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4 Things I Learned About Starting A Nonprofit By Cameron Doolittle

As a recovering consultant, my question when hired as the new president and CEO of Jill’s House was, “Where can I see best practices?” Our chairman answered, “Well, there’s really nothing else like this.” And our doors were supposed to open in six months!

I learned quickly that new ministries are not like new businesses. Here are four important differences I’ve learned the hard way, during our great growth over the past three years:

1. Beware the Skilled Nonbeliever.

As we build ministries, we are tempted to hire for skills, but “great skill” without “God’s will” is a mess. Pray until God brings you someone who lives your values and has — or can acquire — the right skills.

2. Build — Don’t Buy — Talent.

When it comes to acquiring talent, should ministries “build” or “buy?” We usually can’t pay market rates for great people. Unless God sends us someone willing to take a pay cut (praise God that happens often here) we have two choices: (a) buy experienced people whom others won’t hire, or (b) build younger, inexpensive talent who come motivated. Go with “b.”

People have asked how we attract great millennials. We give them responsibility, authority, community, and purpose. They come motivated. Our job is to keep them that way. They grow up with us.

3. Don’t Smile Before Christmas.

You’ve probably heard the teacher’s axiom, “Don’t smile before Christmas.” Kids adjust to the teacher’s firm expectations and then, after Christmas, you seem like a fun teacher. Similarly, without high expectations, ministry is an easy place to be lazy. So in building a culture, especially where children’s safety is essential, we’ve learned to give one another the gift of accountability. We can start with truth and add grace. But we can’t start with grace and then expect tough truth to get a warm reception.

4. Ritz-Carlton Meets Special Needs.

I miss having competitors. Crazy, right? But competitors bring discipline and focus. Where we have no competitors, leaders must set standards of excellence. We aimed to get better before we got bigger. So we collect feedback obsessively. For example, we had a Ritz-Carlton general manager evaluate our customer experience to suggest improvements. We resist the temptation to launch adjacent services. Why? Because we are passionate about doing the one thing to which we are called exceptionally well.

To paraphrase Paul, “The Solomons planted the seed, our team watered it, but God has been making it grow.” God is amazing. Though we’re still growing quickly, no center in the world provides more overnight respite. In 2010, we had four employees and raised $1.9 million. Three years later, we have 100 employees and raised $6.3 million. Our first week, we served six children; we now serve hundreds of families in Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, California, and — later this year — Texas.

This God-given growth is why I am in this (surprising) Portland yoga/coffee/vegan studio. We are asking whether God wants us to launch a location in the Northwest so families here get physical rest and, we pray, the true rest that comes only from Jesus.


Cameron Doolittle is president and CEO of Jill’s House in Vienna, Virginia. This post is an excerpt from the Fall edition of Outcomes Magazine 2013.


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