How to scale a sustainable non-profit initiative on zero budget

What started as one person’s idea turned into a global social movement three months later – one that was supported by universities and recognized by the United Nations, involved a team of 20 people and reached thousands of entrepreneurs around the world. 

During the COVID-19 lockdown in Amsterdam when business was slow and our clients made sure we had plenty of time for vacation, I was looking for ways to stay active and, more importantly, useful. At the time, hardly anyone knew what to do about the pandemic. Suddenly a lightbulb went off in my head, and I knew I had to try it. 

The original idea of the Lockdown Economy was to interview entrepreneurs in different countries to learn how the lockdown and pandemic were affecting their business, life and future. It would give entrepreneurs a voice and bring them closer together, enabling the exchange of ideas about what entrepreneurs could do about the situation. 

The good news is that a global social movement can start in one person’s head. The not-so-good news is that unless you have a team, you will have to work really hard.

Within one week, I was recording the first interview. Within one month, I had 28 interviews with people in 14 countries and 2,000 views, which allowed me to turn it into an initiative. Another month later, it had become an academic collaboration, through which we did an MBA course based on the Lockdown Economy. By the third month, I was onboarding volunteers and launching local editions of the interviews around the world, starting in México and Romania. 

This is how the Lockdown Economy became an international non-profit social-economic and educational initiative with the objective to help small businesses and self-employed professionals overcome the challenges of the pandemic and reactivate the economy. Now, just a few months into our journey, it has been registered and published as an Acceleration Action toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. 

But this is the short version – the one that’s visible to everyone. The reality is that it was the busiest summer of my life, with my working days averaging at 12 hours and practically no weekends. There is no one recipe for scaling a non-profit, and this may not be the right approach for you. In my case, there were a few key factors that helped a lot. 

Previous experience 

Zero budget means that besides your own time, energy and knowledge you don’t have anything else to invest in your idea. As with any one-woman enterprise, all the heavy-lifting lies on the shoulders of one person: strategy, marketing, building connections, interviewing, video-editing, visual design, promotion, etc. So it is a great advantage if you already know how to complete the tasks necessary for the project fast and efficiently. 

Simplify and automate 

Creating template messages and invitations, integrating email with Calendly and Zoom, using Canva and Unsplash for design – there are many free services available that can make your life much easier when every minute counts. It’s good to know what they are and how to use them. I also documented my own process of creating interviews, from inviting the guest to post-production and promotion. So when the time came to onboard volunteers, I had a good foundation for a practical step-by-step guide. 

Ask for help

The scaling or the failing starts from the moment you realize you can’t do it on your own anymore. When I had something tangible to show (28 interviews and a 10-page project description), I knew that to turn this into a global movement, I needed helping hands. But how would I get them with no budget? When I had clear tasks to delegate, I started looking for volunteers. I asked people I knew and people I didn’t know, I posted announcements on social media and I registered with 

The pandemic certainly brought out new colors in the people I knew. Some, who I was sure I could count on no matter what, quickly disappeared from the horizon. Others, who I wouldn’t even have thought of asking, stepped forward and started helping. Slowly but surely, I got my team of helpers. Without them, the initiative would not have been what it is now.  

Filter out the advice you get 

Once the interviews were published, I started looking for funding and support to move the initiative ahead. I had countless calls with different people. Most of them ended in the same way: I would come out with a full list of things to do, on top of everything else I needed to do already. It left me feeling overwhelmed and as if I hadn’t done anything yet (when in reality I hadn’t stopped working for months).

So to make sure I didn’t lose sight of my own direction, I had to ask myself: are these people experts in what they are giving me advice about? Do they have previous experience in doing something similar? Do they know enough about my activities, vision and the project itself? What is their motivation? Is it as humanitarian as they would like it to seem? The last question was easy to check: all I had to do was say that I would not be charging the entrepreneurs we interview for promotion or the audience for the knowledge we share. As soon as they saw no monetary gain, they would suddenly disappear. 

Be flexible

The original vision I had for the initiative went through multiple iterations, so I couldn’t plan actions for more than one week ahead. The milestones of the project were very close to each other, demanding me to be very agile. Streamlining activities and prioritizing became critical skills, because everything had to happen practically at the same time: recording interviews, promoting the initiative, looking for funds, onboarding volunteers, writing articles, running the MBA pilot, launching local editions, and many other things. In addition, the volunteers who joined the initiative were generating interesting ideas that would be a shame to waste. For example, the idea for local editions was born out of a few brainstorms we had together. 

Find your supporters

The heart of an initiative is the person who is really passionate about it. We see incredible things done because one person believed those things were possible. If you are the driving force behind a movement, you have to have faith no matter what. But sometimes when things get tough – rejections, tight deadlines, negative comments, unsolicited advice – it can push you into a sad place of despair and inactivity. In those moments, you need to go to somebody who believes in you more than you do yourself. I am very grateful that my co-founder is always there to count on.

Keep on going

The key success factor for the Lockdown Economy is to keep moving forward. When I see that I can’t count on someone or something, I don’t linger on it, trying to persuade them or continuing to knock on the same door; I just move on, because we are on a mission to help entrepreneurs overcome the pandemic, and ultimately things have to be done. Who we do them with is a different question.

The Lockdown Economy initiative is not even four months old, but already it has helped many entrepreneurs and students. And it still requires all the attention and time I can give it. Together with my enthusiastic team and our supporters, we continue on the same course, introducing the initiative into new countries, creating partnerships with local organizations, and looking for funding and sponsorship. We are also hoping to join an acceleration program for social movements. 

I could unfold each of the points I’ve covered here into its own article. But the best way to learn how to scale a sustainable non-profit initiative on zero budget is to join one and see for yourself. I invite you to contact me and join the Lockdown Economy! 


Article written by Julia Skupchenko, expert panel speaker during BASE Conference 2020.


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