Photo: Haven and Thom, co-founders of Fish Welfare Initiative
No pressure, but picking your co-founder is one of the most important decisions you will ever make as a charity entrepreneur. Only selecting your intervention might be more crucial than deciding who will be your partner in crime.
This article addresses three key questions about your co-founder selection:
Why is this decision so important
Each organization is, in essence, the people behind it. In the case of a startup, that’s the co-founders. Whom you pick as your partner will greatly affect decision-making and culture at your charity. Does your partner care about evidence? Are they energetic? These characteristics will reverberate across the organization as you recruit and manage staff, and interact with stakeholders.
There are many advantages to having a co-founder. Your partner will broaden your skillset, make your daily work fun, and increase the likelihood that you will stick through rough parts of the journey, as you can mutually support each other. Some startup accelerators even have rules that recognize the comparative advantages of a partner: it is hard to get accepted at Y Combinator as a solo founder.
While you can reverse many decisions you make, the one about your co-founder is hard to turn around. A co-founder embodies part of the organization, so a departure can result in a loss of vision, implementing power, and atmosphere. It is no surprise that co-founder issues and split-ups are a common failure mode for startups in the for-profit world. In our experience, this finding translates to non-profit startups as well.
What should I look for
You got it, picking a co-founder is critical. So what aspects should you consider in your search process?
The ideal number of co-founders
Two is the sweet spot, according to many startup connaisseurs. You get the benefits of a team, with less of the friction of larger groups. However, this is no scientific rule: the evidence in the literature is mixed and depends on the context. This NYU study, for example, comes to the conclusion that solo founders outperform others in business settings. So these reflections should be taken with a grain of salt.
The friction of larger teams comes both in terms of decision-making and burn rate. The more people there are, the harder it becomes to make decisions, as there are more opinions and points of view. There is also the danger of coalitions forming within the founding team; for instance, two co-founders could habitually vote against the third member of the team. Rapid decision-making is a key success factor for a startup, so anything that slows this down is a threat.
Besides decision-making, another factor that usually constrains charity startups is funding. Paying three instead of two salaries can be difficult at an early stage. The team might need to dedicate more resources to fundraising, rather than testing in the field. The pressure to scale an unproven concept will also be higher, as you might need to justify the bigger overhead to donors and to yourselves. With resources divided among more people, the salaries of each founding team member may also be lower than in the two-person scenario. This, in turn, could affect motivation or cause financial difficulties.
In sum, you likely don’t want to be a solo-founder, and you need some additional justification for having three or more co-founders as a charity entrepreneur. Such larger teams might be more common in the world of tech or pharma startups, where very specific, hard-won expertise is required, and a team of three might combine business, tech and science backgrounds. In the world of non-profits or common businesses, two members should be able to cover the basic skill-sets required.
Aligned goals and values
The brightest and most successful co-founder candidate cannot be a match if she or he does not align with your values and goals.
You both need to be fully convinced about the cause area and intervention that your charity pursues. Consider both the rational and emotional levels. An EA co-founder might be sympathetic to the idea of switching from a poverty to an animal charity from a rational perspective, but if he or she is not fully bought-in emotionally, it could get tricky in trying times. Similarly, you set yourself up for many arguments if your co-founder has never been fully convinced of the specific intervention area such as animal food fortification. Of course, the debate about the most effective intervention is vital at the beginning of a venture. But it should be settled within an agreed timeframe, and should not constantly pop up during daily operations. You will hit many roadblocks with any intervention, and this should not be an excuse to switch back and forth.
You need to share the same personal goals and timeframes. It will be a recipe for conflict if you see yourself leading a charity for 5-10 years but your co-founder is interested in “trying out” charity entrepreneurship for two years. Watch out for co-founders who don’t understand that setting up a new organization takes years, or who are already planning their next big thing.
You should share the key values of evidence-based charity entrepreneurship and effective altruism. Cost-effectiveness, solid impact measurement, tractability, and transparency all fall under this category. Don’t trade these values for expert status or experience. Such compromises can be made at the level of your field staff, but at the co-founder level, ignoring these values will lead to poor decisions or value drift.
Grit: a short word with profound implications. Pick a co-founder who has shown grit and tenacity in his professional and private life. Startups are often uncomfortable and hard, and you don’t want your co-founder to jump ship when the first clouds appear.
There are many intelligent people, but your co-founder needs to combine intelligence with a proactive attitude. Pick someone who can get sh*t done over the smartest person in the room. The journey of a startup involves a lot of trial and error, and only moving forward will help you get the necessary feedback on your journey to success.
As in relationships, financial preferences are a common cause of conflict between co-founders. Ensure that your co-founder has similar ideas on expenses. Lean toward frugality, as a high burn rate limits your time to test your program, while a modest budget attracts donors.
