“I’m convinced that half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance.”
-- Steve Jobs
Starting a charity involves a lot more risk and heavier responsibility compared to most other jobs, but it can also be hugely rewarding. If you are convinced that charity entrepreneurship could be a high-impact and satisfying career, the next question you might ask yourself is whether it is a good personal fit for you.
To help you, we’ve listed some key personality traits and skills we think are necessary for a successful charity entrepreneur. The good news is, your personality is dynamic. Use this list as a starting point to cultivate certain traits and build your skills – don't be discouraged if you don’t identify with every single one.
Successful charity entrepreneurs are:
It goes by many names – grit, determination, resolve, resilience. The strength to keep trying no matter what obstacles crop up (and, believe me, there will be obstacles) is absolutely critical if you are to succeed. Rome wasn’t built overnight, and founding a top charity won’t happen after a week of part-time work. If you want to start a charity, you have to want it, even after your plans A through P have all failed. You have to keep trying even after you’ve had a scathing review online, because once you’re doing something big enough that strangers start to comment, there will always be somebody who doesn’t like what you’re doing.
Being resilient means being dedicated at the highest level. It does not mean being inflexibly stuck on a specific plan or idea. It means aiming for the same goal over a long period of time. For example, if someone with grit were pursuing journalism, they wouldn’t apply for the same position dozens of times and no others. They would apply for hundreds of jobs in journalism and if that didn’t work, they might take an online course to build up their skills, or start reporting on events in a public forum to garner a following.
You're ambitiously altruistic
You want to help so many people over your lifetime that they wouldn’t all be able to fit in a football stadium. You want to wake up knowing you are pushing the limits of what is possible. Most people want to make the world a better place, but the majority only go so far as to be nicer to those around them or put a little extra thought into a present. Those gestures are laudable, but running a great organization needs more vision, otherwise you’ll be too tempted by easier ways to change the world.
You worry that a lot of charities, while well-intentioned, are misguided. They often accomplish nothing and sometimes even make the situation worse. Your response to knowing that things can go wrong is not to say that making a positive difference is impossible, but that you have to learn as much as you can about the situation before making a decision. You want the analytical, critical, rigorous, and empirical thinking found in the scientific sector to become the norm in the nonprofit sector too. The stakes are too high for decision-makers to value emotional appeals over evidence and results.
Good charity entrepreneurs always remain open to the possibility that any and all of their assumptions may be incorrect. If you are not open-minded enough to consider new evidence and update your beliefs and actions accordingly, you are almost certain to fail. As a small condolence, you probably won’t realize that you’ve failed because, as Kathryn Schulz explains, how you feel when you are wrong is identical to how you feel when you are correct. On the flip side, being open-minded will allow you to eventually outpace many of your peers because you will be able to steadily improve your model of the world.
So, even if you initially think that something is incorrect, approach it with an open mind. Have a ‘scout mindset,’ trying to understand situations and concepts as honestly and accurately as possible, even when they are not convenient. Remember, changing your mind is the ultimate victory, because in those moments you are improving your model of the world. And how can we ever hope to fix a problem without understanding it?
You're not afraid to admit mistakes
Humans are world-class self-deceivers, commonly making excuses for bad decisions, rationalizing away negative outcomes, and constructing fantasies to replace unpalatable truths. Charity entrepreneurs need to be able to work hours on end for years and then admit that they made a mistake or that the project isn’t effective enough to continue pursuing. This requires a rare level of honesty. Many people end up burying their heads in the sand and rationalizing away negative information. Don't let pride come in the way of achieving the most positive impact possible.
As an entrepreneur you have to convince many people that your idea is a great one, but the first person you have to convince is yourself. You have to be able to get yourself up in the morning without a boss breathing down your neck. You have to motivate yourself to do unpleasant but necessary tasks. It's difficult, and some people just can’t get the work done without a push.
A good way to proxy this style of work is to take an online course. There are thousands that you can take for free at your own pace. With such a powerful resource publicly available, it is amazing that people pay such huge sums of money for a university degree, but it comes down to motivation. Most people cannot complete an online course by themselves without a teacher guiding them to the finish line. As an entrepreneur, you can set up a board or peer group to help you with this, but when it comes down to it, being able to motivate yourself is crucial.
Of course coming up with the initial concept takes creativity, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Almost every day entrepreneurs need to devise and compare multiple solutions to any given problem. Great entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to think outside the box, do things differently, and bend or break social norms. Difficult problems require creative solutions.
That being said, it is possible to have a strong team that can collaborate creatively to build a strong organization. Not all original thinking has to come from the top. We find that encouraging board and staff members to contribute and collaborate freely is a great way to produce brilliant ideas.
You’re doing it for the right reasons
There are many reasons to start a charity, and not all of them are altruistic. Some people do it to impress others, to have adventures, or to feel good about themselves. If you let these kinds of motivations interfere with the ultimate goal of helping, people will be harmed. For example, if your primary motivation is the warm glow of assisting others, but you find out that instead of ministering to the ill, it’s better to prevent the disease in the first place, you may choose to stick to ministering because prevention is not as emotionally rewarding as treatment. As a result of your misguided motivations, many people will lose their lives. Likewise with prestige: a desire to impress others may cloud your judgement. Sometimes the best thing for the charity is to give the credit to somebody else.