develop new ways to empower children and their families. The organisation has even taken the impressive step of crowdsourcing solutions to development challenges online calling for support and suggestions in areas as diverse as diarrhoea treatment and increasing child birth registration.

Most people are familiar with one of the worlds most popular websites, the online, user generated encyclopedia Wikipedia. Originally a for profit enterprise, it evolved into a not for profit foundation in 2003 and has continued to build on the foundations of Wikipedia. In addition to the free multilingual encyclopedia, the foundation manages a multi-lamguage dictionary and thesaurus named Wiktionary, an encyclopedia of quotations named Wikiquote, a collection of ebooks for students known as Wikibooks and a resource of educational materials and activities called Wikiversity.

The Wikimedia Foundation has innovated one of the most transparent organisations on the planet as it works towards collecting, developing and disseminating educational content for free to the public in every country in the world. An essential part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission is encouraging the development of free-content educational resources that may be created, used, and reused by the entire human community.

Frontline SMS is a free open source software that was developed by the Social Impact Lab to enable SMS management tools that can reach over three billion people through the phone in their pocket. In just a few years it has quickly become the world’s most popular text messaging software and it is completely free and open source. It can work without an internet connection and with only a cell phone and computer.

The software was originally developed in 2005 for conservationists to keep in touch with communities in Kruger National Park in South Africa. More recently it was used by the Network of Mobile Election Monitors to oversee the Nigerian and Afghan presidential elections, as well as in disaster response in Haiti and the Phillipines.

FrontlineSMS and its sister organizations are also improving the provision of healthcare in developing countries, where bad roads, long distances, and a shortage of healthcare workers make delivering care difficult. Community health workers use FrontlineSMS:Medic to transmit information about symptoms and follow up with patients much more quickly and efficiently. When FrontlineSMS:Medic was first introduced in one area of Malawi, the local hospital doubled the number of tuberculosis patients treated over six months, while saving 2,100 hours in travel and work time and $3,500 in costs. The software is now being used in 11 countries, mostly in sub Saharan Africa.

Watch the video: 12 Shocking Habits of Successful People


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