Pick someone who shares a similar perspective on work-life balance. There does not need to be perfect overlap here, but avoid going for someone who prefers to work much more or less than you, as this will lead to frustration or burnout. Of course, you can adapt your idea of work-life balance as your organization matures, but it helps to have a shared general understanding at the beginning.
You both graduated from an Ivy League school in business administration, both like to work on headquarters level tasks, and neither of you has ever worked in a developing country. That might not be the best setup in terms of complementary skills and interests. Ideally, one co-founder brings experience and interest in working in the field, in the case of a poverty charity. It is also helpful to have previous involvement in the area you are working on, for instance, it is beneficial if at least one co-founder at an animal charity has been engaged in the space. It is common in for-profits to have a technical founder who is responsible for software and product, and a non-technical founder responsible for the business side. At non-profits, a well-balanced team can often consist of a founder with a background in research/programming and another with a background in business/communications.
Certainly, it’s unlikely that you will achieve perfect overlap in terms of complementary skills. But strive to build a team where you have unique strengths and weaknesses. In the best case, you understand who is going to lead which domain from the beginning. Someone might be uniquely qualified for fundraising and other HQ-level tasks, while the other excels at program implementation in the field.
Consider the following skills and interests as you look for complementarities:
Potentially more important than complementary skills are psychological traits that align within the co-founding team. This does not mean that you should be twins -- it might well mean that you have opposite psychological traits. Someone might be more easy-going, while the other always has strong opinions. Someone might be more enthusiastic about new ideas, the other more skeptical and suited for reality checks. Someone might have many ups and downs, while the other is steadier. The team goes beyond its members.
On the other hand, differences in psychology can cause conflict. If one partner gains energy from heated disputes while the other would prefer to discuss disagreement more calmly, you need to find a way of dealing with these differences.
All sounds a bit complex and fuzzy? Just consider whether you enjoy spending time with, and tackling challenges with, the person in front of you. If so, you might have found a good match from a personality perspective. As a step further, imagine that your charity has failed after multiple years of hard work. Would you still have enjoyed the journey together as co-founders? There is no need to be best friends, but don’t go into this if you need to justify the decision to yourself (“we might not click, but the opportunity is too big to pass…”). That’s a bad start, as in the end, a venture is all about people.
So, you have found your perfect match but he or she lives on a different continent. Is this a dealbreaker? Startup wisdom holds that you should be based in the same location. In-person communication often allows you to move faster and build stronger personal ties. Yet, there are examples of business (e.g. Zapier) and non-profit startups (e.g. New Incentives) that had a remote setup from the beginning without experiencing substantial disadvantages.
If you are looking for a co-founder, you want to still prioritize someone with whom you can work in person. This includes candidates who do not already live in your location but are willing to relocate -- and, importantly, who have the necessary citizenship to get a visa. Unfortunately, this last factor restricts your choice and is unfair to potential founders from certain countries. Yet, experience shows that visa status should be considered. Several previous Charity Entrepreneurship graduates struggled with this issue.
As with recruiting staff, the impression of a candidate from their CV and conversations might be misleading. The real test only comes with real work. As a result, you would want to test your co-founder working relationship with minor common assignments before you jump right in. You could, for instance, work on a short research summary or an overview of the planned intervention. It’s a great sign if such a test collaboration is inspiring to both sides and results in a strong outcome that goes beyond what you each would have achieved as individuals.
The longer you have known a person, the more certainty you have about their suitability. However, if you’re considering starting your charity with a good friend, consider the following questions:
How to look for it
You know about the importance of a co-founder and their ideal traits. Now you just have to find your match. Easier said than done. Yet there is an effective and comfortable way to find a co-founder: join Charity Entrepreneurship’s two-month Incubation Program. The incubator brings together talented individuals, gives them training in all aspects of running a charity startup, and funds their high-impact ventures.
The program prioritizes various activities aimed at successful co-founder selection. It starts with fun team-building activities, ranging from solving moral dilemmas to taking personality tests to recounting each other’s life story. As a next step, participants work with different partners on actual startup tasks, such as drafting a fundraising plan or developing a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) concept. What’s more, you will get to know potential co-founders in after-work activities during the two-month program. So you will get a strong understanding of your co-founder before you make the decision that defines your charity, and potentially your professional life.
If you plan to start your charity outside the Charity Entrepreneurship program, we recommend modeling your process similarly.
Having a clear process and defining what you are looking for is a solid starting ground. At the same time, be realistic. You are not looking for a superwoman or superman, but a human being who has flaws like you. Ask about whether you complement each other well, and whether both or all potential co-founders are a good fit for (charity) entrepreneurship. So instead of finding someone who stands out in all areas, define your own set of co-founder must-haves and nice-to-haves as you go about your search.
If you don’t immediately find a co-founder you are looking forward to working with, give it some time. You can always start working as a solo founder, and bring someone on board later. This still trumps settling for a poor choice. Eventually, you will find your perfect match. Happy searching!