Scaling your climate nonprofit
Scaling your climate nonprofit will allow you to maximize your reach and influence so you can create more of a positive impact, as well as attract bigger partnerships and funding opportunities. But if you start scaling prematurely and without laying the proper groundwork, you risk creating big problems for your organization. So when should you decide you’re ready to scale? What should you do to prepare? And how can you avoid the common stumbling blocks founders face when growing a nonprofit?
Anastasia Gamick is the co-founder and chief operating officer of the nonprofit Convergent Research. We sat down with her to discuss everything founders need to know before you take your nonprofit to the next level. This is our second piece with Anastasia on climate nonprofits. You can find the first, focused on launching your climate nonprofit, here.
Do you even need to scale?
If you’re seeing success with your climate nonprofit, scaling might seem like the next logical step, but it’s not always the right move and it does not inherently mean more impact. Make sure you’re clear about what you want before you move forward with trying to scale. Think about your thesis of impact - how big do you need to grow to meet it, and what’s the smallest version of that you can be?
Remember that scaling will mean different things to different organizations - it could involve managing a huge budget or opening a new location, but it might simply mean building a larger audience or bolstering your grantmaking capabilities. Figure out where you want to be first and work backwards, because the reality of each path will look very different. Talk to industry peers about their journeys with scaling to learn more about what it entails.
Important steps towards scaling
1. Lay a solid foundation
If you want to scale effectively, get your ducks in a row first - you’ll need a solid base from which to build from. That means establishing and implementing best practices across all areas of your organization, like governance, bookkeeping, and whatever accountability practices you’re using. Your ability to run a tight ship will be crucial as you grow and try to secure more funding and partnerships.
One key part of this preparatory work involves hiring an accountant. Often, small nonprofits look at their - relatively simple - books and decide they’d rather do it themselves than spend their limited funds on hiring someone. It’s a decision they come to regret when their first audit rolls around and they realize the mistakes they’ve made. Save yourself the headache and bring an expert on board from the start either by in-housing experienced talent or hiring an accounting firm that specializes in nonprofits.
2. Recognize your ‘zone of genius’
When you’re starting a nonprofit from scratch, it’s inevitable that your desk will pile up with work from every corner of the business - this is part and parcel of being a founder. But where possible, you should seek to be doing the things thato you excel at, and are uniquely able to do. As you scale the organization, you shouldn’t be the one doing payroll or writing grant reports if those aren’t your specialties. It might feel like you’re saving money by handling it yourself, but it comes with a hidden time cost - one that’s exacerbated by the fact you’re working outside your skill set, and you’re running the risk of doing it wrong.
Now’s the time to hire people who can take over these tasks. Run a thought experiment - what are the skills and experiences that would be needed at the size of your future organization? Map them all out and compare with your current team. The skills they lack are the ones that should go on a job description (or two).
Checking the composition of your team for gaps will be an ongoing process. When you notice that something’s missing, you can either hire, bring on co-founders, or embark on partnerships that’ll bring the capabilities you need to the table. If you’re applying for a grant, consider becoming a sub-grantee alongside another organization.
3. Go big
Nonprofits often fall into the trap of requesting less money from donors than they really need out of fear of being rejected. But if you undercut yourself and ask for a shoestring budget, that’s exactly what they’ll give you, and you’ll never get to do the big and exciting projects you really want to do. If the grant amount is open ended - it’s not a specific sum like $100,000 - figure out how much your project actually needs, and ask for that amount.
It’s generally best practice to make conservative budgets. You can even put a line item in your budget for unexpected expenses. As a young organization lacking in experience, it’s likely you’ll underestimate the time and resources required to pull your project off. It’s much harder to address a budget shortfall at the last minute. For more on building out budgets, check out our piece on grant budgeting here!
4. Pay competitive salaries
A lot of the typical advice around hiring - like to hire slow and fire fast, give people probationary periods and offer contract to hire roles - applies to nonprofits as much as startups. But the biggest difference between these two types of organizations is that nonprofits sometimes don’t have the budget to comp their staff to industry standards. Plus, high salaries are bizarrely controversial in the nonprofit space - there’s an expectation that staff should make sacrifices for the greater good.
So if you’re trying to break the mold, paying your staff well is how to do it. If you want to attract talent from the private sector, asking them to take a significant pay cut is a hard sell, plus it’ll ensure they don’t get poached by someone who can pay them what they’re worth. Consider hiring a comp consultant to help you set your executive staffs’ salaries.
Anastasia Gammick is the Cofounder and Chief Operating Officer at Convergent Research. There, she is pioneering a new model for large-scale science projects called Focused Research Organizations (FROs), which address neglected bottlenecks in biomedicine, biosecurity, climate technology, and other areas.
Previously, Anastasia was the first operations hire at Neuralink, was Chief of Staff at the robotics company Creator, oversaw the Give Directly relationship at the fintech company Segovia, and led the scale-up of COVID-19 test kit production at Curative, Inc in the first weeks of the pandemic.