Who to Pick as Your Co-Founders

Nobody starts a nonprofit solo. By definition an organization is a group of people, and the reason you want to work in a group is that you’re trying to do something that a single person can’t pull off on their own. So you need an initial team of people to start your nonprofit organization, but who do you pick to be your co-founders?

To emphasize the importance of this question, note that as your organization gels, you’ll find some of these people move into roles on your initial board of directors, others may be hired as paid staff, and some will remain on as key volunteers, so selecting the right people can have a long lasting positive effect. So again, what kinds of people are you looking for as you’re starting out?

First thing: Are they on board with your mission, values, and vision? In the earliest stage, the first people you bring on will help you shape these critical pieces, but at some point you will settle on the direction you want your organization to take. Then you will need to find people who support the mission, share the vision, and are committed to the values. This will be the basis for working well together as your organization grows.

Second thing: Do they bring in a needed skill? Starting a nonprofit organization is a multidisciplinary effort. Ideally, you want to recruit people with a variety of skills. You might want to consider recruiting

  • someone who understands nonprofit law
  • someone with a background in accounting (and nonprofit accounting is its own beast)
  • someone who knows how to raise funds
  • someone who has run a business
  • someone with an expertise in the organization’s niche (homelessness, puppies, beer education, whatever your nonprofit is about)
  • someone with a human resources background or a volunteer recruitment and management background

That’s just a start of course, but the point is there are a variety of skills you’re looking for in addition to the mission-match.

Third thing: This is the most often overlooked part, but don’t recruit clones of yourself. Each of us has our own personality quirks. Some of us are more extroverted while others are more introverted. Some of us are logical like Mr Spock while others are more intuitive like Dr McCoy. Some of us take quick, decisive action while others carefully deliberate before acting. Each of these traits is a strength in the right context, and each trait has its own unique downside as well.

When starting a nonprofit organization, don’t recruit clones of yourself. Click To Tweet

It’s important to recognize this, because it’s natural for many folks to see their strengths and be blind to their weaknesses. Let’s say you take quick, decisive action. You’re likely to see that as a strength, especially if it’s worked in past situations. You might then feel like you want to work with others that take the same approach. But these same quick decisions can make other group members feel like they’ve been sidestepped and cause dissention or disengagement in the group. So, if you’re a quick action person, you should probably find a deliberator to compliment your strength (and mitigate your weakness).

See what I did there? I asserted that your strength is also your weakness, but don’t get scared away by those weaknesses. They’re just the flipside of your strengths.

Sometimes when people focus on their weaknesses they start to have a very negative view of themselves, and if your group gets into that headspace, it might make the work way less fun to do. So it’s often better to think about your personal set of strengths, and looking for people who have complementary strengths. By taking this approach you are indirectly addressing the weaknesses without getting bogged down by them. This line of thought leads to one of my favorite tools, the StrengthsFinder *.

I like it because it lists 34 different strengths a person might have and helps you identify your top five. For instance, the test listed my five strength areas as strategic, ideation, analytical, achiever, and learner. This seems to be true, because when I was managing people, employees would often come to me with day-to-day problems, and I would immediately try to find the underlying issue, how it affects our strategy, how we can address it institutionally, etc. My mind is usually on the big picture, and it can mean I don’t actually solve the problem they brought up. That means I’d be better off if I worked alongside someone who connects more emotionally with people and focuses a bit more on the here and now. We’d keep each other in check.

So, find someone who’s in support of your mission, vision, and values, and look for a mix of skill that will benefit your nonprofit, but don’t stop there. Look for a healthy mix of personality traits and find a way to work with them.

If the StrengthsFinder isn’t your cup of tea, consider an online Myers Briggs test or something like that. In the end the same principle holds true. You’re looking for a complimentary set of people, not a herd of identical clones.


There’s a reasonable cost involved with taking this test, but I think it’s worth it. (Nobody paid me to say that.) The book can be purchased new for about $30 and it allows you to take the online test once. You could share the book, but others would need to purchase access to the test for about $20. You might save a few dollars by finding a used version of the book, but in that case make sure the access code in the back is sealed, so you can use it. I did this and got the test for about half price.

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