Interested in finding out what it takes to start and scale a non-profit organisation?
We had the privilege of interviewing Eric Steinberger, Co-Founder and CEO of ClimateScience. This is a platform striving to empower people with the knowledge to understand and solve climate change. The non-profit was founded in 2019 and has grown to over a million users, with a thousand volunteers from 40 countries.
We asked Eric about his journey with ClimateScience and his advice to anyone considering starting a non-profit.
What Is a Non-Profit?
Contrary to popular belief, a non-profit does not mean an organisation that cannot generate revenue. Rather, it’s one whose main objective isn’t to pay profits to shareholders. Instead, non-profits have a social, charitable, environmental, educational or religious mission.
As such, a non-profit can make money and have paid employees. The main difference with a traditional corporation is it doesn’t have shareholders, people who own a stake in the company in exchange for a cut of the profits. In some countries like the U.K. or U.S., not-for-profit organisations are also exempt from paying corporate taxes.
ClimateScience is an educational organisation. While all its content and learning materials are free, it does run corporate workshops to generate income and pay for the costs of creating its free learning products. Expert facilitators are brought together to deliver workshops for companies of all scales, giving them a basic understanding of climate change. They also run problem-solving programs related to the company’s activities.
Finding a Problem to Solve
The key to starting a successful non-profit organisation is filling a gap, finding a problem to solve, says Eric Steinberger.
“We found a problem that was really important to us”, he told us, “after literally googling how to solve climate change and not finding proper coverage that is both reliable and accurate, but also fun and engaging”.
ClimateScience started as two Co-Founders creating an Instagram account with engaging infographics and informative captions. These detailed the causes, consequences, and solutions to climate change. The page gained 40,000 followers in two months and received interest from teachers who wanted to use the materials to teach their classes.
Despite the rapid success, Eric stresses that it was not an accident. They’d stumbled upon an important problem and there was demand for the solution. “You can’t start a company thinking ‘I want my customers to do X'”, he says. Your users or customers are your bread and butter, so you must start with what they want.
Rallying Around a Purpose
A lot of start-ups struggle during the growth phase, either to recruit at speed, to keep staff motivated or to retain them. At first, entrepreneurs have insight into what everyone is doing; but as the organisation grows, the level of control thins. We asked Eric how he scaled ClimateScience so quickly and effectively.
ClimateScience went from two to ten, then a hundred, and now over a thousand volunteers from 40 countries. The non-profit also counts 11 paid staff, but as the CEO, Eric is still a full-time volunteer. He told us the key to keeping people engaged and motivated are processes and alignment.
“Your mission and your goal need to be so incredibly clear no one can misunderstand them, and you need to repeat them twice a day just to make sure everyone is running in the same direction,” he says.
Implement some internal processes and structures that will replicate across your teams. In fact, Eric stated that the team at ClimateScience conducted A/B testing to find the optimal team structures to run the non-profit. In the end, they settled for teams between one and five, with one leader. Everyone’s ideas are listened to and valued but having a person in charge increases accountability.
The Challenges and Benefits of Running a Non-Profit
There are specific challenges that come with running a non-profit, starting with the fact that your workforce might be comprised of volunteers. We asked Eric about how he tackled the difficulties of running a not-for-profit organisation.
Eric told us that with a mostly volunteer workforce, there are always going to be people coming and going. The key, he says, is a shared mindset and values. Find people just as passionate as you are in your project, and they will stay. It helps that even as CEO, Eric doesn’t get paid by ClimateScience. With no shareholders, no one is making a profit out of the organisation. “It’s clear we’re all just here to solve a problem”, says Eric.
Just as there are potential issues arising from running a team of volunteers, Eric was quick to outline the many benefits. For a start, volunteers choose to give away their time, meaning their motivation is often higher than paid employees.
There are also financial incentives and rewards: many software and tech companies have plans dedicated to charities and non-profits. Slack has a charity plan giving non-profits a free Pro upgrade for workspaces of 250 members or less. For an 85% discount, they get bigger workspaces. Google Ad Grants give charities and non-profits up to $10,000 a month in ad budget to spread the word about their cause. Eric advised looking out for these schemes, which can make a great difference to a non-profit.
Advice For Anyone Considering Starting a Non-Profit
We wrapped up by asking Eric his advice for anyone thinking of starting or joining a non-profit organisation. Here’s what he told us:
- Work for the right start-up, not the first start-up. It takes a long time to come up with a good idea, “and you can’t schedule it to be two months before your college graduation!”. If you have a gut feeling it won’t work, don’t do it. If you’ve started and you realise one of your assumptions is wrong, don’t follow it through just because of your ego. “The fine line between giving up and dropping the wrong thing to do the right one is being honest with yourself about why things didn’t work.”
- Focus on the user/customer. If you believe in your idea but you’re not sure of the details, build a prototype and present it to users. Their experience and feedback will drive the development of your product.
- Just do it! If you think you’re onto a winner, take the leap and get started.