Rebecca Farulli, Associate, APROPOS Group
Isotta Ricci Bitti, Managing Director, APROPOS Group
Chiara Rosselli, Executive Director, APROPOS Group
Ronith Schalast, Associate, APROPOS Group
Have you ever wondered whether you should take the leap and start your own organization?
After a year of launching the APROPOS Group, our team reflects on some takeaways from its first year operating as a start-up think tank and what it takes to secure the freedom to design collective work in alignment with one’s values and principles while seeking to establish oneself as a new entry in the political and social entrepreneurship sector.
Though we're not yet experts on long-term survival strategies for political start-ups, we've gained valuable experience and learned some important lessons along the way.
Here are our top 6 lessons learned.
Lesson 1 / Get a hang of that start-up attitude.
While the learnings of one year spent building APROPOS from the ground up are genuinely innumerable, there is perhaps one teaching that trumps all others: you need to train yourself to think, act (and feel) like an entrepreneur and hone the necessary start-up attitude to survive as a new player in the field.
Adopt a Do-It-Yourself mentality and refine your organizational craftsmanship along the way. Most of what you need, you’ll need to build yourself. Build your own solutions, test them with your team, and grow your organizational capacity.
Be ready to make a friend of fear. There will be many moments when you’ll feel small and swimming against the tide – especially if you are involved in field-building or developing a new tool or approach. Believe that there is value in exploring a different way of doing things and challenging pre-packaged, established solutions. Get ready to have your comfort and confidence tested in unprecedented ways.
Remember that progress is small and incremental. Develop simple tools that embody big ideas, but don't try to create systems that are ‘too perfect’. Things will feel clumsy and incomplete at first. There will always be a next step to take or adjustment to make. The Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, said it best: "I advance for as long as forever is". Trust and train your ability to develop ideas, concepts, and systems iteratively, letting go quickly of failure and channelling energy into adaptation.
Make sales a part of your DNA. Yes, even – and especially – as a non-profit! While speaking about money and market demand can feel somewhat taboo in our field, it is important to think about how to align your mission and values with a market positioning and branding that will uphold the sustainability of your work. Focus on developing value-based propositions and services, which sustain your purpose while also showcasing your competitive advantages and unique strengths.
Stay true to your utopia. "In certain circumstances, I couldn't see it with my eyes, I couldn't touch it with my hands and so I had to believe it in my heart." - Dawn Staley, American basketball player and coach. This is perhaps the most important piece of the start-up attitude puzzle. No amount of strategy or planning will outweigh your drive to achieve something that is of true value to you.
Lesson 2 / Make nurturing strategic and honest alliances a priority.
The adage 'don’t go at it alone' is one that feels particularly valuable for non-profit start-ups. Luckily, in most cases it is not difficult to find like-minded and inspiring potential collaborators. But the time it takes to establish, nurture, and effectively activate alliances that build honest, open and mutually beneficial partnerships with the ability to effectively override our competitive reflexes, should definitely not be underestimated.
Developing and successfully activating partnerships can require a very long time, and existing - and often limiting - structures within which partnerships must be created are not easily bent.
And yet, collaborative alliances allow a non-profit start-up to grow exponentially, beyond the organizational's current means and significantly expand the reach of the work. Identifying early on which relationships to purposefully pursue and investing the needed time and care in cultivating these can prove pivotal.
Lesson 3 / "Joy as an act of resistance".
While the title of a musical album by the IDLES, it is also an important lesson when it comes to working in the political sector. The psychological conditions of our work are damning. While it is a privilege to make a profession out of the desire to contribute to the well-being of our society, the reality of a job in the political sector is that it can feel extremely draining and demotivating. The temptation is high to give in to feelings of powerlessness and pessimism. So, even though our sector tends to be steeped in seriousness – we try to make the work fun. Especially in a small team like ours, this helps us nurture the daily acts and leaps of faith the job demands. Mostly, we try to remind ourselves that we all need a place for play. Fun and happiness can be extremely important accelerators for impact. Not only do we see the truth of these words on our own skin, but we also believe that the political sector would benefit from more creativity, experimentation, and positive rather than crisis-driven motivators for action – hence, we try to infuse joy into our internal processes as well as our offering.
Lesson 4 / Be a people-business first.
