Tl;dr: This is my very personal take on what it’s like to start and run a self-started charity. This job can be very interesting, fun, and high impact, but it’s also very challenging and it’s not for everyone.
Epistemic status/disclaimer: This is a post with my personal experience to suit the format of the career week and shouldn't be confused with a comprehensive guide on how to start a charity. I do not claim that my experience will be the same as other charity founders as all the charities are different. For the purpose of brevity this post doesn't cover everything that I do in my job. Starting a charity is a big commitment and requires serious consideration so I recommend checking out other resources on how to start charities before you make a decision to become a founder, e.g. Charity Entrepreneurship.
Thanks to Allison Agnello, Christina Schmidt Ibanez and Constance Li for your valuable feedback and suggestions! 🙏
What’s my current job and how I got here:
Co-founder of Impactful Animal Advocacy (IAA) - an ecosystem of community, knowledge, and tools that supports a more coordinated and strategic animal advocacy movement.
I started this as a volunteer project in June 2022, first with a monthly newsletter then expanding to include a Slack community. Last month, I decided to work on IAA full-time after seeing significant community growth and a path for counterfactual impact.
Who is this post for
People who are interested in starting a charity or people who are curious about what it’s like.
As a relatively recent charity founder, I can make comparisons between what is a “normal job” and this job (while it’s relatively fresh in my head).
Because my charity does community building, I speak to many people about their work and plans, and some advocates are considering starting their own organization. I hope this will help you evaluate whether the job is for you, and should you decide to start a new organization, you’ll be all the more prepared for it.
What’s the job about
You start, build, and run the charity. Because it’s likely that it will just be you or your co-founder(s), you’ll be doing a lot of different things (more about this below). This is a senior management position and it’s a lot of responsibility. However, it’s different from senior roles in more established organizations in a couple of ways. For example, the variety of tasks you have to do (both high-level and admin work) is higher, there is a lot more uncertainty and risk, and a lot more freedom in which interventions to run and how to run them. Starting a charity could be one of the most impactful things you can do with your career if you’re the right fit for it.
Past job experiences that may help
My most recent role was Head of Programmes at Animal Advocacy Careers. Before that, I was a Project Manager and a Partnership Manager at Veganuary where I took on various roles in management and marketing. I’ve also worked in a couple of start-ups which added to my entrepreneurial experience. All these roles combined have helped me a lot. The skills that help me most from my past experiences are bootstrapping projects, project and people management.
On the whole, I don’t think there is any set of experiences that are essential for this job. Each charity idea will have its own requirements and even the best co-founder pair won’t have all of them. For example, if you start a charity in policy, experience in policy change is likely to make your job much easier, but there are still many other skills that you need to have to succeed. Looking at our community-building project, both my co-founder and I are very good at networking and relationship-building, which are key skills that our project needs. However, we are still learning many other skills that we need, like fundraising.
Some founders succeed without any experience, often coming right out of college (Charity Entrepreneurship has incubated several orgs like this!). If you think this kind of role is a great personal fit, but you don’t have much working experience, it might be worthwhile to trial or test. I started the newsletter as a volunteer project and it gave me one year of feedback before deciding to take the project full-time.
What helps to do this role well
There are a couple of paths to starting a charity: you can do it yourself, you can start it with someone else, or you can go through an incubator to be matched with an idea and a co-founder.
I had an idea for IAA on my own, worked on it part-time on the side, then found a co-founder half a year later, and then found the money for the project (after a year of doing it as a volunteer). I didn’t go through an incubator. I have also started other projects before, mostly myself, and I’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t.
Here are some factors that are likely to increase your chances of success:
- A good co-founder.
I’ve started projects both on my own and with a co-founder and, in my opinion (which coincides with the entrepreneurship community in EA), it’s so much better to do it together with another person. It’s been shown that two co-founder teams do much better and for a good reason. You’ll need so many skills to build an organization that it’s impossible for just one person to have all of them.
Choose a co-founder wisely: I’m not an expert at co-founder matching, but in my experience, it helps if you’re both passionate about the cause and have complementary skills and you both enjoy working together.
Co-founders can be helpful! Having a co-founder may help you to make better decisions and produce work of higher quality because you have two pairs of eyes and two minds that have different perspectives. Running a charity together helps cope with the role emotionally as well because you will have harder days and your motivation will waiver sometimes, and having someone who is just as committed as you helps a lot.
There are downsides to having a co-founder. You will “co-own” the organization together, so every decision is not 100% up to you. You will have to negotiate and compromise on some things. However, I’ve found that if you have a good relationship and take ownership of different areas of the nonprofit, it’s not as large of a problem.
- Going through an incubator.
There are a couple of charity/project incubators around, such as Charity Entrepreneurship (CE) (by the way, they are looking for founders until 30th September) or Kickstart for Good.
