The Beginning And The End
Listen to “The Beginning And The End” By Fred Smith
I have worked with a number of entrepreneurs over the years and there are a few common themes and characteristics in their lives. One of them is an extreme focus and a personal identification with projects. They start things, grow them, and then look for exit strategies. In fact, the exit strategy is built into the plan from the beginning. In non-profit work, there are very few exit strategies – especially for founders.
A familiar and common characteristic of entrepreneurs founding ministries is, for a variety of reasons, they sooner or later start looking for other partners. Sometimes they lose their original enthusiasm for it but want to see it go on. They want to find a successor. The Swedish sociologist Max Weber wrote about “the routinization of charisma.” Many entrepreneurial ventures cannot survive the loss of the founder. “If the social organization is to survive, some form of routinization must take place; an orderly determination of who legitimately wields power.” More often, they wake up and see the project is almost completely dependent on them financially and that makes them uncomfortable. They don’t like to think about their capital being committed for an undefined future. As well, either the project becomes far more expensive than they thought it would be or they take a financial hit and are no longer able to support it by themselves. In each case, they discover the value (often for the first time) of partnerships. Entrepreneurs by nature do not typically partner well and often only as a last resort. They are comfortable with outside investors and donors but not with genuine partners diluting their control.
In time, they find the project is so completely identified with them and their funding that others see it as privately owned property. Of course, this is probably how the founder sees it as well. It has the founder’s face all over it and is so thoroughly merged with that person that others cannot see themselves as a part of it. They cannot imagine it being anything but a private venture looking for “other people’s money.” It looks like someone having a child, raising them for ten years and then looking for someone else to take over or help with the continuing expense. In many cases, they want help with the “child” but don’t expect to make concessions in the vision or operation. They think others should be interested in this project that has been so important to them and it is just a matter of finding the donors and convincing them.
For others, they have waited too long and created an organization so dependent on their funding that the time required to gradually find more interested funders makes a transition to partners difficult. They have been focused so intently on shaping and crafting it that they gave no thought (or very little) to a time when there would be a need for others to come alongside. They never designed it to have other investors/funders.
Then there are those who run out of money to support it and find themselves in a crisis. It could be from a financial downturn or it could be they had the resources to fund the start-up and growth but not an ongoing operation. Typically, they start looking for traditional donors thinking they can now present themselves as another grant opportunity for them. That’s when they discover how out of the ordinary they are in the minds of most traditional donors.
So what might entrepreneurs starting ministries do from the outset?
1. Consider how much it takes to make a ten-year commitment and put the money aside if you want to have total control. It will always be at least twice as much as you think.
2. From the beginning start designing the organization to have room for other funders. This means having a functioning board and not simply yourself and two family members to meet the minimum requirement. It means building relationships and offering ways for people to get engaged and not wait until you are in a corner.
3. Recognize that typically after about four years the ministry will be seen as your pet project and it will be very difficult to find others unless you do the hard work of redesigning it to attract others. As well, I have worked with founders who want to replicate a successful program only to discover the success is due to a unique individual or set of circumstances. Replication planning does not come after an initial success. It needs to be part of the original design.
4. Finally, don’t discount the option of ending it well instead of finding partners. Some things rightfully have a life for several years and their purpose is fulfilled.
There has never been a better time to start and grow a ministry. There has never been a moment with more opportunities, resources or imagination. Think it through and then do it right.