Lessons from running a non-profit startup

In modern day parlance, a “startup” typically refers to a for-profit enterprise, often providing a tech-driven product or service as a solution to society’s various problems. But, there has always been another kind of “startup” that also needs to be spoken about: the non-profit startup.

In a world where about 12% of the population lives under less than $1.90 a day and close to 80% on less than $10 a day, it is imperative that we solve some of the world’s biggest problems without a profit motive. In spite of being at the centre of halving world poverty in the last two decades and tackling problems ranging from disaster response to malnourishment, not-for-profits are still viewed through a myopic lens.

Starting up our non-profit startup: Just For Kicks

2011 was probably the worst time to be starting up a not-for-profit enterprise. Investors willing to pump a million dollars into a tech product were easy to find while funders willing to purposefully support a cause were far and few. Everyone from friends to family pushed us towards finding a way to turn our idea into a profit-driven venture. So we experimented with a few models, got into regretful partnerships, worked on hybrid mechanisms… all in an effort to position ourselves as a “for-profit” initiative.

Eventually, we learnt to take our focus away from these desperate experiments and bring our energies into growth, impact, and efficacy. We learnt to live with the not-for-profit model and began treating Just For Kicks as a “for-purpose” business rather than a for-profit/ not-for-profit business. It proved to be a decision that not only changed the way we ourselves viewed not-for-profit enterprises but also converted our organisation from a small-scale local enterprise to a large-scale national enterprise.

Read: Anniversary Special: The Just For Kicks Journey

Vikas Plakkot and Neha Sahu

A few lessons have been learnt in the process; lessons that prove how non-profit start-ups are no different from any other kind of start-up.

  1. Invest your first hires in your real-world vision

As a leader, it is extremely important to have a powerful vision – a vision that is not just words strung together in a powerful statement but a vision that generates a powerful image, a vision that is relatable, that is passionate, that is simple, and most importantly – real. Once you have that clarity, invest your first hires in that belief of yours.

Our vision as leaders has been simple: We will give access to at least ONE sport to a MILLION kids by 2025, and THAT will change the way they cope with life.

To that end, here’s what’s been working for us: Enable the team do whatever it takes to get there, with you. Make them so deeply invested in the dream that they drive it more fiercely than you. In fact, make them believe in it to the extent that they’ll re-ignite your passion every time you face a blip.

  1.  If your idea can’t scale tomorrow, it probably isn’t a good one

If you’re fundraising, raise from those who tend to be invested in your long-term goals than the short-term gains they may get. If you’re looking at program delivery, keep things lean such that a third party can replicate it easily. If you’re investing in materials, ensure these are available irrespective of where you scale tomorrow. In a nutshell, a model that isn’t scalable from the start will eventually hit a dead end.

From the word get-go, we have focused on a model that is not just effective on ground but can be packaged into a well-rounded ‘product’ that is easily scalable, a decision that has been critical in our growth. Our curriculum is adaptive in its nature. Our cost model is lean and our training program is universally the same. Our intervention amounts are fixed and our annual cycle does not change. These are the steps that have helped us scale quickly and efficiently.

  1.  Build a simplistic and easy culture

A lot is said about ‘culture’ in the modern era. For-profit start-ups are investing heavily into employee happiness by building fun workspaces, providing free food, going on international team retreats, and more. While they may all be excellent HR tools, an organisation’s culture is formed by its core beliefs.

At Just For Kicks, we have experimented with some of these ideas but have come to believe that
(i) a strong culture of efficient work,
(ii) regular vacation time, and
(iii) transparent communication are what matter the most. By keeping a straight line of communication where anyone can voice thoughts without being judged, request a break when they feel like it, and work a 9-to-5 with a fair amount of efficiency, tons can be achieved.

Read: Sport and Life-Skills: What I Learnt From My Internship At JFK

Team JFK


  1. Evolve with changing times

The last decade has witnessed dramatic changes in the way organisations function, thanks to the evolution of technology. New avenues have opened up for marketing, better tools have hit the market to aid in everything from internal communication to task management to sales management, and the economy is moving profusely towards a freelancing model.

We’ve raised close to $ 60,000 (20% of our budget!) purely through our crowd funding efforts in the last 12 months, thanks to a powerful digital marketing campaign. Our data collection and analysis module is entirely driven by android-based technology. It is important not only to remain relevant but also to attract the right kind of people to work with you, as an out-dated organisation is anything but an attractive proposition.

  1. Profits may not matter, but every penny must show returns

Yes, there are no profit and loss statements at a not-for-profit. But, unit economics and ROI matters equally. Our constant effort has been to ensure that we carefully choose where to spend money.

Currently, Just for Kicks is in six cities, but we do not have a fixed office space as we believe it is a dead investment. We’ve adopted flexible co-working spaces and even coffee shops to ensure the quality and timeliness of our work does not get diluted. Such decisions have been crucial in keeping the cost per impact metric very low. Three years ago, we were spending close to $150 per child on an average, but we have successfully managed to bring that down to $100 a child today. We’ve constantly been rejigging our expense model in an effort to bring that down to 75$ in the next two years. You may be a not-for-profit, but being on top of your finances is a virtue that will go a long way.

  1. Position to perfection before you pitch

You may have a world-changing idea, have all the zeal and fervour to pursue it, have the heart to work incredibly hard, and yet fall short because you didn’t position it well. What is the story people relate to? What is it about your work that makes it truly special? Why you over everybody else?

Our goal is to develop life skills among children but some stakeholders are more curious about our effort at a sporting level and some others are keen to understand about our work with girls specifically. We have created tailored pitches for each of these groups of people, a decision that has increased our fundraising success percentage to 80%. In four out of every five pitches we make, we succeed.

Spend a lot of time creating that perfect positioning so that your brand is valuable not just to your beneficiaries but to everybody who cares and perhaps, does not.

Vikas Plakkot


Honestly, we flinch every time someone says ‘we pay competitive salaries’. At a not-for-profit, one is made to feel obliged to take a pay cut in order to do development work as a service to humanity. This will take you nowhere. Whether you’re hiring an experienced corporate honcho or a fresher, pay what they would get if they worked anywhere else. We’re inspired by the way Buffer handles salaries and have been working on putting a similar structure in place.

At Just for Kicks, while hiring we are open in our communication on how much we can pay and how much we want to pay should we hit our goals. We show a pathway of growth for each employee and we make it clear that the path is purely result-driven. It is much better to have a small group of well-paid but invested employees than a large group of employees who are paid under-par.

Read: Our Pune City Head Opens Up About His Life At Just For Kicks

Our learning curve

Starting up a non-profit startup has been incredibly exciting, deeply empowering, and profusely challenging for us as leaders. Our personal learning curve has been just as steep as it would have been had we started up a profitable business. And most importantly, all of it has happened while creating a much-needed positive change in the education system in India. Let nothing stop you from starting one; the journey is just as exhilarating.

Vikas Plakkot Written by:

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