Incubators can be helpful: with ideas, co-founder matching, training, mentorship, and even funding. They have significant experience and that can help you avoid common pitfalls that new charities may face.
Downsides of an incubator: They are often highly competitive and selective about the founders accepted to participate in their programs. Additionally, the program may restrict your charity’s idea and execution, because the money and support team are sponsored by the incubator. All incubators differ when it comes to the freedom you’ll have in decision-making, so it’s worth asking about this before you apply/start the program. The takeaway is that if you go through an incubator, you’re not going to have 100% freedom on your charity/project idea and how to execute it.
- A good network of smart people who can advise you
It’s impossible to know everything needed to lead a charity effectively. Thankfully, you can access these skills and knowledge through other people. A good network helps a lot. This could be an entrepreneurship hub, a mentor, other charity founders, or industry experts that support your organization’s mission.
- Mental and physical wellness Starting a charity may be more intense than just starting a new job – I had to put in more hours than into a normal job (60+ a week) and go through a roller-coaster of new experiences and emotions. I also had to put a lot of personal things on hold to focus on my new project (other side projects, buying a house, hobbies like language learning). I would recommend being mentally and physically healthy in order to go through this process. I have an accountability coach who helps me keep my wellness habits up every day and this supports my work a lot. I also have a partner who helps me with chores and life admin tasks when I’m short on time.
What I do day-to-day
Every day is different - this is what I like most about this job. For example, on Monday I might work on budget and marketing, on Tuesday I could be applying for funding and meeting collaborators, and on Wednesday I might be reviewing my team’s work and focusing on personnel management.
Every week I have about 10 hours worth of meetings, about 50% external and 50% internal. This is likely to go up as I progress in this role. Since most of my team is in the US and I’m in the UK, I have most mornings free to focus on getting tasks done and then afternoons are frequently back-to-back meetings with some breaks. Many European people who work with US colleagues often say that they have to work later (up until 9pm) to accommodate different time zones, which is true for me too. I am lucky to have focus time, but I’ve been told that this will diminish as the team and their needs grow. I try to block off at least two meeting-free days which have been very useful so far.
I was surprised by the quantity of admin tasks that are needed to co-found a charity. Registering for various things, updating passwords, booking travel, entering data – it’s a lot! As a new charity founder, you’ll have to do all the tasks whether you like them or not, and you are unlikely to be able to delegate them to others until you hire an operations manager or an assistant.
The best things about this role
- The variety. As mentioned above. No day is ever the same.
- The challenging nature of the role. Most days I wake up not knowing how I’ll tackle certain issues and just figure it out as I go along. I love it! You never get bored.
- Learning and upskilling. You will learn so much about so many things. Budgeting, fundraising, management. The learning never stops. Just as you get comfortable with one skill, you need to learn another skill.
- Networking opportunities. You naturally need to talk to more people as a charity founder, whether for collaboration, learning, fundraising or recruiting. I’ve noticed that in comparison to being an employee, my network grows much faster when I’m leading a project.
- Freedom. Since it’s your organization, you can do whatever you want with it (within reason), and this refers to every single aspect of your organization. It’s nice knowing that no one is looking over your shoulder so you can work whenever and wherever you want. This may change as your organization grows, as you may become accountable to funders and/or a board of directors.
- Ability to build things from the ground up. In my previous jobs, I wasn’t the ultimate decision-maker and had to run changes past my manager. Without organizational bureaucracy, it is so easy to fix issues! I also get to create the organizational culture and values right from the beginning.
- Fun! All the above makes the job very enjoyable for the right person. Most days, I don’t want to stop working because I enjoy the vast majority of my tasks and projects. I’m very happy at work in general!
The skills I use most
- Strategizing, planning, and organising
- Management (currently managing 3 team members)
- Idea assessments and decision-making
- Networking, both online and attending conferences
- Idea + execution + luck (good environment, people). Many factors are needed for a new charity to succeed, including a good idea that is likely to make an impact, a solid support network, good execution, and also, luck!
- Evaluation. To have greater confidence that your charity’s work could have a high impact, it will require ongoing diligence. It’s tempting to start a project based on intuition alone (which may be important to a degree), but I want to confirm our ideas with any information and/or evidence. It might be difficult to find the time to consider expected value, track the efficacy, and better understand the risks when there are so many other tasks to do. Carefully considering failure modes, alternatives, and potential negative externalities takes time. However, the time spent upfront and in maintenance can help save you from wasting time on the wrong project.
- Funding. I ran this project as a volunteer for the first year, which is difficult to balance with a different full-time job. Even with seed funding, the uncertainty about future funding can be nerve-wracking.