We strongly feel that this should be true for all organizations whose mission is to bring about political and societal change. We cannot want to change society for the better without taking care of the people around us first. It is a contradiction in terms that will always end up undermining the strength of your mission. Even more so, though, this is true when you are a new player in the sector, and especially so if you are engaging in field-building, as we are currently endeavouring to do at APROPOS.
According to the start-up lexicon, field-building is the deliberate and strategic effort to create a new space, community, or movement within a specific domain. As so much of field-building is about activating new collective ways of thinking, putting people at the centre of your work will be crucial. Indeed, over the last year, one of the most rewarding aspects of our work – humanly, intellectually, and strategically, has been engaging in community-building. In developing relationships, it is important to remember that you are building something that was not there before, so prioritize authenticity, humility, and trust-building. Reach out to new people. Try to break with formalities and experience the power of unexpected connections. Being an entrepreneur in our sector is about contributing to collective growth and, particularly with field-building, it means working towards the construction of an ecosystem that is bigger than just yourself – where ideas can be shared and shaped with others, alliances flourish, and positive change take root.
Lesson 5 / Learn to go at the proper pace to reach your goals.
The journey one embarks on when starting to operate an organization is filled with moments that test one's soul. You know it will be hard, and you may find yourself consumed with finding out what ‘silver bullets’ you’ll need in order to make it.
Grit is often worshipped as the characteristic responsible for success. Just as often, though, the grittiest attitudes can come at the expense of one's mental well-being – so it’s crucial to develop the ability to know when a certain behaviour risks turning into a toxic organizational trait. This is particularly important for a small team, where everyone feels close and responsible for one another, and the success of the entire organization rests on very few people.
When the drive to have an impact on big societal issues clashes with the less seductive need to secure the financial resources your organization needs to exist, a sense of urgency and persistence will certainly come in handy as should, though, pragmatism and a refusal of alarmism, advancing in smaller instalments or at a slower cadence where necessary. It is hard as in our sector, the act of stepping back or changing course is rarely appreciated as it should. The very idea of it has been a genuine struggle for our team.
Yet, unfortunately, there are no ‘silver bullets’, and grit alone will not protect you from failure. Finding one’s own pace and learning when to push and when to let go is an existential skill. We are in it for the long run, after all. Our work is not a sprint, but a marathon.
Lesson 6 / Care is the foundation on which meaningful work is built.
In this first year at APROPOS, we were given the rare opportunity to reinvent the way we want to work with and for each other. A meaningful episode, prompted by a team failure, promptly turned into an important lesson learned.
Following an uncomfortable situation brought about by miscommunication and, frankly, stress, instead of simply trying to move on and promising that we would do "better" next time, the opportunity presented itself to curiously investigate how we work. A brief moment of pause amidst an otherwise emotionally charged situation, ended up making a huge difference in the way our team interacts with each other.
We asked ourselves, "What does care mean for me?” – and shared our different, yet quite complementary, conclusions.
"It’s providing nourishment for something to grow. It’s constancy of thought."
"Taking something back and apologising. Care is meaning what you say. It’s never giving up on communicating with each other."
"A superpower that we use on those things that matter the most to us, that activity or concept note we really believe in [...] so that we can ensure, thanks to our care, the freedom and autonomy to build the workplace we deserve, for us and for others, who may not have the same opportunity."
"It’s assuming the best intentions and motivations when it comes to the people around us. It's about embracing open communication and humility, but most of all, care is about doing something as a team rather than just for ourselves."
Above all, at APROPOS we understand care as the act of making your colleagues your champions and wanting to support them in the same way they support you.
In our inaugural year at APROPOS, we invested in developing the idea of Political Process Design as a tool for better, more efficient, and effective political dialogue and collaboration.
We learned that start-up and field-building work are also a doorway to engage in constant reflection on the state of our sector, an opportunity to brainstorm about the things that are worth keeping, polishing, and improving and those we could and should do anew.
Thanks to this opportunity, we learned a final and most meaningful lesson for social entrepreneurs taking their first steps into the vast and complex sector that is our politics and society: to share your learnings and thoughts along the way, to always be engaged in conversation, and, in so doing, build capacity whenever and wherever you can – your own and that of others.
Our deepest gratitude goes to all the people who have enriched our journey so far, for allowing us to reach the milestones we have so far reached and for inspiring us to go further.