Early in my career, I worked as a communications associate at Amp Up NYC, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing band music education to New York City public schools. Before that, I interned at nonprofit focused on finding a cure for juvenile diabetes. At both jobs, I did a variety of marketing-related tasks that helped prepare me for my current position as sales director at a startup.
While startups and nonprofits may seem to belong to entirely different worlds, they’re actually more similar than you’d think.
The people are passionate. Employees wear many different hats and must switch between tasks frequently. Both need to raise money and figure out how to run lean. They must persist in the face of obstacles. And finally, both are determined to change the world.
Here’s how my time working in the nonprofit world enabled me to be a better growth expert:
1. Flexibility is the name of the game.
I came into Amp Up with a highly specialized background—I had been a marketing director at an architecture firm before making the jump.
At the nonprofit, I was thrown into a variety of different roles. I had to handle everything from press outreach to event planning to graphic design. I wrote email campaigns and newsletters. I created and curated our core message. Essentially, everything brand-related fell to me.
Likewise, startup employees have to fulfill a variety of functions because the team is super-small and new challenges are always popping up. Team members have to be prepared to shift as priorities change.
Both startups and nonprofits alike can—and should—stay flexible in the following ways:
- Reading signals. Keep an ear out for relevant information affecting your industry and make decisions based on what you pick up on. Quickly decide if you need to adapt to the changing environment or keep your current heading.
- Communicate. Leaders should clearly explain to all team members why a change is being made so everyone stays on board with the organization’s vision.
- Create options. Flexible organizations give their employees more options. For example, allow remote working or flexible work schedules. Making things easier for your employees will help your team handle a variety of challenges.
When you embrace flexibility, your organization will be better prepared to weather the punches that come with both the startup and nonprofit worlds.
2. You’re nothing without a good story.
As humans, we’re wired for story.
In the 2016 book Story Genius, author Lisa Cron explains that stories have biological power over us. Stories evolved as a way for us to step out of the present and envision the unknown. They allow us to vicariously test out difficult situations to help us figure out how to steer our own lives.
Anyone in sales knows this. At a nonprofit, you’re not selling in the traditional sense, but you are tugging heartstrings to influence donors. If you don’t have a good narrative that inspires people, you won’t get funds.
At Amp Up NYC, we worked very closely with children, and I’d often incorporate stories about their development into my marketing materials.
For example, each year we sent kids on scholarship to a summer program at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. We had a number of students go two years in a row, and I’d get to see firsthand the changes they made from one year to the next.
One student, in particular, was a super talented singer. The first summer, she was incredibly shy and homesick. When I visited, I’d try to get her to open up and engage in activities, but she was so nervous and self-conscious she’d hang back. But by the next year, she was a completely different person. She had tons of friends and was singing openly in the lunch hall. To me, it was amazing to see that difference.
When I shared this with potential donors, they were equally moved.
Today, when I’m selling, I use personal and heartfelt stories to connect with and move prospects.
To do the same, use your own experiences to add colorful detail to the story. Any element of human connection will only make your story more powerful.
If your stories can successfully communicate how your organization can help people in real-world scenarios, you’ve mastered a major part of sales and marketing.
3. Passion or bust.
During my time in the nonprofit world, I had the pleasure of working with some of the most passionate individuals I’d ever met. And we all had a super strong connection because we were working towards the same mission.
Startups, too, are built on fostering passion.
Without it, you won’t have the chutzpah to withstand the inevitable obstacles thrown your way. Passion is one of those intangibles that gets you through the good times and the bad times, and ultimately dictates the success of any startup or nonprofit. Passion also generates innovation, drives motivation, and creates loyal employees. And startups and nonprofits alike need all these things in droves.
When you work for a nonprofit or a startup, you’re bound to run up against a lot of hurdles.
Whether you’re a nonprofit battling poverty or a scrappy startup selling health food, you have to be flexible, tell compelling stories, and be passionate as hell.