How to run your non-profit like a startup

India Women Laborers
In this photo from Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010, women work on quilts at the at the Purkal Stree Shakti program in Purkal, India. Purkal Stree Shakti is a non-profit program that trains women in quilting and provides a forum for self-help groups. Members in the groups contribute to a pot of money which they can lend to each other. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Photograph by Jacquelyn Martin — AP

Too often, donors write checks to charitable organizations and just hope for the best. But this doesn’t help deserving non-government organizations achieve real impact. An entrepreneurial philanthropist, or what they call a “philanthropreneur,” takes a more active role in helping NGOs by bringing the same entrepreneurial skills they learned in business to the world of philanthropy. Essentially, they disrupt the status quo of giving. Here are four of the most effective practices that I’ve learned from my years working in the private sector, the public sector and in philanthropy:

Set a clear finish line

No company can succeed without a clear vision, deep focus, and a solid business model. The same goes for charitable organizations. At the London-based nonprofit I head, Stars Foundation, we cherry-pick the most successful NGOS working with disadvantaged children around the world and award them with funding — much the same way venture capitalists fund great startups. The funds are not restricted, so that the NGO can spend money that benefits them. We help them with capacity building – i.e. advocacy, strategy development, improving community outreach and identifying smart uses of technology so that they can grow and have greater impact. Our finish line? To impact the lives 20 million children and their communities through the NGOs we supports, by 2020.

Collaborate to Accelerate

When I was a 17-year-old first learning the ropes of my father’s agricultural business, my job was to persuade farmers that continuing to purchase our company’s products was a wise investment if they wanted their farms to thrive. To do this, I had to sit down with them, listen patiently to their stories and doubts, carefully negotiate payment plans with them, and show them that our company was eager to help them on a level that was amenable to both parties. Leaders of NGOs who are trying to raise funds need to apply these same collaboration and negotiation skills if they want to accelerate their growth and impact. They must develop a persuasive story, listen with patience to the donor’s needs, desires and objections, and negotiate a solution that benefits both sides: what will the donor get out of the deal, other than just a warm fuzzy feeling and a tote bag?


Execution is about translating your goal into something measurable that can be monitored daily, weekly, monthly and yearly until the finish line is reached.

The best NGOS take execution very seriously. Educate Girls, a Stars Foundation awards winner, for example, is an organization in India dedicated to assuring that illiterate young girls who are typically forced as children into marriage get the education and protection they need.

Within five years, Educate Girls has brought more than 77,000 girls into the school system, and more than 240,000 children of both genders have seen increase of up to 60% in learning outcomes. And as they grow into adulthood, the young girls’ future is brighter. Their wages are higher; they have fewer children; they are less likely to fall prey to sex traffickers; and they are more likely to protect themselves against preventable diseases.

Attract the Right People

Business consultant and author Jim Collins has pointed out that “getting the right people on the bus” is key to organizational success. During my time as head of a government agency, I found this to be especially challenging, because we had to attract top talent from leading private sector companies. We relied on having a strong story line and compelling incentives, including a competitive salary, good benefits, and even the appointment of a “chief happiness officer” whose job was to ensure that employees were, well, happy.

Getting the greatest people possible is just as important for NGOs as it is for any business. The task can be a little harder because NGOs don’t spend handsomely on salaries and rely heavily on the help of volunteers. Traditionally, NGOs and philanthropic entities focus on how ‘affordable’ an employee is. But employees are an investment, not a cost. In my philanthropy we attract the best people even if they are expensive, since they prove to be a wise investment. Our current chief executive, Mona Wehbe, was formerly at Procter & Gamble (PG) and has been with us for over 10 years. Just as in business, if the NGO has a really excellent story and vision, a methodical execution plan, and great leadership and management, then attracting the best and brightest is much easier.

Amr Al-Dabbagh is chairman and CEO of the holding company Al-Dabbagh Group. He is a former Saudi government minister and founder of the Stars Foundation.

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