Thousands of new businesses are created every day and are thriving, but many struggle to stay open and online. I hear so many personal stories where founders struggle with access to capital and funding, talent acquisition and retention as well as proving their competitive advantage. After broader discussions with various leaders, I found that nonprofit founders encounter many of the same challenges, are facing greater pressures to be self-sufficient and historically haven’t had access to the same levels of support. There are hundreds of incubators for small businesses and startups, and we are finally seeing accelerators stepping in to help nonprofits too. When we resource entrepreneurs we have to factor in nonprofit leaders too and think about how to increase collaboration to address some of the shared pain points.
There is a need to support small business and nonprofit entrepreneurs alike not only with funding but support programs, hiring and advice. I spoke with Miguel Quiroga, CEO of Visible, a digital wireless carrier in the U.S. backed by Verizon, to learn more about the Visible Connect Accelerator Program. Now in year two, it’s the only accelerator program supporting nonprofits impacting communities through mobile technology. Quiroga explained the need for this program. “Our thinking, if we can help just one of these companies make a difference, it’s worth it. They have scale with over 4 million impacted this year. It’s not about the reach and scale that they have. It’s about the opportunity to help them succeed. The challenges are real and they are the same as any other small business starting out.”
After one year supporting the first cohort of dynamic nonprofit founders, Visible Connect provided more than just funding but peer summits and conferences, tailored curriculums, mentorship, funder events and technical expertise. Nonprofits need funding but they also need programming and strong networks to maximize their impact. “They are using the playbook a lot of early-stage tech companies use to get reach and awareness,” said Quiroga.
The Visible team learned early on about the challenges nonprofits face and realized they aren’t entirely different than startups in general. Quiroga shared, “Nonprofits aren’t very different from small businesses, but they have some different issues and challenges, almost never getting enough funding given their business model(s), lack of dollars for marketing or branding and talent retention. They are passionate, believe in their mission and can take their passion to build a viable, sustainable business that ultimately helps people. To me, that’s no different than the for-profit world. The challenges are really the same, especially with small teams beginning to build their businesses.”
The Visible Connect inaugural cohort had a majority number of female founders at the helm, a reflection of the growing number of women leading nonprofit organizations, not just starting or leading small businesses. The programming was deliberate in understanding some of the unique challenges that female founders encounter. I connected with one of the Visible Connect honorees, Kiah Williams, the cofounder of SIRUM, a platform that connects organizations that have surplus of unused medicine with charitable clinics and pharmacies that serve low-income families. Williams likened it to “a Match.comfor unused medicine.” Her organization demonstrates clearly how nonprofits have similar challenges and the need for curated programs to support their needs and help them scale. As Williams states, “Being a technology nonprofit straddles two worlds - the world of high-growth tech startups and the world of social impact. Our success depends on being able to leverage community, curriculum, support, mentorship, funder connections and technical expertise - exactly the things that Visible Connect provided.” When you look at for-profit startups, the needs are the same.
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Quiroga highlighted that small teams are a major challenge in the nonprofit space and Williams agreed but also pointed to the fact that in the nonprofit space it’s hard to find financing to back innovation and risk. “Many nonprofits are in fact small businesses, operating in much of the same ways, trying to add a ton of value with limited resources. Nonprofits are focused on social and community impact. Oftentimes small businesses are focused on impact as well. In general, what’s missing from the landscape of accelerating new ideas, new organizations and new innovations? Risk capital in the social impact space.”
It’s great to see that there are programs responding to this risk gap in nonprofit funding and support and putting financing and programs toward innovative ideas. It’s interesting to see that like small businesses, nonprofits are having trouble getting funding for bold, non-traditional and risky ideas. Those revolutionary ideas are usually the concepts that make this biggest impact. According to Williams, “Working at the intersection of technology and social impact is challenging all around. You have all the challenges of a more traditional tech startup like building your product and the customer support services to support that product. You also have all the challenges of trying to make headway on a large scale, often systemic social problem. One of our biggest challenges was is in launching a new product and service.”
Entrepreneurs regardless of sector are passionate about delivering the best products and services. There is always going to be a learning curve but sharing best practices, feedback and ideas are ideal ways to meet challenges head-on. It’s exciting to see the lines further blur between industries, a cross-pollination that helps nonprofits scale and companies grow their social impact missions and commitments.