Peer to Peer: I want to start a non-profit: what do I need to know?

Vision and productive group dynamics are key to a non-profit's startup success

Sheila Stenzel: Director, MineralsEd


There are so many things that contribute to the success of a non-profit organization, particularly a charitable organization, that must be attended to and worked on continuously:

•Your organization must have a unique and well-defined purpose. It must provide a service or resources in the area that no other group provides. In the case of our educational organization, MineralsEd was formed as a partnership between teachers and industry for the sole purpose of supporting curriculum-based minerals education in B.C. schools (K-12).

•Keep a razor-sharp focus. Based on the insight of key partners, define the roles of the organization and adhere to those precepts in all aspects of operation. Your programs can grow and adapt to changing needs, but the purpose and roles should not casually change.

•Build the organization with dedicated people who bring specific skills and have some degree of relevant expertise in the subject area but who also have heart for the work. Everyone must believe that high-level, big-picture goals are achieved through the day-to-day, ordinary work, and must bring a can-do attitude.

•Partner with those who will contribute quality guidance and expertise and ensure you are headed in the right direction. Ask them to be volunteers; they will add value and will see how your work affects others.

•Your organization's board should consist of respected leaders in your community and/or field, whose experience you can draw on to move your organization forward and who are passionate about your organization. They are invaluable in their championing your cause and in establishing credibility in the community.

•Establish effective communication with the audiences you must reach to keep them informed of your initiatives and outcomes.

Deryck Williams: FCA and national leader, Grant Thornton LLP


So, you want to start a non-profit or charity. Good for you! There's no shortage of need, but starting a non-profit requires a lot of hard work. To be successful, there are four things you'll need to get right at the beginning: vision, roles, benchmarks and accountabilities.

Vision is critical. It's the person with the vision who gets the ball rolling by gathering a small group of like-minded people to make it a reality. This intentionally small working group should have four or five well-defined roles. Each person has a job and should understand his or her role and be held accountable. The dynamics of this group are critical. You should spend a lot of time getting it right! They must share the vision and have the commitment to follow through. If even one person is weak, everything could fall apart.

The president secures resources. The secretary keeps a clear record of decisions. The treasurer translates the action plan into a cash-flow plan and establishes financial controls. Communications develops materials to explain the vision and plan of action and should gather stats to develop operational benchmarks. Some groups add operations, and charities may also need a fundraising role.

Collectively, the first job for the group is to clearly define the vision and then create a detailed plan and timeline. The group may incorporate – a complicated decision best taken with legal counsel – or apply to become a registered charity, which carries tax advantages but also some serious obligations.

To find out more about how to start a non-profit, check out great resources like Imagine Canada's website at

Terry Clark: President, Real Board Solutions


Over the past 20 years, I have seen a number of startup non-profits succeed. However, many others flounder, especially in today's economy. Some of those who have succeeded are thriving. Those that have floundered are either no longer in existence or are dysfunctional. So what are the differences in these two non-profit scenarios?

At the top of the list is the use of the wrong governance model (or no governance model at all) and the other is the lack of board member training.

Common problems are universal within non-profits as individuals come together with various skillsets, interests and, more often than not, different visions of the non-profit's purpose and direction. Much of this is not immediately apparent and becomes an issue while the organization is in early development. Once the organization begins to evolve, rifts and dissension become apparent. A strong, appropriate governance model is the best solution to mitigate potential problems.

Organizations that choose the wrong governance structure either fail outright or limp along, never maximizing their potential. Meetings become disorganized, roles get confused, and chaos (or apathy) follows.

The correct governance model without the proper training for board members is of little value. Many board members lack board training; others are unaware of their lawful duties. Still others don't have directors and officers insurance, putting them and their families at financial risk. These key director areas relate to those in a startup phase and established non-profits.

Starting a non-profit in B.C. is relatively easy. However, sustaining the organization with well-trained directors with a shared and vision is more difficult. A written, realistic strategic plan and ongoing funding sources are among the other key success factors.