What Nonprofits Can Learn from Startups

And What Startups Should Learn from Each Other

Last week we posted an article discussing a few things that startups can learn from nonprofits, discussing specific tactics nonprofits employ that could be helpful in marketing and client retention for startups. Similarly, there’s a lot that nonprofits can learn from startups as well.

Here are a few specifics that nonprofits should learn from startups for their growth:


Partnerships have helped countless startups grow and become successful yet, for some reason, a lot of nonprofits are reluctant to partner with each other to accomplish their goals. Whether it’s for delivery of services, raising money or simply for the purpose of having someone to share in the joy of success, partnering with other organizations that are similar in the communities they serve just makes sense. If you can find a larger or more experienced organization to partner with, that’s even better because their credibility tends to transfer to your organization helping you get to a point where you may not need to continue the partnership.

Plus, as an added benefit, funders like to put money behind collaborations so that they can spread their money a bit further while still serving the mission making you more likely to be the beneficiary of more funding! 50% of something is always better than 100% of nothing, right?


Having done so much work in the startup world, my favorite mantra is “test, measure, refine”. But there’s no measurement without some sort of metrics. Whether it’s dollars raised, people served or some other metric, being able to track impact metrics, rather than vanity metrics, is hugely important in order to measure and drive success.

In marketing, we often look to the effectiveness of our campaigns by the growth of a social media following or more visitors to a website, and those are great key indicators, but they’re what I call vanity metrics – a way that you can tell yourself that your organization is successful. Impact metrics are so much more important. How many people have you served in the past six months? What kind of change have you seen in the lives of those people? How many more people do you want to serve in the next six months?

These are all the types of questions that startups excel at asking themselves because their survival depends on it – they have to make money and this is the only way that they’ll be able to do so. As a nonprofit, asking yourself these types of questions will help you grow as well.


I’ll go back to the “test, measure,refine” mantra here. Startups are always trying new things and finding new, more scalable ways of accomplishing their goals but nothing works right on the first try but each time they try something, they learn something from it – even if it’s just “let’s not do that again”.

In my experience, a lot of nonprofits are reluctant to employ this type of experimentation for a lot of reasons – fear of shaking up the status quo, of alienating funders or failing their community in some way. That makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t have to stop you from experimenting. If you want to try something new, pick a small project and see how it works. If it involves your community or your funders, start with a sliver grouping of them and watch what happens. If it’s successful roll it out to more – if not, thank the small group you experimented with and don’t do it again. Sure, it’s a risk but you can mitigate that risk by limiting your test group to a small group of people who have agreed to be a part of the test group in advance.

There’s plenty that startups do really well that nonprofits can learn from – these are just a few.

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Posted in Growth, Ian's Library, Nonprofits, Startups.

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