3rd March, 2023
Key to building a non-profit community is to manage it like a for-profit
Sofia shared a counterintuitive insight during her interview with us -
“Non-profits fail when you run it like a non-profit.”
Sofia Haq is the founder of Muslim Women Professionals (MWP). MWP is a US-government recognised non-profit that promotes the empowerment of Muslim women globally.
She is a superhero community builder - a Program Manager by day and Entrepreneur by night.
During the day, she's a senior program manager at XRC Labs where she supports the community of founders. Nights and weekends are when she builds MWP - the fastest growing non-profit of its kind - where she oversees 22 team members. And she has been doing it for the last 5 years!
So, if you’ve been thinking about starting a non-profit or if there’s a cause that you’re passionate about, this case study based on Sofia’s story will give you a good direction. It’ll tell you what to expect, mistakes to avoid and more.
No equity for your hard work - it’s a labour of love
One of the most important things you bring to the table as a founder is a clear motivation. That acts as the North Star that helps you steer the company through highs and lows. This clarity of motivation is even more important as the founder of a non-profit.
Sofia shared that since she has a demanding full-time job, many a times she has had to sacrifice her nights and weekends for working on her non-profit. Now, if she was building a regular, for-profit startup, the equity she has from being a founder, could have driven her to make these sacrifices. But there’s no equity in a non-profit - it belongs to the government.
On days when it gets really exhausting, Sofia reminds herself that her work matters to so many women around the world. That’s what has kept her going for 5+ years.
So, before you start a non-profit, ask yourself - “Do I care enough about this mission?”
Non-profits fail when you run it like a non-profit
When I asked her about tips on building a non-profit, she shared one core insight. The one that I shared above:
“Non-profits fail when you run it like a non-profit.”
Don’t start a non-profit just because you want to be the founder of a non-profit because there are non-profits that are unsuccessful or unsustainable or both. In order to build a non-profit that’s sustainable and successful, treat it like you were building a for-profit from the very beginning.
Here are some ways Sofia suggests founders can do this:
- Validate your idea
- Managing motivation for volunteers
- Diversify your income streams
Just because its a “you problem” doesn’t mean its an “everyone problem”. Just like startup founders, you need to talk to people who face this problem to validate the demand. You need to see if what you’re trying to build already exists.
If everyone on your team is working for free, then you need to be proactive in making sure that they get some non-monetary benefits out of it, like better networking opportunities. Sofia does constant check-ins with her team members to be on top of their needs.
Every good startup founder knows the importance of diversification. Similarly, as the founder of a non-profit, you can’t just rely on one income stream like donations. You should have grants, events, corporate partnerships etc.
Be a really good problem solver
Sofia believes that the number one trait for the founder of a non-profit is to be a good problem solver. You may have heard this before but what does it mean?
In the early days of MWP, whenever a problem came up, she would start doubting herself - “oh god i’m not doing a good job”. But over time, she has learnt that problems are inevitable. It is about how you react to them.
No two days will ever be the same. You will always deal with something new. So, in order to be really successful in this role, you have to be a really good problem solver.
Sofia has now learnt that when it gets overwhelming, she needs to take a step back and then figure it out. Her job is to be someone who can help every single team, even Finance or Legal. This doesn’t mean she has to know everything about these fields. She just needs to know how to contribute to them.
One time Sofia went to a wedding when one of her friends introduced her to her friends as the person who started MWP. To her surprise, those girls then started fan-girling - “Oh my god you started it”. That was when she realised the impact she was having.
But it isn’t just about the external validation from people recognising her. What’s even more satisfying for her is when she receives messages from people around the world appreciating her efforts.
Messages like - “I had been ƒacing islamophobia in the workplace, i’ve been harassed - your organisation has helped me feel empowered, advocate for myself. I don’t hide who I am anymore.” One time, after MWP did an event on spiritual rights in the workplace, so many women messaged her saying how it has helped them.
All of this together is what keeps her going.
“It makes me feel so motivated and lets me know that I’m making an impact, even though sometimes I forget that I am.”
For more reading, check out the article Sofia wrote reflecting on her first year as a founder. It’s a great read where she vulnerably shares the ups and downs of starting MWP in details.
You can also listen to her episode on the Beginner Maps podcast to hear her talk about how her childhood experiences led her to community building, how she turned a 10-yr plan to a this year plan and what her full-time role managing a community of founders for a startup accelerator looks like. Get it wherever you listen to podcasts:
Make a scary pivot in the Community Industry
Each week you get:
- one video interview with an awesome community professional discussing how they broke in
- one case study with actionable advice on breaking into the industry
- upto 5 actionable tactics