- Decision-making and prioritization. The founder is the one responsible for keeping the organization aligned with the strategic mission – which can be difficult when there are so many potential projects and problems to solve! IAA uses a decision-making tree tool to help keep us focused and triage projects. On a more granular level, I have a sea of tasks and all of them are competing for my time and attention. One of the best tips I received is knowing what NOT to do - you will never ever get to the bottom of your to-do list. Every day, I have to make decisions that affect the organization, and sometimes they are really important. I can consult advisors or discuss with my co-founder, but eventually, about half of the decisions are up to me. Some days I suffer from decision-making fatigue, especially by the end of the week. I can see why some people wear the same clothes to work – it’s one fewer decision you have to make!
- Dealing with uncertainty. Most new charities operate with a lot of uncertainty because the interventions are experimental or dependent on assumptions. It can be hard to emotionally deal with that uncertainty on a daily basis. You can try to take different worldviews to anticipate and prepare for various outcomes, but we cannot predict the future with full certainty. This makes decision-making difficult and there is a risk of analysis paralysis and constant indecisiveness.
- Freedom is a double-edged sword. Sometimes I get very ambitious about what my organization can do, but eventually, I still have to deal with reality. It’s disappointing knowing that I can do anything but need to limit myself to a couple of projects.
- Failing. You need to get very comfortable with being corrected, critiqued, and generally getting things wrong the first time (and even the second and third times). Interestingly, what really helped me was my experience of language learning. I see being corrected as positive feedback that helps me grow as a leader.
- Becoming an expert in your field. If you start a charity, you will specialize in a particular topic and you will have to learn a lot about it. If you’re not a subject-matter expert from the start, you will have to learn a lot and quickly.
- Switching off and personal life sacrifice. At times, it can feel like you are “married” to your co-founder and to your charity, especially when your personal identity is tied to them. I’ve found life-work integration is more realistic than work-life balance, because the lines are often blurred when your work is also your passion. I have started implementing some healthier practices, like finishing work at a certain hour and not working much during weekends (when possible).
Being a co-founder has resulted in compromising changes to my personal life. For example, I travel a lot, meaning more time away from my partner. Late evening calls with my American colleagues cut into the time I’d normally spend with my family. Sometimes I feel I am working 24/7, especially when I attend conferences over the weekend and then have to go back to work on Monday.
- Emotional rollercoaster. Starting a charity is emotionally really, really hard. Harder than I expected. It challenges both my personal strength and my professional competencies. Some days, I’m really happy and pleased with my work, and other days I struggle. Throughout the rollercoaster, I persevere and it has helped me feel extra motivated – especially when I can find a small win in the hard times! While all of this is going on, your confidence is challenged, impostor syndrome can be especially prominent, and you will have to overcome a lot of mental barriers. I definitely recommend considering regular professional mental health help and pacing yourself. This job was never meant to be easy, and, as the Charity Entrepreneurship team say in their book, even the best charities have bad days :)
Traits that really help in this role
- Proactivity and initiative. In my humble opinion, this is the most important skill! It’s different from most “normal” jobs because it’s up to you to make things happen. To ask the right questions at the right time and prioritize the most pressing issues. It takes a lot of courage to have uncomfortable conversations and address things that may seem small now but could snowball later.
- Delegation. I am very independent and like doing things myself, but in this position, I can no longer do everything myself. It’s hard to get used to knowing when to delegate and ask for help, especially when you have to recognize that you’re not as good at a task as someone else on the team.
- Enthusiasm. The job of a charity founder requires you to do a lot of things, and chances are that you’ve never done most of them before. I’ve found it helpful to approach these new tasks with interest and curiosity.
- Tenacity. Sometimes despite doing your best, things don’t go according to plan. Even though I feel disappointed about something on a weekly basis, I know that I have the internal strength to overcome these challenges. Our work is really important, and keeping that in mind helps me to see other perspectives.
- Diplomacy. A lot of my current role involves building relationships with other stakeholders, organizations, and community members. It’s important to quickly understand the relationships and dynamics at play within the industry/movement. Some spaces are more political than others, so I imagine this varies by sector.
- Ambition. You have to create a compelling vision for the organization and plan things that may seem impossible at the time, often anticipating years in the future. Be prepared for people to think that you’re too ambitious and have solid evidence/theory of change to back your reasoning. You have to be “the engine” of the organization to propel it forward.
- Knowing when to ask for help. In the past, I didn’t feel comfortable saying “I don’t know how to do this” or “I don’t understand.” Sometimes I feel that I’m supposed to know everything and I’m afraid of admitting that I don’t get something. If people don’t know you need help, they can’t help you. You can figure things out yourself, but it may be more time effective to ask for help.
These challenges and helpful traits are specific to my situation founding IAA, and I recognize they might not be applicable to every co-founder or charity. I love learning about the journeys of other entrepreneurs because while we have a lot in common, the paths can be very different. The lists are not exhaustive, and there are many other topics that I think are important but didn’t have the chance to address here.